Friday, 31 January 2014

A cup that doesn't cheer: why the French and the Americans can't make tea

It’s ghastly trying to drink tea in the US or France. They bring you a sorry offering of a cup of hot water, distinctly off the boil once it’s made it to your table, with a tea bag by the side. You dunk the bag in the water and what emerges is an insipid liquid which shares with tea only its colour, and even then in a paler shade.

The cup that cheers but never inebriates
Not that it's particularly cheerful in the US or France
It’s long been a theory of mine that, in the case of the States, the problem was caused by the Boston Tea Party of 1773. In that deplorable incident, a bunch of rebels – or possibly freedom fighters, depending on your point of view – dressed as ‘Indians’ (though the real one were just as much native Americans then as now, they weren’t called that at the time) boarded a tea clipper, broke open its chests and tossed the precious leaves into the chilly waters of Boston harbour. 

That pouring of tea into cold water seems to me to have been a traumatic moment in the development of the American psyche, leading to the nation’s inability to make tea properly to this day.

However, I’ve recently come to know – and enjoy enormously – the work of Edith Wharton. Don’t know her writing? The Age of Innocence is well worth reading. I strongly recommend it.

The early pages of The House of Mirth contain a description of tea making in New York at the turn of the twentieth century that can leave one in no doubt that they knew how to do it. It would seem that the loss of that ability is much more recent than I had believed.

I’m forced to conclude that something far more profound is at work here. Might it be that later waves of immigrants, from such coffee-drinking nations as Italy, left the country with a population that really didn’t understand tea and, what’s more, probably didn’t care?

Because if that’s the answer, I can understand the attitude. It may be true that attaching so much importance to how tea’s made might just be one of our national bad habits over here. Perhaps US indifference to how the stuff should be served is just a salutary hint to us to lighten up a bit.

That would explain the French too, of course. Teaching the British how to behave is very much a French national sport. Why, François Hollande was indulging in it yesterday, telling David Cameron that it was all very well for him to decide he wanted EU laws changed to suit him, but that didn’t mean the rest of Europe was going to go along with the idea. Least of all France.

Such a lot of symbolism riding on the cup that cheers. Just like back in Boston in 1773. It’s clearly much more than a mere beverage.

Enough of such deep thoughts. They’re enough to work up quite a thirst. Time for a cuppa, I reckon.

Just got to make sure the water’s piping hot before it hits the tea.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Bondi and the Barrier: how a great eccentric kept us dry in London

If a Frenchman talks about the weather, claimed a pronunciation exercise I had to do when I was studying that glorious language, it means he has nothing else to talk about. But to be a good Englishman, you have to be able to talk about the weather as it is today, as it was in the past and as it might be in the future.

Well, let me tell you, it’s a bit bloody wet in England at the moment. In fact, if you happen to live in the area known as the Somerset levels, your property’s likely to have been under water since 15 December. Which I imagine must be a bit wearing, by now.

Plenty of other areas have been hammered pretty badly. Not just rain but gales. And in coastal areas, tidal surges, which have even swept people to their deaths. The weather isn’t just small talk. For some it has been the cause of pretty big talk too.

Such conditions aren’t unprecedented, however, they just happen more often now that global warming’s getting a real grip. But tidal surges led to terrible flooding back on 31 January 1953, just five days after my birth.

I like to think the two events weren’t related.

As a result of that disaster, which mostly affected the East of England including the Thames Estuary, the government called on Hermann Bondi, Principal Scientific Officer, to draw up a report on how to prevent or mitigate such calamities in future. He proposed the creation of a barrier on the Thames to limit flows up the river.

Hermann Bondi. Brilliant, eccentric, entertaining
And right about the flooding
Seventeen years later I became a student at King’s College London, at which oddly enough Bondi was a visiting lecturer. He was the only lecturer I ever had who stuck religiously to class times, starting at precisely five past the hour and stopping equally exactly at five to, as all teachers were required to do but few did. In fact, at five to he would simply put down his chalk and walk out, without saying goodbye or making any kind of comment to suggest he’d finished.

The following week, he’d walk in at five past, pick up his chalk, walk to the board – which no one else would have touched in the intervening period – and say something like ‘cancelling through by x, we get the following statement’, as though there’d been no interruption.

On one occasion, he turned to the class and asked ‘does anyone know what a vector is?’

I was a little surprised no one answered, as it’s a pretty elementary question, and most of the other students were senior to me. I didn’t stop to think that they had perhaps been to more of his lectures than I had.

‘A vector is something with magnitude and direction,’ I volunteered.

‘Aha!’ he said, in his strong Central European Jewish accent, ‘we have here someone who thinks vectors are arrows.’ He shook his head, sad at the foolishness of the world. ‘Very dangerous to give mathematicians arrows. Someone might lose an eye.’

He fell silent, contemplating this dreadful prospect. Then suddenly he looked up.

‘Does anyone here like the Marx brothers films?’

There were some mumbled replies of ‘yes’.

‘I particularly like the scene in Duck Soup,’ he went on, ‘where Groucho is defending Harpo in front of a court martial and he says, “the man in front of you may look like an idiot, and he may behave like an idiot, but don’t be fooled! He is an idiot.” That is how a vector is. If it looks like a vector, and it behaves like a vector, it is a vector.’

That was the only definition of a vector we ever received.

One day during my time at King’s, conditions conspired to bring us close to disaster in Central London. Exceptionally high tides after a lot of rainfall and wind blowing the wrong way made flooding extremely likely. The embankments of the Thames were piled high with sandbags, but the water was lapping at the tops.

The King’s College canteen was in the basement. So it was quite fun to sit down there, with the straining sandbags not 20 metres away and well above the level of my head, and contemplate the crowds gathered ghoulishly on Waterloo Bridge in the hope of watching me drown as I enjoyed my fish and chips.

