Friday, 28 February 2014

Arabs and Jews: things were better under the Nazis

It’s always a pleasure when a film reminds one of when things were better than they are today. Even if that just leaves one wishing they could be as good again.

It’s odd when the setting for such a film is the Nazi occupation of Paris. But that’s what Les Hommes Libres, available in English as Free Men, successfully does.

A Nazi officer in the Paris Mosque, from Free Men
It’s set amongst the North African community in Paris during the Second World War. There had been significant immigration from Algeria and other parts of the Maghreb to France even before the war, though the really big wave came later. Many went home when the Germans invaded, but a large number stayed on, scratching a living as best they could under difficult conditions.

That led to a development that many might find extraordinary, given the state of tensions in the world today. The Muslim community of Paris, which wasn’t persecuted by the Nazis, did what it could to protect as many Jews as it could. It focused on Sephardi Jews, from North Africa themselves, because they spoke Arabic. The main mosque in Paris issued as many as possible of them with certificates attesting to their being Muslim: with similar features and the same language they could pass as part of community.

How many people were saved? Estimates vary between 500 and 1600. A drop, certainly, in the ocean of suffering that was the Holocaust. But for the 500 or 1600, it was literally the difference between life and death.

In protecting Jews, the North Africans of Paris reflected the attitudes of their compatriots and coreligionists back home. In countries under Vichy French or German occupation, Muslims refused in their vast majority to collaborate in persecuting Jews. In Algeria, when the (French) authorities offered expropriated Jewish homes up for new owners, some of the (French) white settlers leaped at the opportunity; Mosques denounced the practice and few Muslims took advantage of the offer.

That was a continuation of a centuries long tradition. When a more extreme Muslim ruling group from Morocco took control of Moorish Spain, many Jews left to live elsewhere in North Africa; when the equally extreme Christians of the “reconquest” took back control of the whole of Spain, others followed.

In the Arab, Muslim world Jews found refuge and forged new careers. Moses Mamonides, of whom Jews still say “from Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses”, lived and flourished in Cairo, where he was a court physician and wrote major works, some in Arabic (strictly Judaeo-Arabic, Arabic written in Hebrew script).

For centuries, Jews and Arabs worked and lived well together across North Africa and the Middle East. Those good relations, as Free Men shows, extended to Paris during the war.

Heartwarming, isn’t it? But a bit of shame that relations between Jews and Muslims today are so much worse than they were under Nazi occupation. With, sadly, no likelihood of their returning to those idyllic conditions any time soon. 

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The sewers spread more smears

If you want to smear a politician, there are many accusations you can make: espionage, perhaps, or corruption; if you want to get domestic, it could be adultery or using prostitutes; but, boy, you really get your shaft home if you accuse a leading figure of paedophilia.

So that’s what the Daily Mail, which passes as a newspaper in Britain, has decided to do to Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party. Caught up with her in the smear is her husband, Jack Dromey, a Labour MP since 2010 and a leading trades unionist before then. Because it’s best to do these things in threes, the Mail has also got its knife into Patricia Hewitt, a former Labour Health Secretary.

Harriet Harman: the Daily Mail's latest target
Now you can make a smear up wholesale, and the Mail has done just that in the past. But it’s best if you can give it some slight basis in fact, on the no smoke without fire principle. All three these people worked for the National Council for Civil Liberties, now called Liberty, at different times in the seventies and early eighties. In the 1970s, the NCCL accepted an affiliation from a body called the Paedophile Information Exchange. 

It never should have taken that affiliation. Shami Chakrabarti, who now heads Liberty, apologised for this grave mistake only last year, saying that “it is a source of continuing disgust and horror that even the NCCL had to expel paedophiles from its ranks in 1983 after infiltration at some point in the 70s.”

In those days, the NCCL had 1000 affiliates, and to my knowledge just one rotten apple. On almost all questions, they and its successor pop up regularly on the right side of questions: defending individuals from injustice, police violence or limitations of freedoms. It made a mistake and a serious one over the PIE, but I can understand people like the Mail’s victims choosing to stay with the organisation despite it.

In any case, the Mail is attacking individuals and not an organisation. The nub of their charges is that Harman herself was soft on paedophilia. She, they claim, worked to get the age of consent reduced to 10 and to soften regulations against taking photographs of children.

The reality, as she made clear, is that she never advocated reducing the age of consent to 10. She asked for the age of consent for homosexuals to be made the same as for heterosexuals. As for photographs of children, she was endeavouring to ensure that innocent photos of children taken by parents (perhaps in a bath – and I know I have some glorious ones of the aftermath of my boys’ unilateral decision to repaint their room) or pictures used for sex education, should not be criminalised.

The reality is that Harriet Harman’s only offence is that she’s taken a political stance that doesn’t appeal to the Mail.

And what of the Mail itself?

Well, it has quite a colourful track record. For instance, Britain has been struggling with a series of measles epidemics over the last few years, because a since struck off doctor called Andrew Wakefield published now discredite research suggesting that the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine was dangerous. The ensuing panic led to major drop in vaccination rates and the subsequent epidemics.

