Monday, 30 June 2014

Countdown to War. Day 3, 30 June: no major repercussions of Sarajevo assassination

One hundred years ago today, on Tuesday 30 June 1914, when Martin, our twenty-year old railwayman, turned to the Manchester Guardian, he found it reflecting on the possible consequences of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne the previous Sunday.

Fortunately, the repercussions were likely to be minimal, at least in the short to medium term.

It is not to be supposed that the death of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand will have any immediate or salient effect on the politics of Europe, but it may profoundly modify the course which these would have taken had he lived to ascend the throne.

The late Archduke had been open to Slav aspirations, despite the failure of his dream to create a Slavic grouping within Austria-Hungary, similar to Hungary, in the face of “the military successes of the Balkan Allies, who had formed their alliance under the tutelage of Russia...” Now sadly there had been a reinforcement of the “natural hostility between Austria and Servia...”

And, apparently, “that hostility must, of course, be increased by the assassination. There will certainly be a press campaign in Vienna and Budapest against Servia and the Slav races generally.”

However, none of this was likely to lead to anything too serious unless Franz Joseph, no spring chicken, were to die too soon for:

...the excitement to die down and the peoples of Austria and the countries round it to become accustomed to the notion of the undisturbed succession of the new heir.

If he did die before things had settled, there might be dissension within the Empire with various unscrupulous powers taking advantage of it to try to extend their possessions in the Balkans – Serbia, perhaps, or Italy which was currently in Albania together with Austria but might choose to act on its own if the circumstances were right, or even, and this would be the most serious, Russia.

Martin nodded sagely. The article seemed to be much more concerned with showing how much the reporters knew about the region than actually telling him anything useful. But t
hat's how journalists were. They liked to parade their knowledge. Speculate on things happening a long way away at some indefinite date in the future. Which was interesting enough, but not useful when it came to dealing with things that were an immediate, serious concern.

At least it seemed the Austrian business needn’t be.

He turned to another article. It announced that a rising in Mexico city was being predicted. Predicted, for God’s sake. Weird. Nothing had actually happened. 

Mexico city, where they could predict their uprisings
Still, he had to admit there might be something in it when he read that British residents in the city had held “a mass meeting on Saturday night at which they made final plans for the defence concentration of the district.” So people could see trouble coming but they couldn't do anything about it. That must be terrifying.

Abroad was a funny place. He was glad he was living in Manchester.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Countdown to War. Day 2, 29 June: fatal incident in Sarajevo

One hundred years ago today, on Monday 29 June 1914, the Manchester Guardian carried news that shocked Europe.

The day before, a bloody event had shaken Sarajevo.

Sarajevo? Martin wasn
’t even sure where it was. A better-informed colleague explained that it was the capital of Bosnia which, with neighbouring Herzegovina, had been reduced to a province of Austria-Hungary, following the Congress of Berlin 36 years earlier. That was the congress that carved up Africa among the European powers, but it also carved up bits of Europe, and Austria-Hungary had taken Bosnia-Herzegovina.

On Sunday, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie, had been visiting Sarajevo where he intended to take part in army manoeuvres.

Franz Ferdinand and his family, including Sophie, his wife, who was killed with him
She had been born a mere Countess, so the children were cut out of
the succession to the imperial throne: a countess's blood was
far too lowly
Not everyone was pleased about Austria’s takeover of the provinces. Serbia, next door and independent, felt that the large Serbian population of Bosnia would rather like to be part of a Greater Serbia, and a lot of that population agreed. One of them was a student, Gavrilo Princip. He decided to take dramatic action, and targeted Francis Ferdinand and his wife.

“Assassination of the Austrian Royal Heir and his wife,” screamed the Guardian. “Shot by student in Bosnian capital. Two attempts during a procession.”

Two attempts? In the morning, a bomb had been thrown at the Archduke’s car, but no one was hurt. In the afternoon however:

The Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria, nephew of the aged Emperor and heir to the throne, was assassinated in the streets of Sarayevo, the Bosnian capital, yesterday afternoon. His wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, was killed by the same assassin.