But then came 1982 and, 29 years after the flood of ’53, the Thames Barrier came into operation. And Bondi was right: it worked. There’s been no repetition of the disaster. A great monument to a fine, eccentric and highly entertaining man.

The Thames Barrier
A fine monument to Bondi. And highly effective
No consolation to the inhabitants of the Somerset Levels, though.

Afterthought I like writing this kind of post. The start has little to do with the end, and practically nothing to do with the middle. But there’s a linking theme. That amuses me in the writing; I hope it amuses you in the reading.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Immigrants: cutting the branch we’re sitting on

After withdrawing some money to pay for the service, I walked over to the car wash where our vehicle, with Danielle sitting behind the steering wheel, was surrounded by seven men with mops and sponges busily covering it in foam and rubbing every speck of dirt off it.

It was barely a couple of minutes later that they dropped sponges and buckets and, as she jumped clear, moved in with brushes and vacuum cleaners to make an equally thorough and comprehensive job of cleaning the inside.

I got chatting with one of the men and it emerged that he was from Romania. He gave me a sideways glance as he said it, worried no doubt that I might have been touched by the anti-immigrant rhetoric that seems to ratchet up every day in Britain. It particularly targets Romanians and Bulgarians: these two groups won automatic right to live and work in Britain on 1 January, after seven years of transitional arrangements since both nations joined the EU in 2007.

There hasn’t been the predicted flood of people from the two countries. There has, however, been a wholly predictable deluge of poorly informed invective against immigrants, charging them with coming to this country to claim benefits (in reality a smaller proportion of immigrants make claims than of native citizens) or indulge in crime (a smaller proportion of immigrants are convicted of offences than of the native population).

Workers not criminals. And doing useful work too
So what's UKIP's problem? Or the Tory right's?
Poorly informed the attacks may be, but they still hurt. 

Immigrants appear in every walk of British life, not just in car washes. In particular, large numbers are employed in healthcare: immigrants make up 11% of total NHS staff and 26% of doctors. And the poison is beginning to get to them. For instance, a trainee doctor in England, Felicia Buruiana, told the Guardian that ‘people would tut or pull a face when I said I was Romanian.’

Are we really so insensitive to the feelings of other people that we are prepared to be that offensive to them, even when they’re working hard to help us – and in the case of healthcare staff, to help us when we most need it?

And to be that offensive based on such a completely inaccurate reading of the impact of immigrants on our society?

The behaviour seems shameful, but also counter-productive: if we deprive ourselves of the services of people who are hardworking or highly skilled, or both, we harm ourselves at least as much as them.

So why do we persist in doing it? Why do we side with the Tory backwoodsmen and the mendacious propagandists of UKIP against such welcome contributors to our quality of life as Dr Buruiana? Isn’t it time we learned to be superior to that? 

Even if we can’t behave better for reasons of ethics, or simply good manners, we should just to protect our own interests.

After all, everyone of us gets ill some time.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Hey, Australia! Happy birthday to us

I can’t remember meeting an Australian I didn’t like. Fine people and a joy to know. 

Not that I like facing them on a sports field. I can’t imagine that any fellow Englishman does. In a bar, however, on a beach, in a dining room – all the ones I’ve had the pleasure to spend some time with have been excellent company.

They’re open, warm-hearted, cheerful, generous, amusing. I’ve been out there on a couple of occasions, at a time when I was living in France. The banter I encountered in Sydney was so like what I was used to in England that it felt like a homecoming. But with more heat and sunshine.

In fact, ever since that experience, I’ve found that an excellent opening gambit to a conversation with an Australian is to tell him that his country is ‘just England with better weather.’ I always find it gets things off on just the right note.

England with better weather
But that’s not the reason I want to pay tribute to the Australians today.

It’s because the entire nation has had the goodness of heart to celebrate my birthday. I appreciate it deeply and thank all those fine people warmly. It strikes me as great generosity on their part to hold Australia Day on the 26th of January.

Now some might think that my daughter-in-law has a better deal than I do: born on the 14th of July, she has the whole of France celebrating her birthday with her. There are nearly three times as many people in France as in Australia. But I say it again, I like the Australians, and I’m more than satisfied that is they who’ve chosen to celebrate with me.

I’m off out shortly to mark the event. I’ll raise a glass to you, Australia. Many happy returns to us both.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Spooks: what becomes of them?

Old soldiers never die, according to the old song, they just fade away.

It must be even worse for spies. What do they turn into? A near lifetime spent tracking opposition sleuths, and being counter-tracked by them, crawling through the Moscow sewers gun in hand to save the world from the most powerful and nefarious organisation it has seen (practically unbeatable by anyone other than a single man with a light Scots brogue), and then – what? A retirement bungalow in Surbiton amongst neighbours who’ve swallowed the story of a career in the Ministry of Transport, and who keep issuing invitations to unbearable bridge evenings where they lose contracts by not drawing trumps?

It’s probably just as well that the reality of a spook’s life doesn’t generally involve much defusing of timers on nuclear bombs, with seconds to spare, but far more checking through e-mails ordering take-away pizzas to find out whether they reveal a nefarious pattern (other than a dislike of anchovies and a preference for capers), or listening to phone calls for minicabs in the hope that they represent something other than a desire to get from central London to Dulwich after the last showing of Casino Royale.

In other words, it isn’t a lot more interesting than spending a career in the Ministry of Transport.

Still, there must be the elite few who live on the edge throughout their careers, and then have to fade into retirement. They fight their fights necessarily in the shadows, and then vanish into obscurity. They hide behind assumed identities and then slide into anonymity.

