Saturday, 30 November 2013

Tsar Boris of London and his cereal boxes

‘The harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.’

These were the words of the Mayor of London and wannabe leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, man of charisma, but above all of charm, since he devotes all his political effort to charming his supporters with a bumbling, buffoonish persona. Charmingly, he used this phrase at a time when rather a lot of people are having to choose between buying a packet of cornflakes, or heating their homes his party colleagues in national government have created a situation in which that is the stark choice facing a great many families.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and would-be Conservative leader
Man of destiny. Many of charm. Man of charisma.
And top cornflake
What he was talking about, however, was the need to allow the ‘best’ people to rise to the top. 

‘Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16% of our species have an IQ below 85.’

Only 2%, he went on to claim, had an IQ over 130. For him, the question is whether there’s much point doing anything about the 16% who are simply condemned to stay at the bottom; should we not be doing more for the 2%? The kind of thinking that lies behind all this became particularly clear when he pointed out:

‘I don't believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.’

Greed and envy, these are the qualities that make a society truly great, in the Gospel of Boris. Equality? It’s for the fairies. I know the US has fallen short in many ways to live up to Jefferson’s stirring words, but for Johnson, it isn’t even a self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and derive unalienable rights from that equality.

On the contrary, people are created unequal, and a measure of that inequality is their IQ. The best people, with the highest IQ, will rise to the top if only we can give the cereal box a good shake from time to time. We can see how well this system works by the quality of the people we have at the top right now.

Take David Cameron, who’s been shaken right up to the top of the British cereal box, into the post of Prime Minister. Terribly upset about the damaging effects of smoking, he was initially in favour of forcing plain packaging on the tobacco industry. Then he took on a new adviser, Lynton Crosby, who also works as a lobbyist for that industry, and the idea was, coincidentally, shelved. But there’s a pretty powerful tide running in favour of plain packaging, and only last week the government announced that the idea was back on the table and its decision on whether to proceed with it would be based on the evidence.

Perhaps Boris would argue that it shows how intellectually superior Cameron is that he’s now prepared to give evidence a whirl, having previous exhausted all other bases for reaching decisions.

Similarly, increasing poverty has driven a great many people into dependence on pay-day loan companies. Given that they charge interest at several thousand percent a year, there have been calls for the amounts lent to be capped. Cameron was opposed. Last week he decided it was a good idea.

That’s what you get with a really talented individual: an ability to recognise an idea as good, if enough people shout it at you loud enough and for long enough.

What about Boris himself? When he was first elected Mayor of London, he picked a fight with the Home Secretary, then a Labourite, to determine which of them would have most control over the Metropolitan Police. He came out on top. Over the next eighteen months, Johnson held nearly twice as many meetings with bankers as with the police. Despite having gone to such trouble to get the police firmly under his wing.

It takes a superior mind to recognise a superior mind, and Johnson clearly feels more at home with the top-rank cornflakes who run our banks. The incisive intellect they bring to the job has been repeatedly revealed by the quality of the decisions they took in the run up to the great crash of 2008. And they’ve certainly shown no shortage of greed or envy, happily raking in huge amounts of taxpayer money to dig themselves out of the hole they dug, and then using a portion of it to keep paying themselves eye-watering bonuses.

However, when it comes to truly outstanding minds, there can be little doubt who Boris feels is at the very top of the packet. He is, after all, manoeuvring constantly and effectively to replace Cameron as leader of the Conservatives. Just how qualified he is for that role is revealed by the stance he took in the speech itself. After all, he based himself on the notion of IQ as a valid measure of ‘intelligence.’

No one really knows what intelligence is, but one thing that’s absolutely certain is that IQ doesn’t measure it. IQ tests reveal one thing and one thing alone: the ability to take IQ tests, and that’s an ability that can be trained and which reflects cultural concerns – the very kind that Boris picked up during his education at Eton.

So his belief in the validity of IQ as a measure of talent is, well, touching. Like a child’s belief in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy. It has charm, which as we saw is a central preoccupation of Boris’s.

Trouble is I’m not sure I’d want a charming child running London. As for the whole British government – well, the present lot’s quite bad enough.

Seems to me that the rest of us, the ones with all those fine cornflakes weighing down on our heads, might do well to use our votes to ensure Boris goes and cultivates his charm elsewhere. He seems to like rattling cereal boxes. Perhaps we can persuade him to go off somewhere nice and quiet to enjoy that pleasure all on his own.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Walking off from slavery by slipping invisible handcuffs

Three women enslaved for more than thirty years have just been freed in London.

Yes. That’s right. In London. In 2013.

Curiously, they weren’t kept shackled. They did go out. They even had mobile phones. But somehow they couldn’t bring themselves to make the break, despite – unless perhaps it was because of – their physical ill treatment.

One of the most striking phrases used in connection with this case came from Commander Steve Rodhouse, in charge of the police investigation: he wants to understand the ‘invisible handcuffs’ that were used on the captives. 

Invisible handcuffs. Yes, that’s a concept worth understanding, if only because I’m sure it was such handcuffs – emotional, psychological, built on oppression and fear – that were just as effective as whips and chains in holding slaves in place in the days when slavery, open and legal, was an institution in Western countries.

As they are bound to be still today, when though hidden and illegal, slavery remains as powerfully as ever: according to the Guardian, Kevin Bales, who leads work on the global slavery index, calculates that there are 29.8 million slaves today, well over twice the 12.5 million or so who were transported from Africa to America when the slave trade was lawful.

Interestingly, the slavery index is published by an organisation known as the Walk Free foundation. I find that interesting because the three women ended their captivity after contacting the Freedom charity, which in time was able to win their trust to the point that they left the house where they had been held. In other words, in the event, they walked to freedom.