Who gave his results the publicity they needed? Why, the Daily Mail. And they’re publishing articles still: Melanie Phillips, the star journalist on this story, is still writing material giving credence to Wakefield’s continued rants.

But that’s only the most recent of the Mail’s journalistic triumphs. They reached the high point of their existence came in the 1930s, when they supported Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. And as supporters of his, they naturally also approved of his good friend, Adolf Hitler.

Even earlier, in 1924 the first Labour government in Britain was facing a general election it was likely to lose. Just seven years after the Russian revolution, Grigory Zinoviev was still a leading member of the Soviet Communist Party. Just four days before the election, the Daily Mail published a letter from him to the British Communist Party suggesting how advantageous a Labour victory would be.

Did the letter lose the election for the Labour Party? Possibly not. But the Liberal vote collapsed and the Tory vote rose: the general interpretation is that anti-Socialist Liberals switched in droves to the Conservatives.

And the letter? It was a forgery.

Every country needs its sewers and its cesspits: they serve a vital role. It’s just a pity when they masquerade as newspapers. And poison the minds of anyone they can reach.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

A tribute to the strength of the slaves who populated the US. And the white settlers too. They had much to overcome

Black friends, and not just black ones, have often pointed out to me the sheer courage and strength that must have animated the unfortunates who made the dire crossing of the Atlantic from Africa, to enter slavery in North America. 

It must indeed have taken great resolve and reserves of will to avoid being crushed and live through both the journey and slavery itself. Black Americans – or African Americans if you prefer the terms, and I don’t, because they are wholly American – can at least pride themselves on being descended from tough stock.

Slaves on the 'Middle Passage'. It took strength to survive
It strikes me, however, that white Americans were also fortunate to survive the process of colonisation. 

It has often surprised me – though perhaps it shouldn’t – that quite a few Americans labour under the illusion that the first English-speaking settlement in their land was in Massachusetts: the Pilgrim Fathers from the Mayflower expedition. It’s comforting to think that these were the first, as they’re presented as victims of persecution escaping to a land where they could be free. 

In passing, it needs to be said that this does ignore the awkward truth that the freedom they sought also involved denying any to those who were of a different faith from theirs. The Salem witch trials were perhaps the most celebrated example of the intolerance of the Massachusetts Puritans, but it was far from the only one.

In any case, they were not the first settlers. These were in what would be turned by their descendants into the slave-owning, tobacco-growing colony of Virginia. Two attempts at colonising Roanoke island failed in the 1580s. Then in 1607, settlers were sent to what became Jamestown.

Now here come the breathtaking stats: two years later, by 1609, 1000 colonists were down to just sixty.

No slaver could possibly have stayed in business with that level of losses. These guys just couldn’t make a go of things. In fact, the remaining sixty were heading down the river, ready to make a dash back to England, when they were met by a new fleet coming upstream which forced them to return to the hellhole they were escaping.

What had been the problem? Well, they certainly had their share of attacks from the local Algonquin ‘Indians’. The latter, perhaps not entirely unfairly in the light of subsequent developments, were distrustful of these new arrivals who were encroaching on their ancestral lands. There must have been problems with disease too, no doubt. But the biggest difficulty of all was that the colonists just couldn’t feed themselves.

Now, hold on and think about that. By the seventeenth century, ‘Indians’ had been living on those lands for perhaps 10,000 or 12,000 years. For some centuries, they’d developed an agricultural way of life, growing such crops as maize, which they supplemented with meat from hunting in the forests that covered most of the landscape.

They weren’t dying of hunger.

In fact, just as happened in the later Massachusetts colony, the local people made the big mistake of taking pity on the settlers and showed them how to grow food to stave off starvation. A gesture of kindness for which they were thanked by a war of extermination which started in the 1620s (but, of course, a justified war: those vicious savages had attacked some English settlements which they viewed as threatening more of their lands).

Jamestown. Settlers faced many obstacles, not least their own ineptitude
In my view, it’s time to salute those early colonists. They had much to overcome. Hostility from the local population. New diseases. But above all their sheer incompetence at carving out a living for themselves from highly fertile land.

Not sure why I can’t feel quite the same degree of admiration for them as for the slaves who survived the ordeals they faced...

Friday, 21 February 2014

Tony Blair: place in history, place in soap opera

Few Prime Ministers can have been as preoccupied with their place in history as Tony Blair. 

Sadly, he’s rather torn that one. He still thinks that history will exonerate him, but then I suppose we all need our comforting illusions just to get through life. My view? His name will be as indissolubly linked to catastrophe in Iraq as Anthony Eden’s is with debacle in Suez.

Still, if an honourable place in history is rather beyond him these days, at least he can aspire to a significant supporting role in soap opera.

Let’s set the scene. For over a decade and a half, Blair’s been a close friend of Rupert Murdoch, the Berlusconi of the English-speaking world. People in Murdoch’s circle like to put it about that he more or less put Blair into office, and the two of them pretty well ran Britain together for the best part of a decade. Sadly, rather a lot of us think that picture wasn’t terribly far from the truth.