The paper pointed out that “the assassin ... is a student named Gavrilo Prinzip. He is 19 years of age... He studied for some time in Belgrade.

Belgrade. The capital of Serbia proper. Clearly a centre for grooming impressionable young men, turning them into extremists ready to take violent action for their cause.

On being interrogated, Prinzip declared that he had intended for a long time to kill some eminent personage from nationalist motives. He was waiting to-day for the Archduke to pass by, and made his attempt at a point where the motor-car had to slacken speed when turning into the Francis Joseph Strasse.

Martin was appalled. He might not think much of Emperor Franz Joseph, but he couldn't help feeling sorry for a man who had suffered so much misery in his life. His brother Maximilian, another article explained, had been made Emperor of Mexico, only to be shot when he was overthrown. Then, as the Manchester Guardian delicately put it, “in 1889 the Crown Prince Rudolf and a lady of the Court to whom he is known to have been attached, died by violence in a mountain shooting lodge. His death is still a mystery. Officially he is said to have committed suicide...”

Also in 1889, a cousin of the Emperor who married an actress set off with her to South America and was never heard of again. And in 1898, Franz-Joseph’s own wife, the Empress Elizabeth, was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist.

This catalogue of disasters deserved at least a wry shake of Martin’s head. Poor bastard. He’d had to put up with a lot. Nasty business.

It wasn
’t, naturally, the only nasty business reported in the paper that day. Sir Edward Carson, the rather loudmouthed leader of the Ulster Protestants, had been making more noise in the Emerald Isle. But there was nothing new about that.

At least there was one heartwarming piece, The Art of the Umpire, about the difficulty of managing a cricket match. It was gratifying to know that a South African cricketer felt that “the umpires in England are a credit to English cricket.”

Something at least was right with the world.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Countdown to War. Day 1, 28 June: no news from Bosnia

The descent into hell is easy, Virgil tells us in the Aeneid; the difficulty is to turn and climb back up. 

Sometimes, on that road, it isn’t immediately obvious where it
’s heading. Even when the great gates are gaping in front of us (Virgil tells us they stand open night and day), we may feel that just one more effort will stop the slide. But we can’t always call a halt and avoid the fate we dread.

These days, my preferred newspapers are the Guardian during the week and the Observer on Sundays.

I like to think that had I been, say, 20 back then in 1914, living in Manchester and working on the railways, perhaps as a tracklayer, I might also have read what was then the Manchester Guardian – maybe the crew I worked with would club together to get a copy we’d pass between us, or read aloud to the ones who were less sure of their literacy – because it was, after all, our local paper and gave plenty of news about the city and the North West. 

Also, it had detailed reports on the only sports that mattered, football in the winter, cricket in the summer, though for reasons unfathomable to us, it also talked about ridiculous toffs’ games like croquet.

Besides, the Manchester Guardian was a bit left of centre. Did I say that the railwayman – let’s call him Martin – rather liked the Liberal government and especially Lloyd George, who’d brought in National Insurance, so he might actually expect a pension when too old to work? Even a bit of protection if he got sick or unemployed during his career?

Tracklayers in 1914
Not Martin's gang though, unless he spent some time in Sweden
Which, take it from me, he didn't. I should know
Rather liked the Liberals, but not too much. He’d joined the brand new National Union of Railwaymen and, had he had a vote at all, would only have voted Liberal if there wasn’t a candidate standing from the youngest party on the scene, Labour, growing strongly but not yet in a position to challenge for power. Because he wanted things to move on: more education, better hospitals free to everyone, that sort of thing. And the Guardian tended to go along with such thinking; it backed the Liberals and Labour too.

Martin would go to the Methodist chapel most Sundays, along with his family and most of his neighbours. And the Minister liked to think of himself as a bit of a radical. He was a likeable chap so Martin didn’t disabuse him, though none of his friends thought he’d come down on the truly radical side if they did anything that challenged anyone, like strike. But, hey, he’d always been friendly, and he he’d pass Martin the Observer on Sundays after he’d finished with it.