Take James Bond. Look at his appearance in his heyday:

James Bond in his prime and his most glamorous role
 And look what he’s become:

The same in his latter-day role of grumpy old man
Just your common or garden pensioner, isn’t he? The kind you might expect to meet in a Glasgow pub, wittering on about taxation or Scottish independence. Which is what he mostly does, these days, come to think of it.

So it’s great to come across one spy who has gone from the glamour of that profession into the profession of glamour.

Anna Chapman, née Kushchyenko, was part of a sleeper cell of Russian agents in the US. How glamorous is that? Leading a daily life based on an elaborate fiction while all the time maintaining readiness to spring into action when called on by the fatherland to do her duty. Even in an enemy, that level of dedication has to be pretty inspiring.

Anna Chapman in her role as Mata Hari
As, of course, does the ingenuity of the people sent to track her and her associates down. Step by step they unravelled the web of deception, tracked down the network of links, and identified the individuals. In June 2010, the FBI swooped. They arrested Anna and her nine associates. Within a couple of weeks, she was back in Russia, her whole devious plot foiled, and her life of glamour over.

Except that she’s just shown that it isn’t. She’s back. And not so much in work that is glamorous, as in the promotion of glamour: she’s launched her own fashion range. On her dress designs, the Guardian commented, ‘the biggest shock is they’re actually quite good.’

The Anna Chapman fashion look
I'm told it's called 'modern modesty'
Well, well, well. So one former spy hasn’t faded yet. She's gone from fashioning networks to storming the world of fashion. 

Can’t see it catching on in the shadow lands inhabited by James Bond, though. To say nothing of Smiley’s. Not sure that ‘modern modesty’ was quite their style.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

War-weariness? Nothing to do with multiculturalism

It’s funny what a bad press multiculturalism gets. All sorts of failings are attributed to it. The latest charge against it, today, was that it was producing a growing war-weariness in Britain.

Now that’s a really curious accusation. It seems nothing short of perverse to go looking for a cause of war weariness other than weariness with war. After all, a whole bunch of US allies sent soldiers into Iraq, and ten years later the deaths are up there in six figures while the country’s a chaotic mess as well as being a client of Iran’s, the West
’s favourite bogey figure in the region.

The Afghan war’s lasted even longer, and Afghanistan’s a complete basket case. The one achievement of the invasion was to kick out Al Qaida’s friends, the Taliban; just last week, a Taliban spokesman was crowing that once Western troops are out next year, the movement will be right back in control again. It would take a pretty convinced optimist to think he might not have a point

How we turned Afghanistan into a haven of peace and plenty

You don’t have to be multicultural to have got pretty weary of war after those two episodes of our recent history. 

In any case, it doesn’t seem to me that we need less multiculturalism just now. Rather more might be an improvement. I mean, the point of multiculturalism is to consider the possibility that other cultures may not be entirely worthless, and may actually have something legitimate to say for themselves. Or at least, that ours may not be so obviously superior to theirs that we
’re entitled to kick them around over here and invade their homes over there. 

A good starting point would be Oliver Cromwell’s plea to the Scottish Presbyterians: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.’ That salutary capacity to doubt oneself didn’t actually stop Cromwell giving the Irish a pretty miserable time, at the very moment when he wrote those words. It would be fun, on the other hand, to think that getting on for four centuries later we might have learned to go a little further and do a little better.

Imagine how it might have been had Tony Blair, say, considered the possibility that he was wrong. He might not have been so keen to invade Iraq. At least 100,000 Iraqis might not have lost their lives.

Now, I say that about Blair because no one could suggest that Dubya might have entertained any doubts. That would have required that he hold one idea while comparing it with another. Two ideas? Getting his head round ‘we’re gonna get that Saddam guy’ pretty much exhausted his capacity in that direction.

Fortunately, few of us are quite as intellectually challenged as Dubya. It would be good if rather few of us were as closed to other points of view as Blair. Then we might open up a little to multiculturalism and perhaps avoid a few wars.

Of which more and more of us are well and truly weary.

Monday, 20 January 2014

It’s Martin Luther King day in the United States, a nation which even a man with a dream like his, could hardly have imagined would have a black President within half a century of that great speech.

Not of course that it really does. Funny how we all accept that someone who’s half black is black, whereas the fact that he’s half white doesn’t make him white.

In any case, in the Presidency of Obama, it seems appropriate to mark Martin Luther King with a few thoughts about the first ever black head of state, in that part of the Western world that used to be considered the preserve of whites.

That head of state was not Obama, though like him he was part black. Which made him, like Obama, entirely black, of course. Black ancestry, it seems, is just far more powerful than white, so the slightest trace of the former wipes out any effect that could have been exerted by the latter.

The earliest white state with a black ruler was the newly created Italian dukedom of Florence, rich financially from centuries of banking, culturally from being the cradle of the Renaissance. And the black leader, back then in the sixteenth century? The first Duke, Alessandro de Medici, nicknamed ‘Il Moro’, the Moor.

He was, it seems, the son of a Medici Pope, Clement VII.

The son of a Pope? I hear you gasp. Yes, yes, those were lax times. Catholic priests were sometimes less than irreproachable in their sexual behaviour, hard though that may be to believe these days.

I say ‘it seems’ he was the son of that Pope, because he was passed off as the child of a different Medici so he could be treated as legitimate. These days, people tend to treat that story as no more than a smokescreen.

And his mother? A mixed race serving woman in the household.

In other words, a great Florentine family was indulging, nearly three centuries earlier, in the same practices as Thomas Jefferson applied in Virginia, when he fathered several children by his slave Sally Hemings. They were light enough in complexion to pass for white, but naturally, like Alessandro and Obama, they were black all the same.