Even after he left office, Tony remained close to Rupe. Tony even became godfather to Grace, one of Murdoch’s daughters by his then wife, Wendi Deng. The baptism took place in the river Jordan, as though Murdoch (or possibly Blair) was a kind of latter-day John the Baptist and Grace, or possibly her sister Chloe, baptised at the same time, was the Messiah returned in female form.

Good taste of the kind we’re well used to from Murdoch
’s papers.

Within his media empire, Murdoch was in the meanwhile promoting the career of one of his finest editors, Rebekah Brooks, who eventually became Chief Executive of his News International corporation.

When David Cameron became Prime Minister, he decided to appoint a former BBC journalist, Guto Harri, as his Communications Chief at Downing Street. When Brooks learned that this was about to happen, she rang Cameron and told him that he should do no such thing, but appoint Andy Coulson instead. Coulson had been her successor as editor of the News of the World.

Cameron in those days thought that ‘lol’ meant ‘lots of love’ and used to text Brooks with ‘lol’ as his sign off. All that love – he could hardly deny her wish to see Coulson in the Downing Street role, and he was duly appointed.

Sadly, the News of the World, the paper that loved to break scandals about other people was about to face its own: the accusation that it had been hacking the phones of celebrities and victims of crime to feed its ravenous craving for sensational, or salacious, news. The paper eventually closed and both Brooks and Coulson were arrested, Coulson having to resign from the post Brooks had arranged for him to be given.

And Blair? Well, just before Brooks was arrested he apparently gave her advice to stand firm and tough things out. So she had the incumbent Prime Minister and an illustrious former one as close and personal friends. She must have taken comfort from such protection.

Today, though, she’s had to take the stand in her own trial, and what emerged? That she had a ‘car crash’ of a private life, as her marriage to actor Ross Kemp fell apart. Among other things, this involved ‘periods of intimacy’ with the very Andy Coulson she’d done so much to promote. Not an affair, you understand – just intimacy. 

Rebekah and Andy
Good friends, good colleagues and periods of intimacy
See what I mean about soap opera? The femme fatale with two powerful men at her beck and call, and working for a third, arguably more powerful than either of the others. She’s in a failing marriage with a celebrity. She seeks consolation with a subordinate whose success she promotes. It’s the first season or two of – what shall we call it? Perhaps We Make the News.

But, I hear you cry, what about Blair in all this? Surely he has only a walk-on part, not a major supporting role as you claim.

Not so. For as in all successful soap operas, season 2 has seen new plot lines added. Now it seems that Murdoch and Blair are themselves involved in what looks, on the surface, like another love triangle. It’s around that Wendi Deng, mother of Tony’s goddaughter Grace.

Bright and feisty, she intervened in defence of her husband when he was attacked with a cream pie within the hallowed precincts of the Palace of Westminster. She was there even before the security guards whose job it was to ensure – well security. Tough lady.

It seems she has a softer side too.

‘Oh shit, oh shit, whatever why Im so missing Tony … he has such a good, body and really, really good legs …’ she wrote on one occasion, and its hard to deny the sentiment even if one might question the English. 

Wendi, Rupe and Tony. The love triangle for season 3?
Did they have an affair, or even ‘periods of intimacy’? Who knows. It seems that Murdoch thinks so, and to justify his divorce, latched onto the times Blair and Deng spent alone together in his house – his house, just imagine – while Rupe was away. It seems Tony can’t get Rupe to take his calls any more and has given up trying.

Well, there’s plenty of smoke around, and who knows what fire is smouldering away underneath it? Sounds like a great theme to explore in season 3 of We Make The News.

You might say it’s a bit grubby, but then so was the whole Iraq affair. And at least the soap opera’s unlikely to leave some hundreds of thousands of civilian dead in a devastated nation.

Unlike the history.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Denounced by Churchmen, is the latest assault on the poor just another case of the banality of evil?

Soon to be a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, has denounced the British government’s policy towards benefits as a ‘disgrace’. He warned that they will leave the poorest and most vulnerable in society facing ‘hunger and destitution.’

Vincent Nichols outside the Catholic Cathedral in Westminster 
Like a great many people, I am deeply distrustful of organised religion. Its leaders, it seems to me, are often on precisely the wrong side of debates, even on the moral questions which should be their principal domain of expertise.

My suspicion is all the deeper because they tend to reason in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, categories that I distrust. After all, no one thinks what they’re doing is evil, however monstrous the act may be: they’re generally convinced that the intention behind the act makes it good. 

So, for instance, no one likes being threatened by foreigners with weapons, as the West’s response to terrorism shows. And yet if Britain manages to avoid being sucked into another adventure in the next few months or so, we may be about to enter the first full year we have enjoyed without military action since the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In all that time, Britain has fought to defend its own borders only once, in 1940.

How many people, in how many countries, must have felt that Britain’s behaviour was evil? And yet in this country, we’re convinced that British soldiers are heroes and their behaviour exemplary.

However, my uncertainty about the concept of ‘evil’ was shaken when I came across the work of Hannah Arendt. She is one of my favourite thinkers of the twentieth century. I’ve been dipping into her work again since yesterday evening, when I watched the excellent film Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta with Barbara Sukowa in the title role.