Martin was young, in good health, and had done well at school till he had to leave at the earliest possible age, 14, to start earning a living. His wit would open some doors for him, perhaps in the railways, perhaps in the union. And if it were the union, that could even lead into politics some day. There were working men getting into Parliament now, through the Labour Party. Why shouldn’t that be him in a few years?

So that’s Martin. 

And what would he have read in the Observer one hundred years ago today, on Sunday 28 June 1914? Nothing would have told him that he and his country, indeed the Continent to which it belonged, had just taken the first step on the road to hell. Indeed, what’s most striking about what he would have read, day by day on that downward journey, was how little was said about where they were going in the first weeks. Indeed, later, when the flames beckoned, even then, there seemed to be a chance of avoiding them. But by then they were unavoidable.

And that’s what we’re going to follow over the next 39 days. The path that took Martin and millions more Martins and Marthas, from innocence to somewhere far worse.

As I said, there was no sign of it in the paper of 28 June.

First, there was the good news. Lancashire, our team, didn’t just beat Gloucestershire in the county Championship but crushed them, by an innings and 11 runs. Massive. Just what we needed. Especially as things weren’t going well for the side that season.

Lancashire County Cricket Club at Old Trafford
in the period before World War One
But not all was well in the world. There was trouble brewing. The Liberal government was trying to bring in legislation for Home Rule in Ireland, but Protestants in the North had formed the Ulster Volunteers, busily arming themselves to resist any attempt to loosen the bonds with Britain. The Nationalist Volunteers had been launched in response, and the Observer reported, “the whole of Ireland is talking rifles; nobody at all is talking politics.” There is now “absolute deadlock between Unionist Ulster and Nationalist Ireland.”

The Nationalists were appealing to the United States, in particular to Irish Americans, to fund their cause, and using the money to buy enough guns to arm 50,000 volunteers. According to the paper, the British government was powerless to do more than “save face” and had only “held up one or two very small cargoes”, but was generally “winking at” the breaches of the law on both sides.

The correspondent went on, “I hear on good authority that the National Volunteers who have faithfully followed the pattern of the Ulster Volunteers, now propose to imitate the great gun-running coup.”

Bad news. That was the kind of thing that could degenerate into all-out war. And after more than forty years of peace in Europe, no one wanted war again.

It’s just possible that Martin might have read, with a wry smile at the fuss being made over anything so trivial, a minor news item about the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Francis Joseph. Having recovered from a recent illness he was setting off for his summer holidays, and crowds in Vienna had gathered to wish him well and wave him on his way.

Honestly. One of Europe’s authoritarian rulers. In power by birth and without merit. It was laughable how seriously so many people still took royalty.

What he didn't read, because it wouldn't be covered till the following day, was that the Emperor's holiday had been spoiled before it had even begun. In a town Martin had never heard of, Sarajevo, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the heir to the throne had been assassinated with his wife. 

On the day it happened, Martin knew nothing of it. So it would close without his learning how fateful 28 June had already become.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Countdown to war

From tomorrow, Saturday 28 June, and day by day for 39 daily posts until 5 August: follow the descent of Europe into the First World War, from the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife to the British declaration of war.

Lots of suspense, of missed chances and bad judgements. With a heck of a price paid at the end by a lot of people... 

All through the eyes of a young Mancunian reading the Manchester Guardian and the Observer, and only slowly beginning to realise just how bad things were getting.

Starting here, tomorrow.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Knaves and fools: edifying acquittals and convictions in Britain

“My client's a moron,” says Tom Cruise, “that's not against the law.” 

As well as being an unforgettable line in an outstanding film, 
A few good men, the statement makes an important point, not just on legal issues, but on society generally and the people we inexplicably choose to run it for us. 

For instance, ever since he appeared on the scene, I’ve wondered whether David Cameron was a knave or a fool. In the last couple of years, it’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly about Rebekah Brooks, to whom Cameron used to send text messages which he signed off “lol”. Like a teenager, except that no teenager would think that “lol” meant “lots of love”.

I also had my doubts about Andy Coulson, sometime lover of Ms Brooks, and her successor as editor of the News of the World when Rupert Murdoch, its proprietor, promoted her to be Chief Executive of his European operations. That was before David “lol” Cameron appointed Coulson his spinmeister in Downing Street.