Alessandro de Medici, the Moor
Remember, a bit black is black
Things didn’t work out too well for Alessandro. Seems he suffered from Bill Clinton syndrome and couldn’t turn down the opportunity for a sexual adventure if one presented. His cousin, Lorenzino (popularly known as Lorenzaccio, and the ‘accio’ ending in Italian never means anything good), invited him over to enjoy the favours of his sister (Lorenzaccio’s, not Alessandros). And then bumped him off. 

Sad. At least Obama seems well above all that kind of stuff. Shame Clinton wasn’t. What a presidency his might have been, without all that impeachment mess.

Still, these are gloomy thoughts Americans shouldn’t be contemplating on a public holiday. Have a great MLK day, cousins across the pond. Have a dream in his tribute. And a ball.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Misty's diary: dogs? Just plain dumb

Delighted to say that Ive found our cat Mistys diary again. The extract below seemed worth sharing. Here it is for your edification.

Mid-January 2014

It sometimes seems to me that dogs are on earth to make blackbirds look smart. And, let me tell you, blackbirds are dumb, dumb, dumb. I can vouch for that from bitter experience. Theirs, not mine.

In passing, I think blackbirds must have heard someone say that the early bird catches the worm, because they always seem to be in the garden looking for them. No accounting for tastes. Not that I find their taste objectionable: I rather enjoy it, on those frequent occasions when, whatever they may be looking for, what they find is me.

They haven’t cottoned on to the idea that the garden’s mine. Dumb, like I said. I mean, the whole neighbourhood must know. I had the devil’s own job making sure the local cats all understood when I first moved in. The row was spectacular. The domestic staff sleeps in the bedroom overlooking the garden, and even they complained about the volume at which I explained to feline interlopers that their territory stopped at my fence. Eventually they got the message and kept clear. That even applied to the one they call Napoleon.

Funnily enough, I like Napoleon. Always had a bit of a soft spot for black cats. But I couldn’t have him treating my garden as his own, so I made sure he realised he’d met his Waterloo. These days he recognises my jurisdiction over my land. Which is more than the blackbirds have grasped.

Now our dog Janka’s pretty much at their level. Likeable enough, sure, and I’ll rub against her from time to time, in a friendly sort of way. I even like her smell, oddly enough, so I enjoy taking a nap on her mat. Not that she appreciates the compliment – she always seems worried when I take it over, even though I leave her quite a bit of the edge.

Doing my mate a favour by sharing her mat
But though I like her, I can’t deny she’s – frankly – intellectually challenged. Take the racket she makes. Bark, bark, bark. Whine, whine, whine. No bloody use to anyone. She’s only ever interested in food, and I’ve tried to explain how to set about getting it. Pick a domestic, rub against a leg, and purr for God’s sake. It’s not that difficult.

It doesn’t work so well with the chief domestic. She thinks it’s affection and strokes me. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. But a stroke’s only so good, whereas a brimming bowl of kibble fills the belly a treat.

So I tend to go for her sidekick. I’ve bitten and scratched him enough for him to realise that affection isn’t anything I dole out in more than small doses. In his case, homeopathic ones. He’s got enough brainpower to get a message, as long as I’ve underlined it with tooth and claw, so when I purr at him, he knows to check my bowl.

Funnily enough, it isn’t always empty, but he always refills it anyway. Which suits me fine. They keep my food up high, so it
’s out of reach of the barking vacuum cleaner. Good plan. But it does mean I have to jump up to take a look at the bowl. It’s an effort. I don’t mind if the bowl turns out to be full, but what if it’s empty? I’m an athlete, I believe in economy of effort, and a jump for an empty bowl isn’t it.

So I purr at the sidekick, and he fills up the bowl whether it needs it or not. Pavlovian, his reaction. Stronger than him. Hear purring. Collect bowl. Tip contents into tin. Refill. Replace.

What’s not to like in that arrangement?

But Janka just won’t learn to purr. Hopeless. No aptitude for languages.

Instead, she’s forced to resort to subterfuge. Or what she thinks is subterfuge. ‘Janka, Janka, old girl,’ I want to say, ‘you just don’t have the wit for it.’

The other day she waited till he’d gone into the kitchen leaving the sugar bowl on the dining table. Up she jumped for it.

Not, by the way, a clean jump like I’d have made. Oh, no. Onto a chair which slid across the floor. From there onto the table, forcing the chair to slide still further. Lots of clatter and scraping and banging. Then she homed in on the sugar.

But by then, alerted by all the racket, he was back out.

‘Janka! Bad girl! Off the table.’

I’d have purred and looked innocent. She just turned tail and leapt. For the chair which was far too far away by then. Hit it. Felt it slip out of her reach. And crashed down to the floor. Painfully, I expect. And think of the indignity! You wouldn’t catch me doing that.

Dumb, poor thing. But then that’s dogs for you. When it comes to catching food, my money’s on a cat any time.

Which reminds me. I wonder if there’s an early blackbird out in my garden now, trying to catch a worm?

I think I’ll go and check.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

A monument to Gordon Brown now failed and empty

It moved me more than I expected to hear that the Strathmore Hotel was closing.

Luton, where I now live, isn’t a town that’s particularly strong on prestige. The Strathmore, right in the centre of town, was probably about the closest we got to it.

Not that it was particularly good, or anything: it was housed in a multi-storey concrete slab and the one time I stayed there, my room could only be regarded as luxurious in contrast to a broom cupboard. It was also long on the threadbare, and a bit short on the clean.

The Strathmore.
No great shakes but about as close to prestige as Luton gets
But it was the place that I went to hear a star of the Labour Party speak, way back in 1994. 

John Smith, leader of the Party, had suddenly died a few months earlier. His death opened the way to a hard fought leadership contest. On the one hand stood the heavyweight Gordon Brown, who’d been close to John Smith. Indeed, as the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking on financial matters for the Opposition, he was second only to the leader in stature and his most obvious heir.