And that’s even more interesting because a long time before them someone else described her experience in much the same terms. The state of New York abolished slavery in 1827, but one slave had been promised her freedom a year earlier. When her master changed his mind, Sojourner Truth, to give the name she took for herself in 1843, in preference to her slave name, quietly finished her work for him, and then left with her youngest daughter. Walking.

‘I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.’

Sojourner Truth. Who walked to freedom
When all slaves in New York were made free, she discovered that a son of hers had been illegally sold to a slaveowner in Alabama. She took the owner to court, and set judicial history by becoming the first Black to win a case against a White in the US.

She became a leading figure in the Abolitionist movement. But she decided that it wasn’t enough to campaign for the freedom of slaves. She threw herself life and soul into campaigning for equal rights for Blacks too and for Women.

Having walked to freedom, having shaken off a set of invisible handcuffs that bound her to a master, she spent the rest of her life working to persuade us all to shed a great many more such shackles – whether we apply them or wear them ourselves.

What’s more, she did that with great humanity and self-deprecation. Rising, exhausted, to address one particular rally, she started with the words:

‘Children, I have come here like the rest of you, to hear what I have to say.’ 

Oh, boy, I wish I could claim I’d never risen to speak to an audience unclear as to what I was going to say. But I’ve found myself far too often in Sojourner Truth’s position.

Now there is much that I could not accept about this woman, not least her embracing of Seventh Day Adventism, but her courage and tenacity are admirable indeed. So I felt that today, the 130th anniversary of her death, was a good moment to celebrate her qualities. Especially at a time when Britain is trying to understand how, so long afterwards, three women could just have been released from slavery themselves.

She showed that invisible handcuffs can be slipped. There are a lot of people still in them, and not just the slaves. I watch our fellow citizens, in societies as free and democratic as they appear to be, again and again choosing to be ruled by those who ensure that they never accede to their rights. Each time someone on the wrong end of privilege puts a cross on a ballot paper by the name of a candidate working to keep the privileged in power, don’t we see invisible handcuffs at work again?

On Sojourner Truth day, let’s all remind ourselves – and each other – that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Turning down an empty glass for Breda

It’s such a cliché, someone discovering that you live in London, or Belfast, or New York, and asking ‘I have a friend who lives there. Do you know him?’

So, back in 1983, I reacted with derisive scepticism to an Australian friend who told Danielle, my wife, ‘I met a great couple of Irish doctors in Grenada. They’re moving to England. You must meet them.’

‘Yeah, right,’ I thought. England’s smaller than Australia but that doesn’t mean we all get our bread from the same bakery.

Still, my incredulity was a bit dented when I heard soon after that they were moving to Witney, a market town in West Oxfordshire. We were moving there too. We moved and discovered they were living three minutes walk away from us.

I’d been right that England was larger than our friend thought. But the world’s a lot smaller.

That was the start of a friendship with Ronnie and Breda that’s lasted thirty years.

Breda with her hallmark smile
After mushroom picking with Danielle
It started with watching each others children grow up. Danielle even took the notion of babysitting to unusual heights: because their pregnancies were almost synchronised, she was able to breastfeed Bredas elder son while she was looking after him; Breda had to admit she found that slightly shocking, though with her head she realised it made perfect sense if the child was crying. 

Breda sets the pace
for one of our sons and a daughter-out-law
For me too the shared kids experience wasn’t always easy

Breda was one of the world’s warmest and most generous people, her hallmark smile always available and full of affection, in good times as much as in moments of adversity, of which she had more than her share. However, she was also gifted with exceptional intelligence that could make her gentle wit as mordant as it was insightful: at a time when I was travelling a great deal for work and leaving the children with Danielle more than I should have, she remarked to me ‘you’re a bit of a bachelor father, aren't you?’ 

The best reproaches are those delivered with humour, and that one is forever engraved on my mind.

Even after both they and we left Witney, we continued to visit each other, and also, as often as we could, visit other places together.

On one occasion we had a magnificent camping holiday, with all the children, at Royan in Western France. It
’s unforgettable for the number of times Ronnie and I went chasing their teenage adopted daughters through the night-time dunes – chasing the girls back to camp, the circling boys away.

But Royan was also the site of a memorable hunt by Danielle and Breda for the best local Pineau des Charentes. For anyone who doesn’t know this excellent drink, it’s made of one-third cognac, two-thirds grape juice, giving it a deliciously healthy and innocuous fruit flavour, that covers one heck of a kick.

There are two schools of thought on how to approach tastings. There are those who spit out. Danielle and Breda belonged to the other school. The striking image of the Royan holiday was therefore their return to camp, rolling back unsteadily on their bikes, heavily laden with bottles, and fully loaded with Pineau.

There would be many more trips down the years. We went round Copenhagen by boat. We shivered at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. We gazed in slightly dizzy wonder at the whirling dervishes in Istanbul. We listened to Smetana on the Charles bridge in Prague.

Breda (left) and Danielle share a moment of culture
Over cocktails in an Istanbul bar
In Prague, it was Danielle who organised the accommodation and, in a spirit of economy, booked us into a backpackers’ hostel. It reminded Breda, she told us with distaste, of dormitories in the convent where she’d been educated. 
But all her reservations dissolved when she met the barman, a cheerful Czech who could make any tropical drink you might like, and many other cocktails besides.

‘Excellent choice of place to stay,’ she assured Danielle, smiling over the brim of a brimming glass.

Ronnie and Breda in Christiania, Copenhagen
With your humble narrator becomingly in the background
It was only in January that we had our last trip together, to Lanzarote in the Canaries. The setting was glorious and Breda’s irresistible joy in conversation on any topic, was a boon to us all. And yet she didn’t contribute as much as she wanted to, or as she had on other trips: she was suffering from a terribly debilitating digestive condition that left her in terrible pain. 