Hannah Arendt: acute insight into the nature of evil
Arendt was the writer who coined the expression ‘banality of evil’, from watching the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann had been in the SS during the Second World War, and his task had been organising the transports to carry Jews to ghettos, to concentration camps and ultimately to extermination camps.

What appalled Arendt, herself a Jew, was the staggering mediocrity of the man.

“The deeds were monstrous, but the doer ... was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.”

He was a minor cog in a massive bureaucracy, merely doing a difficult job as competently as he could. He didn’t think what he was doing was evil. In fact, Arendt realised, he didn’t think at all.

“... the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.”

That’s a particularly powerful statement if you share Arendt’s world view. For her, man is essentially a thinking being. Stop thinking and you deny your very personhood. Deny yours and how can you recognise anyone else’s?

But Arendt’s key thought comes as a question:

“Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results, could this activity be of such a nature that it ‘conditions’ men against evildoing?”

An acute insight into the true nature of evil. And if there’s any characteristic that particularly strikes me in the behaviour of the present British government, it’s precisely thoughtlessness. Apparently unable to imagine the suffering they’re inflicting on others, they impose it with the same indifference to the people affected as Eichmann showed.

So perhaps it’s not inappropriate that a Prince of the Church has denounced the government’s attitude. Good and evil are concepts that he works with daily. And what he has denounced seems precisely to fit the Arendt concept of evil in its harrowing banality.

In addition, we read today that a group of charities have found that there is a ‘culture of fear’ in the benefits world these days.

Hunger. Destitution. Fear. Yep, that sounds like the handiwork of evil. The banality and mediocrity of men like David Cameron, George Osborne or Ian Duncan Smith (the benefits minister) shouldn’t delude us into thinking it’s anything else.

After all, Eichmann was just as banal and mediocre.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Marks and Spencer, ever the early bird

I’m intensely grateful to Marks and Spencers, worthiest of British retail outlets, for having printed an uplifting sentiment on the soles of my slippers.

Inspirational message on M&S slipper soles
However, I have to say that the gesture does raise a few awkward questions.

First of all, just who do they expect to be reading my soles?

I mean, I generally walk on them. Perhaps M&S hope I’ll put them up on the coffee table so someone sitting opposite me can read the message. It’s true that I do tend to prop my feet on the table when I can but, hey, I do usually take my slippers off first. What do they think? That I’m a slob all the time?

Maybe M&S are just looking after my spiritual wellbeing. After all, slippers bring comfort to the feet, so perhaps the inspirational words are there so M&S can be seen to be taking care of body and sole together.

But, secondly, the words themselves. The early bird catches the worm? I’ve never got that saying. I mean, someone really thinks the prospect of catching a worm is going to get me out bed early? Dream on. A
s I intend to.

No, the only creature that would get up betimes to catch a worm would be the bird, just like it says in the proverb itself.

Now here’s the problem. I understand that this is an important principle for birds to master (though it’s not quite so salutary, let me point out in passing, for the poor old worms).

And here’s the rub: when did you last see a bird wearing slippers?

Saturday, 15 February 2014

In England's crappiest town, we can do culture too. Multi-culture even.

Luton, we were told this afternoon, has been voted the crappiest town in the UK. 

Despite that, it seems that people are happy to live here, the air quality is great and – the ultimate accolade – it apparently has the fastest broadband connections in the country.

What’s more, it does culcher. Multi-culcher, actually. We picked up this intriguing information at a multi-cultural tea party this afternoon (no, no, not the Tea Party: that’s the US organisation which is decidedly mono-cultural, if not culture-free, except in the sense of a culture as the place to grow toxic microbes).

It was multi-cultural in so many ways. The majority group there was Muslim, if appearances could be counted on, but it took place in a Methodist church hall, with members of the congregations of the local Baptist and Church of England congregations present too (plus a scattering of other faiths, and ourselves: we marked ‘none’ down in that column of the attendance list, atheism or even free-thinking not being exactly a faith, after all).

There were at least three main ethnic groups represented. ‘British Asian’ was the biggest, and there were a few ‘Afro-Caribbeans’, as well as a reasonable representation of what we’ve come to know affectionately as ‘White British’. The arrival of our party of four increased its numbers by about 25%, which was ironic, since two of our White British group were French, a third was half Dutch and the fourth – myself – held French nationality as well as British, and was a native of Rome.

White British was far from the biggest group, but that was appropriate: Luton, along with Leicester and London, is one of the British centres where that ethnic group, while being the biggest, is no longer in the majority.

There were getting on for 100 people present, which is a bit weak in a population of 200,000. But still, if you’re going to build bridges between cultures, you have to start somewhere, and a few dozen is a lot better than none.

And the bridges were there. On the tables, there were samosas and pakoras alongside the scones (with clotted cream and jam: all done right, in the good British way) and the Battenberg cake.

The Afro-Caribbean element was more than adequately represented by two young women, full of enthusiasm, who were there with Djembe drums from West Africa, as well as other instruments from India and the Middle East, and gave the children present a dynamic and lively lesson in using them.