Brooks seemed so bright and acute – the first female editor of the Sun, the youngest editor of a national newspaper in this country, Chief Executive of a significant element of the Murdoch empire – that I couldn’t believe she could possibly be a fool. So when she went on trial for allowing phone hacking by her journalists while she was editor, I thought she could only be a knave: after all, the trial made clear that the practice was widespread and some of the papers’ most significant stories were obtained by hacking, so how could she not know about it?

How wrong I was. The court has now pronounced her no more than a simple fool. Her acquittal means one can only conclude that, as she claimed, she really had no idea of what was happening at the papers she headed. Being a moron is legal, as we’ve seen, so she walks free.

Rebekah Brooks:
all the relief of being found a fool and not a knave
Andy Coulson, on the other hand, has been convicted and therefore officially found a knave. Which takes us back to our fine “lol” Prime Minister. He appointed Coulson to a key position, in Downing Street, privy to all kinds of information and channels of influence. He did it against the advice of many, but on the recommendation of his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. So it has to be said that the jury’s still out as to whether they’re fools or knaves. They can’t be anything else. 

Actually, the jury’s only out on Cameron if you ignore other evidence. For instance, take the latest Euro-spat Britain has become embroiled in. There’s been most noise about the far right
s wins in the recent elections: UKIP in Britain, the Front National in France. But when the dust settled, what emerged was a clear victory for the Centre-Right grouping, the European People’s Party. Now I didn’t vote for them, but I can count, and it’s clear to me that 221seats are more than 192, the number of seats won by the second strongest grouping, and by the kind of logic that has become traditional in these circumstances, that makes the EPP what is technically known as “the winners.” 

Now it’s not unusual for the leader of the winning party in a parliamentary election to become the leader of the organisation to which the parliament belongs. It’s annoying when the party in question hasn’t actually won an overall majority, but is just the single biggest party, and has to line up with others, as the EPP leader, Jean-Claude Juncker has done. But none of that should be unknown territory for David Cameron, who emerged from the last British General Election as the leader of the biggest single party but with no overall majority in parliament. He came to an agreement with the Liberal Democrats, a pact with the devil some on each side might say, and as a result he became Prime Minister.

I suspect he’s noticed.

Despite the similarity of their positions, he has decided to go out on a limb to oppose Juncker’s becoming the next Commission President. And he’s done so on the grounds of democracy: it would be much better to decide the next President in a meeting of Ministers. Because as we all know, meetings in back rooms are much more transparent than elections for a Parliament.

To get his way, he’s threatened to call an early referendum in Britain on EU membership, which would probably go against staying in. Given how much we all love a blackmailer, you can imagine how his stance has won him friends and influence in the EU.

Why, even the Polish leadership has called him stupid, as we discovered yesterday from secretly taped conversations.

No, the jury’s back in on him, as it is on Brooks and Coulson. We know where we stand on all three now, with official confirmation: Cameron and Books are legal and morons; Coulson’s the knave and about to be jailed.

All three are part of a pretty vile crew. The trick now is to make sure none of them ever gets anywhere near the levers of power again.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The faith that shakes atheism and moves goggles

There are times when it’s hard to maintain my hard-won atheist convictions. 

Not on the big things. I still find it conceptually impossible to reconcile the existence of an all-powerful, beneficent deity with, say, ISIS running amok in Iraq and massacring its prisoners for the crime of belonging to a separate branch of the same faith. To be honest, I have difficult reconciling such a belief with the blundering, flip-flopping behaviour of the leaders of our Western world in response to that terror.

I’m often reminded of the excellent exchange in that outstanding film Lincoln when Mrs Keckley, dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln, expresses her confidence to the President that the 13th Amendment banning slavery, will be passed by the US House of Representatives.

Elizabeth Keckley: I know the vote is only four days away; I know you're concerned. Thank you for your concern over this, and I want you to know: they'll approve it. God will see to it.