Even so, the visit to Lanzarote was a great success, though that was in part because it wasn’t until her return that we realised that she wasn’t suffering from any banal digestive problem. What she had was cancer at an advanced stage. With her oncologists’ encouragement, she put up a brave fight, but a few weeks ago it became clear it was a losing one. She was admitted to hospital and hope faded that she would ever go home.

On Thursday evening, 14 November, the thought came to me that I was quietly relaxing in front of an enjoyable TV programme while my friend was lying in hospital, drugged and facing death. But only a few minutes later, a phone call from Ronnie revealed that I was wrong and the truth far worse: at the time I’d thought of Breda’s declining life, it was already over.

Yesterday, Saturday 22 November, we said our farewells to her. My eulogy, saying much the same as I’ve written her, was just one of three. It was followed by a local doctor who had worked with her and told us about a woman who consulted him because she was having trouble conceiving. When he saw her again a few months later, she was already pregnant. 

Apparently, in the meantime Breda had seen her and told her ‘relax. Make love, not babies.’ It worked a dream.

Breda was a great doctor, above all because she was so fundamentally human. That’s why her place is still set among us, though it remains empty, her glass untasted, and I can think of no more fitting tribute for an excellent friend than the last quatrain of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

    And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
    Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
    And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
    Where I made one – turn down an empty Glass!

I’ll be turning down many an empty glass for Breda. But first Ill raise it, full, to her memory.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

It's still a pleasure even if you just think you're enjoying it

‘What is all this swimming business?’ a friend asks me, after reading my latest dirge on how ghastly the whole experience is.

Well, I should perhaps set the record straight. It isn’t, in reality, anything like as bad as the impression I may have given of it. In fact, there are occasions when I derive great enjoyment from ploughing up and down the pool. Even at one of those horrifying times of day when the only kind of water that seems remotely attractive is the kind that fills a steaming bath, and even that prospect barely tempts one away from a sheet and a toast-warm duvet.

Just the other day, the pleasure practically tipped into triumph. I was racing up and down the pool, eating away the lengths as though there was no tomorrow, far more quickly than on any yesterday. I was achieving a staggering increase in pace. OK, I knew that the kind of speed I was managing was probably little better than what you might call sedate, but that was a huge step up from my usual performance, best described as downright laggardly.

In fact, the improvement was so colossal that it did occur to me to wonder whether it could be real. But I drove that unworthy thought away and enjoyed the pleasure of the moment. Isn’t that what the best philosophers always recommend?

Unborn tomorrow and dead yesterday, why fret about them if today be sweet?

So I rose from the pool, shoulders squared, chest puffed out, full of my sense of accomplishment. Only then did I notice that the partition, which usually splits our 50 metre pool at the 32 metre mark, had been placed bang on the centre point.

I stood stupidly staring at this chastening evidence of my own vainglory.

The pool had been super-short. I’d been racking up the lengths, but they were just over two-thirds of my normal ones. Even a swimming-atrophied brain at a mind-numbing time could work out that far from achieving anything out of the ordinary, my performance had been right down there in the bargain basement I generally inhabit. There’d been no improvement at all.

No, it wasn't me.
However much I'd have liked to believe it was
So it turned out that the one time my swimming gave me tangible pleasure, it turned out to be entirely illusory.

But, hold on, that’s not really right, is it? It was the perception on which my enjoyment was based that was illusory. The pleasure itself was genuine. Now that’s got to be worth celebrating.

After all, how many of the pleasures we enjoy have any stronger basis?

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The salesman's 'yeah': businesspeak scales new heights

Far too little attention has been paid to businesspeak, a language second to none in subtlety and indirection, leaving it with enough levels of meaning to make it the lasagne of international linguistics.

No doubt you all know, ‘this is urgent. We need action immediately’ which translates as ‘I’m calling a meeting for the middle of next week. No, damn it. The week after when George gets back from leave.’

You may be less familiar with ‘that’s not a suggestion we can take up at once, but don’t let’s lose sight of it, it’s a really good idea,’ which means ‘I can’t believe you came up with anything that dumb, but HR has told me I have to be encouraging towards the little people, so I’m letting you down gently.’

One of my personal favourite is, ‘I’ve glanced at the document but I haven’t had time to read it in detail,’ which means ‘I know you’ve sent me something but I suspect it’s more than two paragraphs long, so I can’t be bothered to plough through it. Why don’t you take up the first half of the meeting telling me what it contains, while I interrupt with irrelevant questions?’

However, as you’re certainly aware, it isn’t always the most complex creations of humanity that are the most striking. Sometimes it’s pure simplicity that wins the prize. That’s why I’m particularly pleased to be able to present to the world my most recent study of businesspeak, and one of its most phenomenal of structures. I’m sure you’ll agree it
s powerful precisely for its brevity.

I’ve come to call it ‘the salesman’s yeah’. Yes. A single word. And it’s definitely ‘yeah’, not ‘yes’. Here’s how it’s deployed.

‘Did you set up the meeting with Mr Howard?’ asks the worried executive.

‘Yeah,’ replies the salesman, and pauses just long enough to ensure that everyone has fully absorbed the fact that he’s given a positive response.

‘I spoke to his assistant last week,’ he goes on, ‘and she says she’ll make sure he gets my message just as soon as he’s back from his conference in Singapore.’

The master businessspeaker
Masterly. Confidence-inspiring.  Charming
Or then again we have:

‘Have they signed the agreement?’

‘Yeah.’ Pause. The pause is key. ‘Galactica from Legal thought a distributor agreement would be more suitable, so she’s drafting one.’