On the other hand stood a newcomer, brilliant and charismatic, but without Brown
s standing. Tony Blair, Shadow Home Secretary, had come up with a memorable slogan: ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.’ It promoted the belief that people weren’t necessarily born criminals, but often became criminals in response to the misery of their surroundings.

But Blair was a bit of an unknown quantity. What did he really represent? Was he just a bit of a crowd-pleaser? On the other hand, after 18 years in opposition, was that just what Labour needed?

Brown came to speak at the Strathmore Hotel in Luton during his leadership campaign. As a rank and file member of the Labour Party, I went to hear him. I was a little sceptical, seeing him as a man of the Party apparatus, a little soulless, over-ambitious, too cold and calculating for my liking.

At the meeting, though, he astounded me. He spoke with eloquence and feeling about the under-privileged, and he made a commitment that if Labour were elected under his leadership, he would make it his primary task to reduce or even eliminate child poverty in this country.

I left the meeting wholly won over. He had my vote. Blair was just a photogenic face and a soundbite. Brown was the real thing.

What happened a few weeks later? The mythology has been immortalised in Stephen Frears’ beautifully crafted TV film The Deal, starring the versatile Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. According to this version of events, broadly accepted as true, Brown and Blair made an agreement at the Granita restaurant in Islington, North London: Brown would stand down from the leadership campaign to give Blair a clear run. In return, Blair would make him Chancellor of the Exchequer if Labour won office at the forthcoming general election.

Blair may also have promised to resign from the top job some point in the future to let Brown have a go.

In May 1997, Blair formed his first government. Brown was Chancellor. But almost from the start, Brown was positioning himself to force Blair out so he could take over. The bad blood between number 10 Downing Street, residence of the Prime Minister, and number 11, residence of the Chancellor, became legendary.

It was one of the defining characteristics of the governments Blair led. And eventually, in 2007, after a little over ten years, Blair did stand down. Brown had a honeymoon bounce in the polls and could have gone to the country in the autumn, when he might have won. But he bottled out and went through to May 2010, when he was soundly beaten.

That deal in Islington set a time bomb ticking which eventually wrecked the Labour government and sank Brown. The story has many of the elements of Greek tragedy: a catastrophe set in train by its very victims, and which once started could not be halted – indeed was driven forward by their strivings.

And yet Brown, as Chancellor and Prime Minister, was a leading figure in administrations that took a million children out of poverty. He didn’t achieve his ambition of lifting them all, but he did far more than anyone else had for decades. His successors have been throwing kids right back into heart-wrenching misery: 300,000 in the first two years alone.

Blair, on the other hand, proved himself as tough on crime as any Tory Prime Minister, as indifferent to its causes.

What Brown did for poor children is monument enough to his achievement, and should compensate for much of the other bitterness. Each time I saw the Strathmore, I thought of it, and remembered the day I witnessed him pledging himself to that endeavour.

Now, though, the Strathmore itself has failed. The place where I listened to Brown and was won over stands empty and forlorn. Grandeur has evaporated.

Leaving only a sense of pathos at past hopes partly fulfilled.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Happiness? Not all it's cracked up to be.

The nine-year old and I stood looking at the Alpine Ridge ahead of us. The sun was beating down and we were drenched with sweat. The mountain rising above us - still rising above us – was serene and seemed contemptuous of our puny struggles.

‘That’s got to be the top, doesn’t it? There can’t be any more, can there?’ I asked him.

The nine-year old, the son of friends, nodded. ‘Got to be. This has got to be as high as it gets.’

But it wasn’t. We breasted the ridge only to find yet another beyond it.

When we
’d started out on our epic, two and a half hours earlier, it was to get to the top of the hillside above us in order to look down on into the valley beyond onto one of Europe’s most majestic sights, its greatest glacier, the Aletschgletscher. We’d decided that the best way to get there was straight over the top. 

Sadly the 
hill surmounted by a ridge ahead of us had only turned out to be a shoulder of the mountain, with another ridge beyond it, and another beyond that, for hour after hour of hard graft. We did eventually make it to the top but it took over three hours.

Still, the view was worth it. That broad strip of white stretching down between the dun and grey cliffs, with stretches of scrub and grass too, gleaming in the hot light. The glacier was an incongruous reminder of winter in a sun-drenched summer landscape.

The Aletsch glacier
Rock and stone, even grass. And then the ice
Actually, it looked rather refreshing.

‘Let’s go and cool off,’ I said.

Well, even getting downhill wasn’t as easy as it seemed. But eventually we stood on the glacier and felt the cold of the ice under our overheated shoe soles. And we stepped inside, into crevices filled with blue light, running our fingers over icy water coating the walls and making them smooth. It had all been worth it.

Then of course we had to get home. We took one look at the climb and another at the path, broad, smooth and well maintained by the amenable Swiss authorities. We went for it and were back at our chalet in 45 minutes, instead of four hours.

Why am I telling this story?

I keep seeing posts, on Facebook or Twitter, about happiness. It’s inside you, some people proclaim. Or you only have to reach out for it rather than turn your back on it, as others maintain. Or indeed, and I hear people say this regularly, I don’t care what she/he does, as long as he/she’s happy.

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Everyone deserves happiness.

Except I’m not so sure. I mean, isn’t the value of happiness just a bit overstated?

Firstly, because it’s seldom unqualified. There’s usually some little fly in the ointment. The meal’s romantic enough, the candles are wonderful, you both look your very best, but it’s pissing down with rain outside. Forget the lakeside stroll.