Djembe players in multi-cultural Luton
So a good time was had by all. The event may prove the seed for something bigger, with various people volunteering to launch further activities. Danielle, for instance, is going to set up a knitting group to produce multi-cultural socks, a concept which boggles my mind. I can’t wait to see what one of those looks like. 

We all filled in the attendance register faithfully. It did occur to me as I did it, ‘wouldn’t it be nice for the xenophobes in UKIP to have a list like that? They’d know straight away where to send their new Thought Police, if they ever got to power?’ An index of all those pinkos from the Churches and their fellow-travellers. The weidos who think we should get on with people from other cultures rather than kick them out to some other, much poorer part of the world. A real gift to them.

That just made me have another pakora. I clearly need to build up my strength to help make sure that UKIP in power is one of those nightmares that never happens.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Misty's Diary: Claws are a cat's best friends

Another in the irregular series of extracts from the diary of Misty, my cat.

February 2014

Aren’t claws hell? I don’t know how others cope, but I just can’t deal with mine.

The Chief domestic used to like to cut them. But I found using the claws judiciously soon taught her that wasn’t a smart move. Doesn’t happen any more.

I mean, I need to keep them sensibly long. Perhaps I should say effectively long. 

Most interlopers in my garden get the message when I give them a bit of the voice, and they get the message in spades if the poor old dog Janka joins me – you should see them race for the fence without bothering to find out what I don’t intend to tell them: she’s not the sharpest tooth in the jaw, and a complete softie, frightened of her own shadow, for all that crazy yapping.

The ball of fluff: just an old softie really
I don't mind letting her share her blanket with me
But if the voice doesn’t work, and the the ball of barking wool’s not around, it’s nice to know I can count on twenty finely sharpened and deep-reaching weapons to back up my teeth.

On the other hand, and I know this is a weakness, I’m fond of a blanket. 

With the chief domestic
Lot of comfort in a blanket, to be honest
Trouble is, if the claws are the right length for a scrap, they’re the right length to get caught in cloth. Then, dammit, I can’t get them out any more. 

Does that make me feel dumb! 

All I can do is complain. Loudly. And hope one of the domestics comes over to help me out. Sometimes it’s the doggy-friend. Not that she’s actually all that useful, it’s just that a good caterwaul gets her going, and she’s over like a shot. Don’t know what it is, but if I see something smelling canine and barking at the top of her voice coming straight at me, somehow the claws sort themselves out and withdraw without any help. Must be some deep instinct in me, I suppose.

The number 2 domestic says it’s ‘atavistic’.

No idea what that means but, hey, I don’t expect he knows either. He likes to use complicated words. As far as I
m concerned, as long as he understands ‘dry food’, ‘wet food’, ‘water’ and ‘no, not in a bowl you moron, dripping from the bath tap’, that’s more than enough vocabulary. But he likes to use obscure terms because he thinks they make him clever. So that’s why we get ‘atavistic’.

In fact, he’s always trying to be clever. When I got my claws stuck in his duvet the other day, what did he do? Did he get up and help? Did he heck. He laughed. And made some sarcastic comment. Like ‘teach him to let his claws grow so long.’ 

He even said ‘Just let Janka loose on him. He’ll soon withdraw them. It’ll be stronger than him, the instinct to get away. Just leave him to his own devices.’

I didn’t say anything just then. I just bided my time. Because I know him. He likes what he calls ‘playing’. It means waving his hand vaguely in my direction, in the hope I’ll attack it. Gently, of course, with velveted paws.

Dream on.

I taught him. Velvet my paws? After he’s laughed at me? Not a chance. I got him good and proper. And showed him how claws the right length combine just perfectly with, if I say so myself, some neatly sharpened teeth.

Ha, you want to play do you?
You thought I'd forgotten about you laughing at me?
He who laughs last lasts longest, they say. And they’re right. And boy, is it sweet.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Floods, of water and then of blame

An amusing piece has been circulating on the internet for some days, in connection with the flooding increasingly affecting England, and the government’s failure to respond to it.

Not entirely fair but largely true indictment of
David Cameron's inept reaction to the floods
It is, I have to admit, unfair. The ‘meeting named after a snake’ is COBRA, the Cabinet Office Briefing Room used for summits on emergencies, so a meeting there means the government is at last taking things seriously. It’s not entirely fair to make it sound like inaction.

On the other hand, what call is there for fairness towards a government that has made injustice its primary mode of behaviour? It has, for instance, refused benefits to people who were plunged into misery or in some cases died as a result, while tossing tax reductions to the wealthiest. Fair? It knows nothing of it.

The last entry in the list, 'Cameron cabinet blame each other', refers to what’s been happening most recently. And that shows the government in its most revealing, if not particularly inspiring, colours.

Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, has had to go into hospital for surgery on a detached retina. So he handed responsibility for government reaction to the flooding, to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles. In a government not particularly noted for its charm, Pickles still stands out for his charmlessness.

Eric Pickles. Charm? Not perhaps the first term that springs to mind
At the weekend, he lambasted the people in the Environment Agency for giving poor advice to government: they had opposed dredging rivers as a way of avoiding floods. They were ‘experts’, he told us, but he made ‘expert’ sound a lot worse than ‘leper’.