Abrahan Lincoln: I don't envy him his task. He may wish He'd chosen an instrument for His purpose more wieldy than the House of Representatives.

Quite so. In the same way, it’s hard to imagine that an all-seeing God could ever have put any faith in a Dubya Bush or a Tony Blair to make anything but a pig’s ear of the Middle East.

No, much smaller things shake my atheistic faith – or lack of faith, for why shouldn’t lack of faith be shaken too?

The other day I turned up at our local leisure centre for another early, far-too-early, swim. Now as I’ve said before this is not an activity ever likely to give me what one might call pleasure. It’s a grim business, undertaken for health reasons and absolutely no other. I therefore take a number of measures to guard against the horror of the exercise. I take what I like to think of as a water Walkman (as in “what – a Walkman?” to which the correct answer is “Yes”). 

And I take goggles.

The Walkman staves off insanity, if merely being at the pool at that time of day isn
t sufficient evidence of insanity in itself. The Walkman’s a key contributor to surviving the ordeal. But the goggles are even more vital. Without them I emerge from the chlorine with bloodshot eyes and, while I’m not bothered about the effect on my appearance (looking like some kind of undead monster might actually win me more respect), it does gall me that the eyes hurt in a low-grade way for the next three days. 

So when I looked in my bag and realised that I didn’t have my goggles with me, I cursed myself under my breath. Going home was out of the question. Buying another pair meant going back out to reception and, in any case, I hadn’t brought enough money with me. There was nothing to it but to go ahead and swim without them and bear the consequences.

And there, as I approached the showers, lying on the floor in front of me – was a pair of discarded goggles.

Now I wasn’t going to steal someone else’s. I naturally gave them in to reception to hold in Lost Property. Just – not immediately. Getting on for an hour later.

A mighty matter of miracle and faith
After all, you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, even if in this case it’s a loan horse. And you certainly don’t reject a miracle. Which, surely, this must have been.

So, Lord, please accept the thanks of this your errant and unbelieving servant. Even though I don’t really believe you exist, I’m deeply grateful for the mercy you showed me the other day.

If, existent or not, you had a moment to sort out the mess in the Middle East too, well, that would be just great. But I don’t want to sound too grasping. I remain truly thankful for any minor miracle you put my way, to save me from my many incompetencies.

No miracle too small

Friday, 20 June 2014

British values: hasn't the government forgotten the one that matters most?

The talk here in England has recently been all about “British values”.

This follows an alleged attempt 
 by fundamentalist Muslims to take over some schools in Birmingham. Nicknamed “Trojan Horse”, this plot may or may not have been happening. It’s quite hard to tell. All I know is that Ofsted, the body charged with inspecting schools, went in and found nothing, even handing out a couple of “outstanding” ratings; got told there were some nasty Islamists at work; went back in – and found just that.

Park View: officially "outstanding" last time,
"inadequate" now
Meanwhile, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, responsible for schools, fell out with Theresa May, Home Secretary, responsible for security and combating terrorism. They took to bickering with each other in public about which of them had failed to expose the evildoing or to act against it adequately. They only stopped when David Cameron, Prime Minister which makes him their boss and the man whose job each of them covets, knocked their heads together and told them to behave.

If nothing else, the whole story confirms that there’s nothing like supreme professionalism and competence. And what this sorry crew displayed was nothing like either of them.

Now this A-team has come up with the appropriate response to the unsavoury individuals behind the plot. They’ve decreed that henceforth all English schools should promote British values. 

Inevitably, those cynics who run the press asked the party-pooper question: just what are British values? And equally inevitably we were quickly into a discussion in which fish and chips loomed large (a virtual amendment to the unwritten British constitution prescribes that the right of citizens to consume any desired quantity of fish and chips shall not be infringed).

Helpfully, Gove has now spelled out British values for us today. They are respect for the law, democracy, equality and tolerance of different faiths and religious and other beliefs.

It’s wonderful to be run by people who think these values are specifically British. Respect for the law? It occurs to me that one or two other nations may have thought of that one.

It’s also good to know the government believes such high standards are ingrained in the British psyche. Take democracy, for instance. Universal manhood suffrage, coupled with votes for women at 35, is still less than a century old; equal voting rights between the sexes came only ten years later.