Secondly, even if it’s pretty well sustained, isn’t happiness just a short step away from contentment? And isn’t that just what the sheep feel in their field, until the day they get loaded into the lorry for the slaughterhouse?

Now I know that in a sense that’s the fate of us all. But do I really want to spend the time up to the point the truck draws up in the farmyard grazing for a few decades, with no more to show for my passage through the world than a few piles of droppings?

It seems to me that this fixation with happiness ignores a whole lot of other emotions that are worth far more. Incomparably more. Elation. Achievement. Fulfilment. Satisfaction. Joy. Even pleasure.

You may say these are just aspects of happiness. I don’t agree. And the experience with the Aletschgletscher makes that point strongly, at least to me. Happy? I wasn’t happy. Why, I felt ashamed. I’d imposed a gruelling trial in a young lad who was in no state to take it – why he spent the next day in bed, exhausted, and though I didn’t, by evening I wished I had. He had nothing to reproach himself with, he was a child. But I was forty, for God’s sake. I should have known better than to take us over the mountain.

And physically too my state could hardly be called happy. My feet were killing me. I couldn’t remember the previous time I’d been that tired. And I was burned by the sun.

And yet – I felt real elation. We hadn’t walked round the mountain on the path, we’d taken it on. A frontal attack. And we’d won. And we’d had the glorious view from the top. Followed by the extraordinary sense of satisfaction that standing on, and inside, the glacier had given us.

Bought at the price of pain. Far more effort than either of us was used to. But far more satisfying than just standing in a field and grazing. A hell of a sight more interesting than mere happiness.

So why do we go on about happiness so much? Is it just because we’re so afraid of pain that we’d rather settle for second best? Rather than pay the price for something rather better?

It’s striking that, when he drafted the Declaration of Independence, what Thomas Jefferson considered an inalienable right wasn’t happiness. It was the pursuit of happiness. Maybe that’s the key: pursuing happiness is a lot more fun than achieving it.

As I discovered among those hellish ridges, all that time ago.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The year of the slave?

Slavery’s all the rage these days, it seems.

Twelve Years a Slave may not be the best film I’ve seen for a while. It’s a little short on moral nuance, for instance, the closest it gets to one being the Southern planter who shows some liking for the main character before selling him, supposedly for his own good, to a sadist. And some of the loving portrayal of whippings (with long shots of gaping welts on victims’ backs) will provide many a thrill to the sado-masochists out there.

Even so, in what it shows of the sheer inhumanity of slavery as an institution, it tells a gruesome tale effectively. It taught me little I didn
t already know about slavery, but by portraying it so vividly, it brought more palpably home what it must have been like to be a thinking, suffering human being and to know that one had no rights of any kind against the authority behind the suffering. 

A self-evident proposition that all men are created equal?
A scene when an overseer decides to carry out a whipping because he has some flimsy objection to the way the slave has undertaken a carpentry task, put me in mind of the scene in Schindler’s List in which a young Jewish architect is shot dead for the offence of pointing out that the SS is building a hut incorrectly.

The scale of the Holocaust was different, and a shooting a more extreme reaction than a whipping, but I was left feeling that indeed the American South’s ‘peculiar institution’ had a great deal in common with the mentality of the Nazis. Which is far from surprising: they had in common the belief that an entire class of humanity was sub-human.

Another lesson that I’d already learned but which was made more compelling by its depiction on screen, was that this behaviour occurred in a nation founded on the proposition that all men were created equal. Jefferson may not have had to force Sally Hemings into bed with him, but she was fifteen and by today’s standards, the actions of the author of the Declaration of Independence were just as culpable as those of the rapist in Twelve Years a Slave.

Just in case we in the old world, however, become too complacent about our supposed moral superiority over the US, next year will see the launching of Belle. It tells the story of a young slave who gained her freedom in Britain in the late eighteenth century. What will emerge is the complicity of the great slaving powers in the crimes shown in Twelve Years a Slave. Every time I visit Liverpool or Bristol, cities that I love, I remember that their past fortune was founded on slavery; Nantes is one of the most pleasant cities in France, one where the extreme right-wing National Front gets its lowest votes, but it too made its money from transporting Africans to the Americas.

So it may be that slavery is a theme that’s emerging more strongly into our consciousness than it has in recent years. Which is perhaps just as well, since it was only last November that we saw the release of two women from thirty years of slavery in London. And just the day before yesterday, a woman in Birmingham was charged with enslaving four men for a year.

Timely, those films. It seems we still haven
t finished exorcising the demon of slavery from our cultures.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Tooth and claw: the diary of Misty, mystery cat

All cat owners must ask themselves from time to time ‘what on Earth does the cat do on his own for so long?’

Our cat is Misty, a name I gave him because of his predominant colour. Or so I thought. I’ve since decided that if the name fits him, it
’s because he mystifies me. So it’s with great pleasure that I can announce I've been able to penetrate that mystery a little.

I’ve long known that his English was excellent. You should have seen the way he stalked off into the night one time, when Danielle and I commented that he was getting a little fat. He didn’t show up for twelve hours or more, and then only to eat.

Mastering the language is pretty good going, you know, for a cat who was born in France and we took to live in Germany. Before shipping him to England.

What I didn
’t realise was that he’d learned to write too. That’s what he’s been doing when he’s out there on his own – keeping a diary. And now I’ve found it. 

Don’t let him know, but here’s a first extract from it. 

Misty disguising his vocation as a writer

January 2014

Christmas went quite well. A full complement of domestic staff – not just the usual two, but also the two young ones who were around when I was a kitten. They don’t stay, though, they keep clearing off. What do they think? That I don’t mind? That it’s OK to behave like that?

Still, when they show up again, I just can’t help myself. The prospect of curling up on those laps just leaves me without the heart to show how irritated I am.