And a final example.

‘So will we get the order this month?’

‘Yeah.’ Pause. ‘There’s every chance they’ll give us the nod in the next fortnight, ready for the final meeting to authorise the order in six weeks.’

See how it works? If you or I had to communicate the message in the long sentence following the ‘yeah’, we’d probably be inclined to start with a ‘no’. But that’s because we’re naive speakers of that tediously transparent language, everyday English. The really proficient businesspeaker who has mastered the ‘salesman’s yeah’, knows how to give bad news a positive spin. Far better, his 
‘yeah’ makes you feel good, and you cling on to that feeling while he gives you the less satisfactory information that follows. So it's outstandingly effective: he manages to communicate a misleading message without telling a lie.


How can one avoid admiring such talented and ingenious use of words? It takes them out of the realm of the banal, ordinary communication of information in which most of us indulge. It takes us to new heights of communication and miscommunication, rarely seen outside the world of conservative politics.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

When things are going swimmingly and only the coin is terrifying

I may not be crazy about swimming, but persisting in going at awful o’clock in the morning does seem to be revealing a surprising streak of craziness in me. 

One of the delights of early morning swimming, and there are so few I make the most of any I find, is trying to decide exactly what’s grimmest about the experience. And, funnily enough, it turns out not to be getting up at 6:00 a.m.

Nor is it that terrible moment when you’re half into the water but haven’t quite let yourself slip beyond the point of no recovery, so you could still, in principle, change your mind and climb back up the ladder. That’s pretty ghastly, because it’s the instant when every nerve at last realises that it’s true, that your wayward mind is really going to do that terrible thing, again, and immerse the whole of your protesting body in that frightful wet stuff.

But it isn’t that. It isn’t even the moment when I realise that I’ve left something crucial – towel, goggles, shampoo – in the locker and have to reopen it with the consequent loss of the 20 pence coin I dropped in the slot to lock it.

No, it’s that 20p coin itself. This has become the terrible, obsessive object of all my fears as I prepare for early morning swims.The 20p bit haunts my thoughts.

The humble 20p bit. The stuff of obsessional nightmare
Not, you understand, for any inherent value of its own. Why, it wouldn’t buy much more than 10% of a large latte. In fact, if you take your coffee in more fashionable establishments than I frequent, it wouldn’t cover even that. 

What concerns me is not the value it represents, but its value as an object in itself. 

Our swimming pool has lockers that will only accept those coins. Two tens? Out of luck, pal. Four fives? You must be joking. Ten twos? A suggestion not even worth dignifying by a refusal.

It’s odd, though. I’ve forgotten lots of things when going swimming but never, as it happens, a 20p bit. But the fear of doing so never leaves me.

Come to think of it, that may be the reason I always remember to bring one.

In any case, even if I didn’t, the fee for Danielle and me leaves us with a 20p coin in the change. And, as often as not, the receptionist asks us if we need one anyway.

On one occasion, I did turn up without my coin purse. I know, I know, coin purses are deeply unfashionable, please don’t think I haven't been told, but they are convenient when you’re sick of clinking coins around in your pocket.

My apprehension was intense when I forgot mine. How was I going to be able to overcome the terrible obstacle I’d created for myself?

‘Your change and your tickets,’ said the receptionist.

And there lying in my hand, small, shiny and apparently winking at me in good cheer, was one of those funny little seven-sided not-quite-silver coins. The relief was overwhelming. Which just made me feel stupid.

Especially as, when I came to put my possessions into my rucksack, preliminary to dumping them in the locker, I found several more 20p pieces in its front pocket. Where I’d put them as a reserve, just in any case I ever did what I’d done that morning and left without my change.

It made me wonder just how crazy swimming was making me. Until I remembered that I’d put the coins in my bag one morning at about 8:00, when I’m tolerably rational. And I’d worked myself into a panic over their absence before 7:00, when I’m certainly anything but. Perhaps I can put the whole embarrassingly dumb behaviour pattern down to time of day.

After all, we don’t call it stupid o’clock for nothing.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Hell is other people. Or how one woman's music became another's noise pollution.

Spare a thought for Laia Martín, a promising young pianist from Catalonia, now facing charges that could land not just her but her parents in gaol for seven and a half years. 

Why? Because she practises the piano.

Yes, that’s right. You’d expect a budding concert pianist to have to play rather a lot. And when her parents bought her a piano and encouraged (I suppose the prosecution would say ‘incited’) her to play it, they thought they were behaving as devoted parents should.

Sadly, they were living next door to a woman called Sonia Bosom, clearly someone with a lot to get off her chest.

She sued for noise pollution and physical impairment. She
’s moved away, which strikes me as sensible, but in the meantime the matter had been picked up as one for criminal charges. It’s true that Martín practices for eight hours a day, but that’s pretty much what I’d expect from a professional musician (particularly a soloist). She also keeps it to daytime only. 

All of which makes me feel that in asking for a seven and a half year sentence, the prosecutor who’s taken up the case is being just a tad excessive.
Noise pollution.
Seriously? Noise pollution?
And, believe me, my wife and I have plenty of experience of noise pollution. Our neighbour goes in for it less often than she used to, but when she lets herself go, we certainly know about it. First she starts off apparently enjoying herself. She and her friends laugh a lot; then the music comes on; and next it’s Karaoke, an invention, it seems to me, with only one purpose: however awful you may feel professional singers are, you’ll go back to them with alacrity once you’ve heard the amateurs.

Hard though it is to believe, things actually deteriorate after the Karaoke. That’s when the mood turns rough. Voices are raised but no longer in joy. Epithets are exchanged, accompanied by encouragements to engage in procreative activity. Elsewhere. 