Then there
’s equality. This government has been slashing benefits and tax credits for the poor – and taxes for the wealthiest. The top 1% of the population from the point of view of takings, between them collect 15% of national income – in other words, 15 times the national average. That shows a commitment to equality in much the same way as Vladimir Putin shows enthusiasm for open political debate.

And finally we have tolerance of other faiths and beliefs. Non-Anglican Protestants could run for Parliament in Britain only from 1828, Catholics from 1829, Jews from 1858. Homosexuality has been legal in Britain since 1967, gay marriage has been possible for just a couple of months.

Meanwhile, 2.7% of the British population is black; 14.6% of police stop and searches are on black people; 8% of arrests; and 13.7% of the prison population.

Anyone who thinks that these figures reflect the greater inclination of black people to commit crime is simply part of the problem.

Equality and tolerance? We’re a long way from them yet.

And that’s the point about most of these values. They’re not specifically British, and Britain doesn’t practice them all that well. Many of us would like to see the country aspire towards them, but given the huge increase in poverty under the present government, it’s hard to believe that Ministers share that view.

In any case, Michael Gove’s demand that schools teach British values is self-defeating. Because there’s one value that he’s forgotten about completely and, though it’s not exclusively British, it’s certainly deeply rooted in our culture.

We don’t want government telling us what we should believe.

Now there’s a value Gove would do well to re-learn. Funnily enough, it
’s something Conservatives always claim to believe in deeply. But perhaps they don’t mind so much if it’s them doing the telling. 

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Misty's diary: the dog, the cursed dog

Another entry from Misty’s diary. In which he considers the reprehensible behaviour of the dog, bad enough when it’s simply messy, unforgivable when it borders on treachery.

June 2014

The domestics were away again this weekend. Well, they need their time off, of course they do, and I don’t begrudge it. And they didn’t take me: at least that’s a lesson they’ve learned. Honestly, they used to coop me up for hours in that ghastly metal cage of a car, but I showed them. Not by peeing everywhere, or even getting the claws out, as some of my pals tell me they’ve done; oh no, I find a constant prowl, interspersed with occasional growls and sustained low-pitched mewing gets the message across quite strongly enough.

“Five hours and he hasn’t stopped that intolerable racket,” the male domestic said. 

Yes, well, I had to spend those five hours in that ghastly contraption.

It’s a mercy to be spared that fate these days. Though I have to confess, a little bit of me did feel just slightly put out that they didn’t even ask if I wanted to come. I could have given them a haughty shake of the head, and a sniff, which would have been much more satisfying than just being left behind without a by-your-leave.

They took the bloody dog, Janka, of course. Great lump. She just trots along faithfully behind them, wherever they’re going, and however long it takes. No mind of her own. No pride. No willpower.

That was a lesson the domestics had to re-learn, I understand, while they were away. She has no power of discrimination when it comes to food. “That’s edible,” she exclaims when she sees something that might just be. And she flings herself on it, vacuuming it up in two shakes of a pair of whiskers. Apparently, that’s what she did with the bowls of the two other dogs who were there.

The results were apparently spectacular. What’s it the medical specialists among the domestics call it? Output? Yes, that’s it. Input’s what you eat and drink, output’s from the other end. Seems Janka’s output went through the roof.

Well, not literally. Not really through the roof, or even on the floor, but since like all dogs all she can do is wag her back paws instead of making a proper hole, the output actually went into lots and lots of little bags. Evil-smelling little bags which the domestics had to deal with.

Poor dumb animal
All input and a lot too much output

I suppose dogs just aren’t civilised. Though to be fair, I’ve been tempted to behave that way myself, ever since the female domestic turned the perfectly comfortable garden we had into a terrible desert of gravel paths and vegetable beds protected with mesh I can’t get through. Fortunately, the neighbour’s decided to do something about her own garden, so I have alternative toilet facilities close by. But Janka wouldn’t care anyway. Just makes her mess and leaves it for the domestics.

Honestly, there are times I don’t grasp what they see in her.