On the other hand, the freshness of reunion doesn’t last. A couple of days in and one of the young ones got very casual about stroking me. Watching TV or something. Absent-minded with his hand movements. I can’t abide that. So I bit him. Did he curse! That’ll teach him.

Things turned worse after Christmas. They all cleared off. Without even asking for my permission. Which I wouldn’t have granted anyway.

To be fair, they got the substitute in instead, and she’s OK. I’ve got her trained. She knows to open the front door when I ask, instead of sending me to the cat flap at the back. She lets me drink from the tap in the bathroom. And she checks that my food bowl’s kept full, without calling me fat.

What's to criticise?
A connoisseur likes his water fresh
New Year’s Eve was a wash out. A few loud noises and our dog, Janka, becomes a quivering wreck. A full firework display? She was like ‘is this Armageddon or what?’

I’m no fan of dogs. Quite honestly, once you’ve smelled one, you’ve smelled the lot. Some are too big and a tad intimidating, some are small and easily intimidated. Apart from that – well, I hate to sound racist but I just can’t tell them apart.

But our Janka’s different. Maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Terrified of any sound louder than a door slamming. And so yappy! On and on. Whenever anyone turns up, even if it’s the domestics coming home. Bark, bark, bark. Tiresome. The chief domestic tries to do something about it, sometimes even spraying her with water, and she tries to get her sidekick to work on it too, but he’s hopeless. Doesn’t like the noise, but won’t make the effort.

Well, like I said, Janka was terrified on New Year’s Eve. So I went and lay down with her. Least I could do, I felt. After all she’s been around all my life, pretty much. That makes a bit of a bond, really. I owed her, I reckoned.

But, blow me down, as soon as the help got up to leave the room, Janka jumped down and went trotting after her. Completely ignoring me. As though I didn’t count for anything.

Well, I got her back. Sat on the stairs at bed time and wouldn’t let her up. She had to wait till I went mousing. Showed her who’s boss and who’s not to diss.

The domestic staff came back a couple of days ago. I was generous. Didn’t take it out of them. Didn’t show them my resentment. Came and lay on their laps as usual.

But the sidekick’s no good. I’d been lying on him barely ten when he complained about the weight. Weight? Me? With the exercise I get? He should take a look at his own waist line.

Heavy? What's heavy about this?
Anyway, he pushed me off. After nearly a week away, he does that to me?

Still, I didn’t do anything at once. I like him to know that he’s in for a punishment before I administer it. I like him to stew a while. I got him next day. He reached out to stroke me when we were both on the sofa. Got him with as neat a claw stroke as anyone might wish, if I say so myself. right across the back of his hand.

That’ll teach him. He seems pretty well untrainable but, hey, I’m not going to stop trying. After all, getting a little practice with tooth and claw? Does you good. Feels good too. And some day it might get through

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Eggs broken, but where's the omelette?

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

That’s a sentiment that’s repeatedly used, and for one purpose only: to justify damage to individuals to serve some more general and, supposedly, lofty goal. 

The present British government came to office determined to make omelettes, and it’s certainly broken a lot of eggs.

It’s aim was to wipe out the ‘structural’ budget deficit on public expenditure over its five year term. In effect, that would mean bringing public expenditure nearly into balance. Equally they were going to get public debt falling, because they regarded the high level of indebtedness as a disaster in itself as well as an indictment of the previous Labour government. Finally, with George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the lead, they set up an acid test of their performance, protection of Britain’s triple-A credit rating.

George Osborne:
great at breaking eggs, not so good on the omelette
To achieve those aims, they cracked a lot of eggs, principally among the working and non-working poor. Systems that made life possible on low incomes, such as tax credits or housing benefits, have been eliminated or scaled back. The disabled have been forced off benefits by being classified as fit for work, with large numbers of these fit people subsequently dying. 

They also introduced what’s come to be known as the Bedroom Tax. This measure means that people on housing benefit who have a spare room, lose a proportion of their benefit to pay for it. For many this has created a double-bind: unable to cover their rent and unable to find smaller accommodation into which they could move, they face eviction and being made homeless.

Charities dealing with homelessness report large increases in their workload.

At the same time, Britain has half a million people dependent on food banks, compared to 40,000 when the government was formed.

So much for the broken eggs.

What about the omelette? Growth is back but at an anaemic rate. The coveted triple-A credit rating has been lost. The deficit is dipping but is still far higher than it was under Labour before the crisis struck. Even the government admits that the target of eliminating the ‘structural’ element within a parliament has been irretrievably missed.

As for debt, far from starting to fall, it’s risen from around 70% at the end of the Labour government to nearly 100% under the present one. The Tories liked to attack the previous, Labour government for amassing an unacceptable level of debt and leaving it to the next generation to manage for us.

Far from wiping out that debt they’ve hugely increased it. And since they’ve taken youth unemployment to nearly 20%, the highest level for 17 years, they’ve made it significantly more difficult for the next generation to deal with it.

And what has George Osborne's reaction been to this track record?

He wants to take another £25 billion out of the benefit budget.

That’s going to plunge a lot more people into grinding poverty. It will break a lot more eggs. But will it produce a better omelette? Or will it just give the same results of the cuts we've seen so far, and make things a lot worse?

Would Labour make things better? Well, they did last time. They got many things wrong, but they spent a lot on improving the NHS and they took a million kids out of poverty. Under the present government, 300,000 have been driven back in, and the NHS is groaning at the seams.

Osborne has at least made the choice before us clear. On the one hand, Labour which made some limited progress in dealing with a series of fundamental problems. On the other hand, a Conservative Party which has failed to achieve its stated goals despite inflicting devastating cuts on the rest of us. And, with that enviable track record, they
re asking us to give them a chance to do a lot more of the same for another five years.