Doors are opened and doors are slammed as various people are included or excluded from groups. In the latter case, they usually protest at a length that belies their words, that they care very little about their fate, in speeches generously larded with further procreative allusions.

As a general rule, there are tears, occasionally blows, sometimes even the sound of crockery being broken.

We think of her as our neighbour from Hell.

I imagine, however, that Ms Bosom and the Martíns feel exactly the same way about each other. Ms Bosom must have regarded the hours of piano as hellish; Laia and her parents must feel the same about the prospect of being gaoled for their devotion to music.

Which I suppose only goes to prove the truth of Sartre’s idea that hell is other people. The Spanish case seems to confirm it. So does our neighbour.

Fortunately, however, in my experience other people also provide the means to get as about as close to heaven as we’re ever likely to be. The existence of friends consoles us for the persecutions of the hellish other people of Sartre’s vision.

Right now, I hope Laia Martín and her family can find some friends of their own, in high places if at all possible, because they really, really need them.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Dreading the half century

The date comes inexorably closer: in just over a week, on 22 November, we’ll be marking the half century since John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

It’s going to be agonisingly painful. The worst is going to be watching so many people mouthing platitudinous tributes, though we know that they wouldn’t vote for him in a month of Sundays, if they had the chance.

Not of course that they’d have that chance today. No one with Kennedy’s track record with women would even get a look in for a run for the White House, let alone winning. Kennedy’s behaviour in this respect would leave Bill Clinton looking like a shrinking teenager at a school dance but, with a complacent press, JFK sailed right on through all of that whereas poor old Bill got impeached for his pains (well, Hillary’s pains, not to mention Monica’s).

Of course, Bill wasn’t just paying the price for a quasi-JFK-ish inability to keep his flies zipped. He was also paying for Richard Nixon’s opponents who had the gall to impeach him. The guys on Nixon
s side of the aisle had never forgiven the way Tricky Dicky was treated, and were chomping at the bit for a chance to get their own back.

Jimmy Carter was far too decent to give them the pretext, so they had to wait for Bill. And did he give them the opportunity they wanted. In spades. You could almost see them mouthing the words ‘we’re going to get us a piece of Democrat President.’

None of them see the irony that the action against Nixon was for a major offence: abuse of power, betrayal of his oath to uphold the constitution, a breach of a 200-year old principle that no one, not even the highest office-holder in the land, is above the law.

Clinton’s offence was serious, but essentially domestic.

These characters clearly can’t see the implications of equating the actions of a man who subverted the very nature of US government with those of a philanderer. Sad. I wonder if anyone could explain to them what it says about their own side?

The heirs of those guys are in the Tea Party now, and I dread to hear them praising another, murdered Democrat. Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps they’ll have the decency to keep their traps shut.

On the other hand, they are the Tea Party, so they probably won

There’s nothing new about all of this. Right and left of the US likes to speak highly of many other dead presidents. Jefferson, for instance, or Lincoln.

You think anyone in the Tea Party would vote for either of them if they came back and ran for office today? Free thinkers? Committed to Liberal principles? Jefferson completed the Louisiana Purchase, for Pete’s sake. Can you imagine the shutdown there
’d have been if the Tea Party had been around when that particular bit of big government was going through?

I at least will be commemorating the anniversary on Friday week with sorrow. Losing JFK, above all to such a despicable act, left the world a sadder place. But I have to confess that he isn’t the Kennedy I miss most. That honour goes to the man I fear is the best president the US never had, his brother Bobby.

Three Kennedy brothers.
Was the greatest the smallest?
We’ll never know how he would have performed as president. But I still feel he deserves that accolade, if only for one event in his tragically short life. 

On the day Martin Luther King was murdered, Bobby Kennedy was campaigning for the Presidency in Indianapolis. He learned of the death as he was travelling to a rally deep in an African-American district; many of his aides felt it would be too dangerous to proceed with the plan, but he insisted.

He gave no campaign speech but informed his audience, many of whom hadn’t heard the news, of what had happened, to its howling dismay. He didn
’t flinch but went on to make a brief call for peace which included the words:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

There were riots that night in over a hundred US cities, but not in Indianapolis.

Now there’s a man whose absence we should still be regretting.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Diane Lockhart: a touch of fantasy for a magical evening

When majesty strikes life, and at the same time fantasy invades reality, surely we have all the ingredients for a magical evening?

I wrote on Saturday about heading to St Martin’s in the Fields church, for a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, partly in expiation of a broken promise to my son. It was an outstanding evening. 

We’d bought our tickets early and were at the front of the Church, barely out of arm’s reach of the soloists, so we had them singing more or less straight into our faces. That description may not sound particularly attractive, but the experience was inspiring, mesmerising.

And then in the interval, several of us popped down to the café for a drink. Well, you have to really: how many other places can you have a coffee under the pillared arches of a church crypt?

That’s when I practically walked into Diane Lockhart of the celebrated Chicago law firm, Lockhart Gardner.

Diane Lockhart, much as she looked in the crypt of
St Martin in the Fields on Saturday
Now let’s be absolutely clear. I’m fully aware that Lockhart Gardner is a fictional firm in The Good Wife which is, after all, merely a soap, however ingeniously constructed. However, I would maintain to all comers that the woman sitting on her own, looking perhaps even a little solitary, sipping her coffee at a table near the entrance, was not Christine Baranski, who plays Diane Lockhart in the series, but Lockhart herself.

Why, she had Lockhart’s clothes, Lockhart’s makeup, even Lockhart’s poise and elegance. She was Lockhart.

I had to check, of course.

‘Did you see?’ I asked Danielle when I caught up with her, ‘by the door? Diane Lockhart?’

‘I thought it must be her,’ she answered.