Now, I don’t know much about flood defences, but if the experts – and I believe in expertise, unlike Mr Pickles – say that dredging’s not the answer, I’m inclined to accept their view. The people affected by the flooding feel they know better, and I sympathise with them: with their homes under water, I’m sure they consider that any solution would have been preferable, whatever the long term consequences.

Sadly, government ministers, and first and foremost Pickles, have also decided they know better than environmental experts. They’ve got no basis for that belief, and for nearly four years in office they’ve taken no independent initiative revealing any particular wisdom in this field, but they claim special insight these days.

But stop! Apparently not all of them make this claim. Paterson, from his hospital bed, was so incensed by the rantings of Pickles that he wrote to ask the Prime Minister to rein him in. So yesterday Pickles told the House of Commons that he had unbounded admiration for the staff on the ground of the Environment Agency. 

To be fair, what he said was that no one exceeds him in admiration for those staff, which means that he has less than anyone else. But I suppose we ought to base ourselves on what he really meant, and not hold him to account for his inability to express himself adequately in English.

In any case, his statement was code. He pointedly extended no praise for the Chairman of the Agency, Chris Smith, which is as neat a way as one could imagine of damning Smith without actually naming him. 

Lord Smith is a former Labour Minister.

Now that’s the one thing that has united Conservative Ministers – Labour. David Cameron was absolutely clear that the flooding was all down to the Labour government’s inaction. Labour’s been out of office for nearly four years. You’d think that the government might have had time to put some things right over that period.

Instead what it’s done is cut the Environment Agency’s budget, and put in place tough cost-benefit criteria for any new flood defence project. If a project can’t show benefits worth eight times as much as the cost of the investment, it can’t go ahead. So if you live in an area where the benefits of flood protection are only worth seven times the cost, tough. You won’t get the protection. If there are floods – swim for it.

Given that’s the position, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the government is keen to shift the blame to someone else.

I’m glad to say Chris Smith’s refusing to shoulder it. He’s made it clear that his agency has done all it can within the resources it has been given. Nor is the Labour Party taking it lying down: they’re rightly hitting back at the government’s incompetence, pointing in particular at the months when it did nothing, and now the unedifying spectacle they present, of a bunch of people desperate to shift the blame and falling out amongst themselves.

All very sad. All very squalid. All very Conservative Party.

The Greeks said that those who the Gods wished to destroy, they first made mad. Well, the madness seems to be taking hold. Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that the destruction of this government comes close behind.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

With sufficient faith and a good enough cause, you can ride the ghost train

Italo Calvino describes a scene in which Charlemagne, Emperor of the Franks, is reviewing his knights, one by one. Each raises his visor when the King stops in front of him, then gives his name and a few details of his command or his past victories.

Until Charlemagne draws up in front of one knight whose armour is immaculate, without a scratch on it, nor a trace of dirt. But the visor remains shut despite the King’s greeting.

‘You, Paladin!’ insists Charlemagne, ‘why do you not show your face to your king?’

Clear and strong the voice emerges from inside the helmet. ‘Because I don’t exist, sire.’

‘Now there’s a thing!’ exclaims the Emperor. ‘Now we even have a knight in our ranks who doesn’t exist! And how do you serve if you’re not there?’

‘By the force of willpower and by faith in our holy cause!’

Italo Calvino who wrote The Nonexistent Knight
A genial and humorous approach to the deepest aspects of life
Now my cause, unlike the one for which Charlemagne led his men in The Nonexistent Knight may not have been holy: with my wife, I was joining my brother and my sister-out-law for a week’s skiing in the French Alps.

Not, not really all that sacred, I can hear you exclaiming.

Maybe not. But it was the first time my brother and I had been on holiday together for four decades. I mean, we
’d visited each other and all that, but we hadn’t travelled together to some other place since the early seventies. Even if it falls short of holiness, that surely makes our endeavour a good cause at least. One that deserves a little faith.

As our two parties converged on our destination, it became clear that their train would be stopping at Chambéry where we were waiting for a connection. So why not take the same train for the last leg?

It seemed a good idea until an official at Chambéry station told us there was no such train. I rang my brother again.

‘We’re on it,’ he assured me. ‘It stops at Chambéry at 15:03.’

We tried another official. Same answer. In fact, this one took me over to look at the printed timetable. He was right, there was no train to our destination at 15:03 or indeed at any time before the one we were waiting for, an hour and a half away.

‘Maybe you can only get on the train if you have a reservation,’ Danielle suggested.

So we went into the ticket office to try and buy reservations.

‘My computer doesn’t even show the train,’ the friendly woman behind the counter told us.

It was time for an act of faith.

We went and stood on the platform where we guessed the train would have pulled in if it had existed. And, a little late but nonetheless bearing all the tangible signs of reality, in time a train turned up. A high-speed train, the famous French TGV, no less. Carriage doors opened and at one of them appeared my brother, with a welcoming grin and wave to invite us aboard. He introduced us to a ticket collector as though she were an old friend.