Although I’ve perhaps begun to understand why the male domestic likes her. The footman. An event after they got home made an important point.

Back on the chief Domestic's lap
My way of saying "welcome home"
I was generous as always on their return, and came to lie on the Chief Domestic’s lap. No hard feelings, I wanted to say. And to show the footman nothing had changed with him either, I had a good pounce on his arm later on. But, would you believe it, before I could plunge the teeth and the claws in, Janka, who was lying right next to him, snapped at me. 

Snapped at me! 


At ME!

What can she be thinking of? Does she feel sorry for him? He basically relishes it when I have a go. He feels I’m at least paying attention to him. Yes, of course it hurts. A bit. But nothing he doesn’t recover from pretty soon. And it teaches him such a useful message, about relative importances in the scale of things. By sabotaging all my careful educational work, Janka just does so much damage.

To say nothing of being downright disloyal.

Well, she should have learned by now that crossing me’s not a smart move. She got reminded yesterday when she tried to get back into the house after her evening pee. Brilliant. You should have seen that great lump cowering outside the back door as I – little me – just lay across the doorway. Watching her whimper. I
’m not sure she has sufficient brains, but I hope she realised she was being taught a lesson.

As for the footman, when Janka snapped at me, he told her “good for you, you show the vicious little beggar.” Oh dear, oh dear. Doesn’t learn his lessons any quicker than the dumb dog. I don’t forget. And I know how to wait for my chance. He can expect his correction any time.

When he least expects it.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The best of company. In the finest surroundings

Anne Elliott, one of Jane Austen’s most endearing characters in one of her most enchanting novels, Persuasion, tells her cousin:

“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

“You are mistaken,” he gently replies, “that is not good company; that is the best.”

It was a privilege to enjoy just that kind of company this weekend, at the invitation of a good friend – not so much an old friend, though it was her birthday and a big one with a zero in it, but a longstanding and much loved one.

We were in Dorset, one of England’s finest counties and, as it happens, the setting for a key moment of Persuasion. It also happens to be next door to the county that includes Anne Elliott’s home. We were in a glorious rental cottage – a “cottage” in the sense that our own house is a shed – whose garden sloped down to the river Piddle. Since many of the villages around have the word “puddle” in their name, I can confirm that if the piddle’s big enough, it can form a few puddles.

The company, excellent as it was, did spend a few minutes exploring the punning possibilities of Piddle and puddle but, such was its good taste, swiftly moved on, as I now shall.

Among the many puddles is Tolpuddle, which gave its name to a group of martyrs. These were agricultural labourers who set up a friendly society with a view to improving their lot, and were transported to Australia for their pains. England is known for its respect for traditions, and this story illustrates one that is honoured to this day: while it isn’t a criminal offence to be poor, merely a badge of shame, trying to do something about is highly reprehensible and punishable by the awesome power of the law.

The only downside about Dorset is that getting there owes more to the horrors of Dante than to the elegance of Austen: Purgatory at best when it isn’t simply Hell. We decided to give up all hope before we even set out, and just gritted our teeth as we struggled through the traffic which bedevils this island of ours, tiny but gridlocked because so many people choose to travel, and to travel by car, just at the time that we need the roads.

You appreciate that, following David Cameron’s exhortation to promote them, I’m embracing a British value here: specifically, the one that sees our car as an entitlement, and all others as traffic.

A fine sight. But nothing like warm enough
for me to want to join the brave souls on the beach
On Sunday, we wandered along the cliff path above Lulworth Cove. Ever since the last time I bathed in the Channel, some forty years ago, I’ve felt that the top of a cliff is about the best place from which to enjoy any sea off the English coast. The walk was perfect, in part because it kept us a safe distance from any prospect of actual contact with the water.

Then came the plunge back into Purgatory or, as we like to call it, the British road system. We decided that we’d take advantage of the fact that we were going to spend four or five hours travelling under 150 miles, so we’d have a break along the way. We’d frequently driven through the New Forest but never stopped there, and decided on this occasion to have lunch at an inn followed by a walk.