Does anyone really want to give them that opportunity? Or, putting it another way, if you’re contemplating voting Tory – are you sure you can really afford it?

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The tussle for the tank top and success of socks

Sales time. Got to get out there and buy some new clothes at least. Particularly as so many of my pullovers are falling apart.

I favour the type we call tank tops. You know, the sleeveless kind. I like them because they keep your trunk warm but leave your arms free. They naturally attract a lot of comments of the ‘do sit down, grandpa’ or ‘where are your slippers?’

Keeps you warm but leaves your arms free.
What's not to like?
When I first started wearing this kind of clothing, about thirty years ago, such remarks just seemed laughable so I ignored them. Now that I actually am a grandfather, comments suggesting that I might be one seems no more than a statement of the self evident, so I still ignore them. 

Anyway, I get the message. They’re not terribly fashionable. But fashion’s just what everybody else wears, isn’t it, so why should that bother me?

As it happens, I don’t like just any old tank top. I’m never very keen on having wool too close to the skin. So I really like the Marks and Spencer pullovers which are cotton rich.

By the way, they call tank tops ‘slipovers’, which sounds like something unpleasant that might happen on an icy pavement, but I suppose is designed to avoid association with the granddad image.

I love the term ‘cotton rich’. It feels like a description of the Southern United States before the Civil War, doesn’t it? Cotton rich, cash poor and not strong on human rights. 

Come to think of it, the Civil War may not have changed things that much.

So I go to Marks for my pullovers. Though in fact I don’t physically go there, at least not initially. I go on-line and see what remarkable offers they have. I did that ten days ago and ordered three tank tops in different colours. I actually went there today, to collect them.

While I was there, I thought, what about some ordinary pullovers? The ones with sleeves? I mean, when it gets really cold, sleeves are probably useful.

There was a colour that particularly caught my fancy, a kind of rich burgundy. Go for it, I thought. And then I saw that it was available as a ‘slipover’ too. Too good an opportunity. I headed for the rack. But just before I got there, some character nicked – yes, I see it as simple theft – the last remaining medium. The remaining ones were all too big.

It was horribly exasperating, but what made it worse is the guy who had the medium kept wandering around the area where I was standing. Whenever he got close, he would hold it up as though to examine it again critically. Each time he made me think he was about to put it back on the rack; each time he walked away again with the pullover on his arm and a smile of self-satisfaction on his lips.

Flouting, I call it. With a bit of gloating thrown in for good measure.

But I rose above all that. I just bought the version with sleeves. Who cares if my arms are less free? I like the colour anyway.

And then I got home and took a look at the three slipovers I’d ordered on-line. A pleasant blue. A refreshing green. And - a striking burgundy. I’d already got one. The guy who nicked the last one in the shop had done me a favour. Otherwise I’d have ended up with two of the same.

There it is. In the middle. The red one. 
It's burgundy, really. You just can't tell from the photo
You can imagine I’d love to track down the flouter from the shop. I can’t but it doesn’t matter. Mentally I’m gloating just as much as he did. And that’s satisfaction enough.

Come to think of it, he was quite big. Who knows. The pullover he took might not even fit him. 

One can but hope.

Postscript. On top of what I like to think of as the triumph of the tank tops, I’m delighted to have scored a notable sockcess. My wife has finished making me my own winter socks, as already supplied to the rest of the family (I resisted because of my aversion to wool, but these ones are irresistible).

Hand-knitted socks
Now I'm set up for 2014

Friday, 3 January 2014

Time for the best witches

Had a great e-mail a couple of days ago, from a friend who had a generous, warm-hearted and much-appreciated New Year message for us. 

But the subject line was ‘Best witches for 2014’.

Now this is obviously just another case of the wonderful, mysterious workings of predictive text or auto-correction.

It created a problem for the woman who texted her boyfriend, ‘Screw the gym! I'm getting pregnant tonight!' He replied that they ought to discuss the matter first. She had to explain that her actual intention was to get some Pringles for the evening.

Pringles: may make you fat if taken instead of the gym,
but they don't usually lead to childbirth
Equally, the text message ‘I’m going to stay home and eat a slave’ didn’t refer to a return to one of the darkest periods of our history, abducting Africans from their homes to be transported in bondage to the Americas, and compounding the horror with cannibalism, but merely to a desire to stay home and have a salad.

Nor was it best to reply to text question ‘Do I look like a cow?’ with the answer ‘Moo’, especially if what was meant was ‘Noooooo’.

Still, it struck me that some good witches wouldn’t go at all amiss in 2014. After all, we’ve had plenty of bad ones in the past. Last year, Maggie Thatcher passed away and a humorous if slightly malicious group of her opponents set out to organise sufficient downloads of the song ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ from The Wizard of Oz, to make it to number one in the charts. And came damn close...

Not all the bad witches have been female. One thinks of Tony Blair, looking us all in they eye and telling us he was a fundamentally straight sort of guy, and then contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on the basis of false (if not falsified) intelligence. Or of Rupert Murdoch, casting his spells and weaving his webs of deceit, through control of more and more of the communications media.

So some of the best witches, or even just some better ones, would be most welcome in 2014. Perhaps Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg would be a good move. They’re a bit infuriating, wandering around sticking their noses into anything they choose without asking whether it’s even their business, but they’re always well-intentioned and the results are usually pretty good.

Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg
Not always welcome but they generally do some
Our governments are just as infuriating when it comes to interfering in things where they’re not needed – such as gay relationships or abortion rights – and their intentions wouldn’t usually stand much scrutiny, while the results are generally mediocre to lousy.

Best witches for 2014? Yes, I’d be in favour. So let me pass on my friend’s best wishes, and hope you all enjoy the very best of witches in the the coming year.