It seems so solid, a TGV in the snow by night
And yet it may be a ghost train
‘This is my brother and sister-in-law, the ones I told you about. They can join the train, can’t they?’

‘Only if they have the willpower and the faith to make it exist against the denials of all around them. If they have will of great strength and a cause sufficiently good, they can defy natural laws and railway timetables. Then they may certainly join us.’

Actually, I think I made that last bit up. But what’s certain is that we travelled the last stage of our journey with my brother and sister-out-law. And as a result we arrived a good hour earlier than expected.

Quite sufficient justification to raise a glass to the spirit of Italo Calvino that evening.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Molière, the Masters of Sex and the tragedy that is life itself

When Dorothy Parker was writing screenplays for Sam Goldwyn, he became upset at her refusal to write anything with a happy ending – the kind that produced films which made money.

‘I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn,’ Parker told him, ‘but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.’

It was when I saw a fine film about the life of the French playwright Molière that I realised all you had to do to write a tragedy: give the story of an entire life.

Molière’s life, I have to say, is a particularly egregious example: he more or less ran away from home to join a troupe of travelling actors, whose leading lady, Madeleine Béjart, became co-director of the company with him and also his mistress. There came a point when Madeleine absented herself for some time and returned with a baby girl, Armande, whom she introduced as her sister. Molière and she brought Armande up and, once she was an adult, Molière married her. To this day, no one knows for sure whether he married his own daughter, though it’s possible that she was Madeleine’s illegitimate daughter by another lover.

Molière’s relationship with Madeleine didn’t end in spite his marriage, which was just as well: Armande gave him a terrible time, falling for any minor sprig of the nobility who tipped his hat at her. Madeleine was Molière’s comforter through bad times, which made her death a particularly harsh blow in a life which had a great many painful events.

Molière: great comedies
but his life was no laughing matter
A year to the day after Madeleine’s death, Molière appeared in the leading role of his own play, the Imaginary Invalid. The audience was astounded by the quality of his performance: you could have believed he was dying on stage. Members of the company watching from the wings, however, weren’t fooled: they knew he was dying. Immediately after the final curtain call, they whipped him off the stage and back home, but it was too late to save him. 

Dying on the anniversary of the loss of his lifelong partner, with whose daughter he’d had a joyless marriage. What more does one need for tragedy?

These thoughts came back to me recently when I finished listening to Masters of Sex, Thomas Maier's biography of William Masters and Virginia Johnson. They were the people who carried out the first extensive and scientific study of human sexual behaviour, debunking a whole range of thoroughly damaging myths about sexuality that had been entertained for countless generations before them.

Masters and Johnson eventually married, but twenty years later Masters divorced her – because he had met again the woman whom he had hoped to marry while he was still a medical student half a century earlier. The story he told was that he had personally flown his private plane several hours to find her the flowers she most liked, while she was in hospital. When he got back, however, visiting hours were over and he had to leave them with a nurse – who apparently never delivered them.

By the time he returned to the hospital the following day, she had already been discharged and, convinced of his indifference – after all, as far as she knew, he hadn’t bothered to visit her while she was ill – she soon married someone else.

At the end of his life, as Parkinson’s was taking hold of him, he tried to rekindle his young man’s dream. At that stage, he and Johnson were coming to terms with the fact that the clinic they’d founded, while highly successful scientifically and medically, was never going to be a business and that they were going, both of them, to live their final years in comfort but not in wealth.

Johnson therefore found herself alone as she entered old age, while Masters was in the grip of a debilitating disease which ultimately killed him. Johnson inherited all the papers of the clinic when it closed but finding it burdensome to keep paying $300 a month to store them, she eventually destroyed hundreds of casenotes of sexual observation and treatment and thousands of hours of tapes.

Masters and Johnson: hit the peaks but then sank
Both died in reduced, saddened circumstances, after achieving a great deal but having known the disappointment of not leaving the legacy they’d hoped for. ‘Billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending,’ as Dorothy Parker pointed out. They were just two more. As Molière was another.

All it takes to make a tragedy: a life seen through to its end...

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Skiing or the joy of telling every nerve in your body that it's got it wrong

Extraordinary sport, skiing. 

Most sports are based on something real: running is about the quickest way of getting from one place to another on land without a vehicle; swimming is about getting across water; even something like synchronised swimming is about a real skill, the ability to hear music when your ears are wet, and keep a smile fixed on your face however ludicrous whatever you’re doing may be.

But skiing? Unless one imagines a world where any destination is downhill of the departure point, with snow the whole way, it really doesn’t correspond to anything that could possibly be described as useful.

Somehow though it’s extraordinarily fun. And I say that as someone who spent most of Sunday coming off run after run.

It’s an ugly feeling. You’re skiing along. There’s ground under your feet. And suddenly there isn’t.

It’s astonishingly worrying when you make that observation.

It doesn’t matter that the fall is only a metre or so, because retrieving your skis and your sticks in deep snow is a pain in the backside, though that’s as nothing compared to the struggle back up the slope onto the run again. And why did this keep happening to me? Because I lack two key qualities: an ability to see the edge of a run when I’m mist mixed with falling snow, and the sense to realise that these would be good conditions to stop skiing.