‘It definitely was,’ said the young woman at the next table, and when her companion asked, to my astonishment, ‘who?’ she explained ‘Tanya from Mamma Mia.’

Tanya? Mamma Mia? What a load of nonsense. Lockhart’s a lawyer, not an actor. What an earth would she be doing in some Mediterranean romp of a musical?

Naturally, because I’m terribly proud of my English aloofness and dignity, I didn’t approach Ms Lockhart and introduce myself. On the other hand, as I’m just as imbued with English curiosity, I did hang around the edges of the group who, accompanying the Mamma Mia woman, threw dignity to the winds and asked her for autographs. She confirmed the identification and looked pleased at the attention or, more likely, fed up to the back teeth with the attention but professional enough to pretend she was pleased.

For my part, I was delighted to see her there. Things have been a bit tough in the Good Wife recently. A lot of tension. Between some of my favourite characters. A nasty conflict, and since I’m fond of them all, I’m not sure who I really want to see coming out on top.

Lockhart’s earning quite enough (as I expect Baranski is) to be able to pop over to London from time to time for a little R&R. Must be doing her good, particularly since the Mozart Requiem was rather fine. Balm to her soul, I’d say.

The only worry was that I couldn’t see her husband anywhere. I’m sure hardly anyone needs telling, but he’s Kurt McVeigh (ably represented by Gary Cole), a ballistics expert, NRA supporter and general firearm nut. The liberal Lockhart (friend of Hillary Clinton) has nothing in common with him politically, but the warmth of their feelings made a marriage between them ultimately inevitable. Given the stress she’s facing, she must need his support more than ever.

Still, I saw her again outside the Church, after the Concert, clearly waiting for someone. McVeigh strikes me as not the kind of man who would be particularly drawn to Mozart, so he may have spent a couple of hours in more congenial company, perhaps with some fine representatives of the British huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ set. It seemed likely that he would turn up shortly to whisk her off somewhere they could wrap up the night in style.

I hope so, anyway.

At any rate, I was delighted she was there. The majesty of the music had injected magic into the evening. Her presence had provided fantasy.

For that, I owe her my heartfelt thanks.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A promise made is a debt unpaid

Debts, it’s frequently asserted, are there to be paid.

The French say that ‘good accounts make good friends.’ Polonius, in Hamlet, warns his son ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, which isn’t quite the same thing: while Shakespeare clearly feels debts are not to be carried, he only suggests not incurring them in the first place, which isn’t a lot of use if you already have.

No one sums it up better than Robert Service, who has little claim to be taken seriously as a poet in spite, or perhaps because, of having written one of the world’s finest comic poems, The Cremation of Sam McGee. It includes the sonorous sentiment:

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code

I know what he means.

Fifteen years ago I suggested to my son Michael, then in his mid teens, to take him to a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. The third person due to join us was a German friend of ours, Alenka. She would, I suspect, herself be the first to admit that her life isn
’t unduly marked by anything one might call order or structure. She tends rather to create an atmosphere around her that is redolent of the sixties, wherever she goes.

In one respect, however, Germany has influenced her far more than hippiedom. She has, in spades, the German respect for punctuality. I remember a boss telling me with some annoyance, long before I’d learned the lesson, that the only way to turn up to appointments on time, is to set out to be early. That was our friend Alenka through and through.

So she was at our place to collect me for the concert at a ridiculously early hour, or so it seemed to me, accustomed as I was to turn up for such events just a minute or two before applauding the musicians as they trooped in. Alenka was more the ‘sit quietly in your place and make small talk for twenty minutes’ kind of person.

Michael wasn’t home when she showed up. Since he hadn’t expressed any particular enthusiasm for joining us, I decided to set out with Alenka alone at the moment when waiting had tried her impatience to breaking point – still, in my view, far earlier than necessary.

Alas, on my return after a fine performance of what remains one of my favourite pieces, I found Michael more than a little put out at having been left behind.

‘You went off without me. You knew I was coming.’

Well, I hadn’t been sure, and I’d felt pressurised by Alenka... but in reality, no excuses helped me feel any better. I’d gone without him, though he’d wanted to come, and he was disappointed. All the guilt a parent can feel towards a child he’s let down invaded me. I wonder if there are any parents out there who haven’t suffered the same gnawing feeling?

And from that date, it’s never left me. But this year, back in September, I went to a concert in London at St Martin in the Fields (remember the nursery rhyme? You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St Martin's?). It was a glorious baroque setting in which to listen to glorious baroque music. My heart particularly leaped when I saw that a performance of Mozart’s Requiem was planned for 9 November. 

St Martin's: just the place for Baroque music.
And not bad even for classical
The ensemble may not have been the best I’d ever heard, but surely no one can completely cock up the Requiem, can they? I mean, the music’s just majestic enough to carry the performers with it, however limited their talents. This lot weren’t untalented, it was just that they left me unconvinced they were entirely outstanding. In any case, this was an opportunity not to be missed.

So the very next day I was on the line to Michael in Madrid, where he now lives.

‘Book a ticket for that weekend,’ I suggested.

‘Out on the Thursday, back on the Monday? Will that do?’ he promptly responded.

The day has now come. We have the tickets. Michael’s in the house. Alenka’s not around to disrupt proceedings with her chronological puritanism.

I don’t know whether the performance is going to be brilliant or just passable. Either way, the setting will be breathtaking. And several friends are joining us, so the ingredients for a good evening will all be there. And, above all, I
’ll keep a promise made, discharge a debt unpaid

A great weight will be lifted from my heart 15 years after it first settled there.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

October revolution: good to commemorate, not to celebate

Today’s the 96th anniversary of the October Revolution, as you might expect since it’s the seventh of November. 

It’s a measure of just how deep ran the refusal of Tsarist Russia to reform, that nearly two centuries even after conservative Britain, it had failed to align its calendar with the Gregorian version used by the rest of the world. It therefore regarded the day of the revolution as the 25th of October. 

Since the word ‘Tsar’ is derived from ‘Caesar’, I suppose it might seem appropriate that they stuck with the Julian calendar, called after the Julius who made the word ‘Caesar’ synonymous with imperial power.

The revolution was fought on a slogan of ‘bread, land and peace.’ In the middle of the First World War which Russia was well on the way to losing, and losing big, these were three things that the regime couldn’t provide. Lenin, always quick with the ingenious, even devious, stratagem felt this made the slogan revolutionary: if the regime couldn’t meet a demand agitating the whole people, they would bring it down.

The reasoning sounds plausible, except that for the next eighty years the new regime wasn’t particularly good at delivering bread or land, and didn’t manage peace all that well either. On the contrary, what it chiefly accomplished was to wipe out a great many more people than even Nazi Germany (but then, to be fair, the Soviet Union did have seven times longer) and to create a wonderfully privileged über-class, the ‘Nomenklatura’ of named senior Communist Party executives who enjoyed lives of luxury while the rest of the population queued for basic commodities.

Vladimir Lenin.
Inspiring, perhaps, but what did he actually deliver?
To picture what the Nomenklatura was like, just think of leaders of the similarly named Communist Party in China, or bankers and Fortune 500 executives in the West.

So the October Revolution led to no sunlit uplands or the achievement of any ideals. On the contrary, it degenerated into brutality and sordid corruption.

The result was that the end of regime was greeted with a new burst of joy when it followed the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Once again, optimism abounded amid worldwide celebration.

Russia seldom seems to be out the news these days. Run with an iron fist by Vladimir Putin, it attracts a lot of attention. For instance, for the kind of friends it likes to pick, such as President of Assad in Syria, a key Russian ally even when he gasses his own people.

Meanwhile, we follow with appalled fascination the tale of the Bolshoi ballet dancer, in court accused of throwing acid into the director’s face. That’s hardly the kind of ethereal beauty once tends to associate with that particular art form.

Elsewhere in the Moscow court system, nearly eighteen months after the street protests against Vladimir Putin’s contentious re-election as president, some of the rank and file – not the leaders – have at last been brought to trial. Long periods in remand, small hope of fair treatment, and the targeting of ordinary protesters is a sharp way of making clear that getting involved in any kind of protest against the regime is bad for your health in today’s Russia.

Meanwhile Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the Pussy Riot singer condemned to hard labour for having offended right-thinking Putinites and the Orthodox faithful by a protest inside a Moscow church, has disappeared from sight and is now believed to be on her way to a prison even more remote from family and friends and above all far from any media attention. Four time zones and 2000 miles from Moscow, deep in Siberia, her treatment feels like nothing so much as the kind of exile the Tsars liked to inflict on anyone with the temerity to oppose their rule.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Victim of the latest Vladimir, Putin's reincarnation of the Tsars
Ninety-six years after the Russian Revolution and twenty-four from the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems that progress has been limited and glowing expectations dashed. A chastening thought as we remember those stirring events in Petrograd all those years ago. They’re worth a brief commemoration, but not, I think, a glass raised in celebration. 

After all, Russia continues to present an image that is always fascinating, occasionally even entertaining, but noble or edifying? Not so much.

Monday, 4 November 2013

A week before Armistice Day: another day to remember

In a week, we’ll be awash with First World War commemorabilia. 

Armistice Day. Poppies on every lapel. Politicians laying wreaths at war memorials. Two minutes of silence throughout Britain but a day off in France, less parsimonious with its commemorations.

To avoid being swamped, I’ve decided to get my commemoration in first, to indulge in a little of what Tom Lehrer called ‘pre-nostalgia’.

Not that the choice of date was coincidental. The fourth of November is one of the bleaker dates of a war that had plenty of bleakness. At ten to six in the morning on that day in 1918, British soldiers assembled on the banks of the Sambre et Oise canal in Northern France. They had pontoon bridges and rafts to help them cross the canal and form a bridgehead on the other side.

Scene of the fighting: near of lock on the Sambre et Oise canal
In the event, the Germans put up such withering fire, most of the pontoons and bridges were destroyed. If the day was eventually marked down as a British victory, it’s because one group forced their way across a lock. But the slaughter amongst the men who were trying to wade, paddle or swim across was terrible, and entirely futile.

It was particularly futile because, just as today is a week before Armistice day, so 4 November 1918 was a week before the actual armistice, the end of the fighting. Nothing that happened on that day was ultimately going to make the slightest difference to the outcome of the war.

Ceremonies in remembrance of war dead always make the point that those who fell did not die in vain. It’s a falsehood so widely believed that it’s become more of a delusion than a deceit. It’s part of a greater lie, that it’s somehow commendable to die for your country. Or to put it in other, better words, ‘the old lie, dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.’

That denunciation of the lie comes at the end of a powerfully moving poem, by a man last seen on a raft in the canal, struggling to get across under terrible and ultimately lethal fire. He was 25. He had until the late summer been in England recovering from earlier wounds; it had been made clear to him that he was not expected to go back to the front, but he went anyway, convinced it was his duty, if only to to keep exposing the sadness of the war: ‘my subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.’

The poet of the pity of war was Wilfred Owen.

To mark next year’s centenary of the outbreak the First World War, Carol Ann Duffy, the present British Poet Laureate, is overseeing the publication of a collection of new poems echoing those of the time. She’ll be picking up the themes of Owen’s The Sendoff, and says of its author:

For me, the loss of Owen as a poet during the first world war is a continuing poetic bereavement each time I read him. He is a presiding spirit of our poetry.