Still, we’ve had two great days since then. I could see where I was going, and I didn’t ski off any runs. And therefore relished the true pleasure of skiing.

Which is the spice that comes from having to behave counter-intuitively. You get nowhere with skiing until you can fully take on board two key ideas that are directly opposed to everything you’ve learned before.

The first is that though you may be flying downhill, you need to lean forward – in the direction you’re travelling. Sorry, hurtling. Every jangling nerve in your body is saying ‘lean backwards, to stop this horrible thing that’s happening to you.’ If you do, however, you take your weight off the front of the skis. That, no doubt to their annoyance, is the only thing holding them back, so they cry ‘wow! we can really let rip now’, and they tear off down the hill even faster. Until, inevitably, you fall down in an ignominious heap of yourself, your sticks, your skis, your hat, your glasses and a lot of snow.

The other odd notion is that travelling fast isn’t the difficult bit. Unlike running or swimming, where speed really is what takes the effort, in skiing nothing could be easier. Point your skis straight downhill and you’ll be travelling fast in no time. So fast that you’ll reach the end of the run, or at any rate the first curve, a lot more quickly than you were expecting.

That’s the rub. Because the aim isn’t to get to the end of the run or the next curve as quickly as possible, it’s to get there as quickly as possible but in a way compatible with actually surviving the experience.

The difficult thing in skiing isn’t going fast. It’s going slow. And stopping when you need to.

And that’s what makes it fun. Lovely surroundings of course, beautiful views. The thrill of speed. But above all the paradox of behaving against what your body’s telling you to do, and enjoying the speed while keeping it under rigid control.

It can be fun when you stop too. And relax in the sun
Can’t wait to get out there again tomorrow.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Grenoble thoughts: why on earth does Britain want to leave the EU?

So yesterday David Cameron announced that, if we do him the great honour of re-electing him in 2015, there would be a referendum in 2017 on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. 

It seems there’s a growing consensus that the British electorate, guided by such fonts of enlightenment as UKIP and the Daily Mail, needs to be allowed to vote to leave the Union.

UKIP, for those blissful enough never to have heard of the United Kingdom Independence Party, recently had to expel some character who’d won a Council seat on the party’s behalf, for saying that the lousy weather we’ve been enduring in Britain is all down to divine punishment for legalising gay marriage.

Since then, the leader of the party has decided to write off the Party’s 2010 election manifesto as ‘total drivel’. What he hasn’t explained is why the Party adopted a load of drivel for its policies just four years ago. Or why anyone should have any confidence that the next set of policies won’t also be drivel.

As for the Daily Mail, the measure of its reliability is perhaps best summed up by two stories it had to withdraw last year: that 878,000 people claiming invalidity benefit had abandoned their claims rather than face a further medical exam, a story without a trace of truth, but which contributed wonderfully to the atmosphere of claimant-hatred the Mail likes to whip up.

The second was that a Portsmouth school refused to serve water to pupils on a hot day, because it was Ramadan. Again, entirely false. Again, why would that matter if the aim of the exercise is just to ratchet up Islamophobia?

The Mail wasn
t always as anti-European as it is today. For a time, it was really rather keen on the German government, but that was back in the 30s when it won itself the reputation of being the paper that backed Hitler.

These are the currents in British society that are moulding the debate on Europe today. Voices are raised against them. The Guardian and the Independent run articles making clear that much of the worst propaganda is false, that most immigrants from the EU, for example, come to Britain to work: a smaller proportion of them claim benefits, or are involved in crime, than of the native population.

But these are quality papers and their circulation is limited. They don’t have the voice or the reach of the Mail or the stridency of UKIP.

What’s odd is why there is such hostility to Europe in Britain. For instance, it became clear last week that the only protection we have against illegal snooping by our security services is provided by the European Convention on Human Rights. And yet the legislation incorporating that convention into British law is a constant target of diatribes in the press and, sadly, of criticism by large numbers of voters too.

Somehow, UKIP and the Daily Mail have managed to turn ‘human rights’ into a toxic notion. For humans. Many of them with far fewer rights than they need.

What’s worst about all this is that for so many people in Britain, Europe isn’t even a foreign place. Somewhere between a million and a million and a half Brits live and work in other EU countries. And vastly more travel regularly to those countries on shorter visits, for holidays or business reasons.

That was brought home to me powerfully when I arrived at Grenoble airport yesterday, the very day the news of Cameron
’s referendum pledge broke. It’s what I would probably call a regional airport. But, according to someone working there it’s a seasonal airport too. Jobs in the winter only, she told us. For all the people who want to go skiing in the French Alps.

So I took a look at the Departures board.

We want to get out of Europe. So why do we go there so much?
The only non-British destination was Copenhagen. And, quite honestly, the way they speak English there, the Danes might as well be British anyway. After all, after The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, we’re already completely converted to their TV series.

Looks like rather a lot of Brits are already living as though, despite the Channel, they really belong to Europe.

So why are we so keen to get out?