Every one of those needless deaths at the Sambre et Oise, as all the other millions of deaths in that needless war, is an individual tragedy. Perhaps we can, however, sum them up most poignantly by that one death, of a 25-year old who had so much more he might have said, in those icy waters in Northern France.

One bereavement can stand for all the rest. Particularly as the loss still reverberates down the century to today.

All of which adds up to an excellent reason to mark the fourth of November with at least as much solemnity as the eleventh.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Date Night

The Norwegian government, appalled at the 40% divorce rate in its country, has announced that married couples ought to have at least one ‘date night’ a week. This, the government suggests, would help consolidate marriages. The government is not, you understand, planning to legislate on the subject, but it feels well-placed to comment and advise.

Dates: Danielle is a great fan
...but are they Norway's solution to marital discord?

Intriguing, isn’t it? Norway has a Conservative government. Why is it that it’s always the Conservatives, with their fervent commitment to small government, who are most inclined to wade into what is most intimate in its citizens’ lives? Abortion, gay marriage, now straight marriage, why do they regard them as fair game? Why, in short, do they feel entitled to busybody around our bedrooms?

Still, far from me to question the wisdom of Conservative ministers in Oslo. And, indeed, Danielle and I had a date night only yesterday. It was a spectacular success, I’d say.

We started with a visit to that most romantic of establishments, Costco. I’d taken out membership to this worthy organisation for both us some months ago and had, indeed, bought some useful commodities there myself (chiefly alcohol and coffee, a useful combination since one helps counteract the effect of the other. Whichever way round you prefer). Danielle, on the other hand, hadn’t yet had the opportunity to collect her membership card or, indeed, visit the place.

She found the experience of shopping there – how shall I put this? – unusual. It’s truly degree-zero shopping. The stuff’s all piled high on shelves or raised areas in what looks like nothing so much as a massive warehouse. The quality’s usually good, the prices often competitive, but it isn’t exactly strong on ambiance, on a feeling of luxurious elegance for the discerning shopper.

From there we went to a Pizza Express which, I firmly believe, serves the best pizzas in Britain. I say that with some trepidation these days, given the quizzical reaction I had to the statement when I made it to two Canadian friends: they clearly thought it was like talking about the best Icelandic wine, or the greatest playwright in Liechtenstein, or perhaps the most incisive observations from Sarah Palin.

We, however, like their food and enjoyed our dinner.

Finally, the pièce de résistance of the evening, was an a cappella choral concert in rather a fine, if highly modern, church in Milton Keynes, a highly modern and sometimes fine city invented in central England after the war. The singing, by a group called Polymnia, was beautiful, the ambiance at the opposite end of the scale from Costco’s.

The delightfully appealing organ in
Christ the Cornerstone Church in Milton Keynes
So a great evening. Thank you, government of Norway.

That being said, as I re-read my account of our night out, the disagreeable feeling grows on me that what I
ve described might not be regarded as the ideal ingredients for a classic first date. Not perhaps the raw material for, say, a good teen movie. Or, at any rate, not one that was hoping to set a new record for box office takings.

Still. After thirty years of marriage, perhaps we
’ve got beyond that particular stage.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Internet teething problems: on-line ordering

We haven’t really mastered that internet thing yet, have we? In particular the whole ordering on-line business.

Apart from anything else, it seems to me that there ought to be a load more services available. The NSA and GCHQ ought to be able to send us helpful little messages that pop into our inboxes:

‘You ordered the Provence Herbs version last time. Are you sure you want the Lavender this time?’

It would allow those wonderful securocrat establishments to do a little gentle marketing to improve their brand image. I modestly suggest the strap line:

This message brought to you free of charge, 
courtesy of the NSA/GCHQ [delete as appropriate]. 
Spooks at the service of people

Even without that, I can’t help feeling the actual logistics needs seriously looking at. I mean, I ordered a tube of aftershave balm the other day. It would fit comfortably into a pocket. Metaphorically it would fit into the mouth of some of our more opinionated politicians (I leave it to you to supply a name or two here).

But the company chose to send it in an elegant box, swaddled in bubble wrap, in a much larger box half of which was filled by what I think of as ‘single-bubble non-wrap’: you know, one of those huge plastic bubbles of air whose only purpose seems to be to fill the space in packets that are too big for their contents.

The container and the thing contained
Proportionate? I think not
As well as being an affront to any reasonable green sensibilities, all that bulk meant the postman couldn’t get the package through my letter box. So I had to wait for a moment when I’d have the time to pop down to the sorting office, which only came this morning, two full days after the attempt to deliver the package. 

Once at the office I took my place at the back of a queue of twelve people. With six people, you have a reasonable chance of getting to the counter quickly, but once you get beyond six, simple laws of probability mean that you’re practically bound to have at least one person in front of you who:

  • has come for a parcel the post office has mislaid 
  • didn’t bring any proof of identity 
  • denies having ordered the thing delivered and thinks this is somehow the post office’s responsibility

This morning, there were two of these troublesome customers ahead of me.

Once you’ve been through all that, little of the convenience of ordering on-line is left. I mean, the sorting office is further from my home than the shop I used to buy the stuff from. And in the shop there wasn’t usually a queue.

In fact, the only reason for using the on-line service is that the shop no longer stocks the particular balm I favour.

It feels to me as though we’re living a period similar to the 1850s or so. Then it was the railways, today it’s the internet. The new technology has already revolutionised society, but it’s still in its infancy. We have a lot to learn to make it really efficient.

Still, I’ve got my balm. The on-line service did work, even if it hasn
’t yet quite learned to work well. I suppose I need to be grateful for small mercies.