New Forest ponies, where we stopped for lunch
Not, I hope, an ingredient in the horse radish
It all went smoothly.  The pub was surrounded by Forest ponies who wandered around hoping someone would give them something to eat. We had a traditional English Sunday lunch, roast beef and the trimmings, though in a gesture to the need to modernise traditions, the trimmings included mashed butternut squash. The horse radish was home-made and excellent, though it had unidentifiable lumps in it. I hope it wasn’t horse.

The walk went well too. We were able to coo sentimentally over a new-born calf in a byre we came past. The moment gave me great pleasure, not in the least diminished by the irony of having come there straight from a table where we’d been eating roast beef. You see, in my view Ralph Waldo Emerson got it absolutely right: “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” 

Aww. Just the sight to make us melt
After a roast beef lunch
Our minds had clearly been fully enlarged. No doubt by spending time in beautiful places. Above all, though, by the very best of company.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Who's the rebel, who's the democrat, who's the bloodthirsty dictator? Middle East politics for beginners

Sit up at the back of the class there. Pay attention. Stop texting your friends or chatting to your neighbour. 

Today we’re tackling the problem of Western policy towards the Middle East, and it’s complicated, so follow carefully. There will be a test at the end.

Start by learning two principles that will help follow the rest.

First of all, democracy’s a delicate machine, and like all machines, it needs regular oiling. So anyone with oil is a friend. 
Careful, though: we’re not that fond of Russia. Don't worry. Russia’s more about gas than oil, so it’s a bit of a toss-up whether we need to like them in the first place.

Secondly, Israel’s a friend and Iran’s a demon. 

Israel’s a great democracy, like us. There may be people who don’t agree, but they’re in places you’ve barely heard of and will never go to, like Ramallah or Gaza City. The people you get to vote for all agree that Israel’s a good, peace-loving friend, and they can’t all be wrong, can they?

As for Iran, well, they’ve been beastly to the West on repeated occasions. In particular, they took a load of Western diplomats hostage in a thoroughly reprehensible way. And they may or may not be building a nuclear weapon, which makes them really worrying. We can’t have nuclear powers in the Middle East. Well, apart from israel of course, but see above.

Because Iran’s so nasty, we were keen to help Iraq under its fine leader of the time, Saddam Hussein, when it went to war against its neighbour. But then, sadly, Saddam thought he could invade Kuwait. Now that’s a country with lots of oil, and so at least as good a friend as Iraq (which also has oil). So we invaded right back, with a view to bringing ex-friend Saddam down.

But then we didn’t. The Russians didn’t like the idea, and this was one of those occasions when we thought we ought to treat that gassy lot as friends. So we left Saddam alone.

Next, though, he did something unforgivable. He didn’t stop a bunch of Saudis attacking the United States on 9/11. It’s true that he didn’t have anything to do with the terrorists, but Saudi Arabia has lots and LOTS of oil, so we couldn’t pick on them; besides, we had unfinished business with Saddam, so this seemed like a good opportunity. If you can’t follow the logic, don’t worry. Nor can anyone less.

The second war on Iraq was an unmitigated success. Where the people of Iraq used to live in fear under a bloodthirsty dictator, now they live in fear under a terrorist-riven nominal democracy. Also it has a government run by friends of Iran. Which, it seems, is just fine. Again, it may damage your health to try to follow the logic here (or, indeed, try to find any).

Next a rebellion started against another bloodthirsty dictatorship: that of President Assad in the country next door, Syria. Now Syria doesn’t have any oil, so we can safely line up against its government. On the other hand, it doesn’t have any oil, so why would we bother? Even so, the West decided the trick would be to rain a few missiles down on them, just to show that democratic values mean something.

That would have got up Russia’s nose again, because Assad is their bloodthirsty dictator, but this was another of the occasions when the West felt that we could safely dislike the Russians.

In the end the West didn’t do it, because a number of people wondered whether missiles were quite precise enough to hit only the bad guys and leave the good guys entirely unharmed (to say nothing of ordinary unaligned civilians, at least 100,000 of whom died in Iraq). And being precise is particularly key in Syria, if only because it turns out that the rebel side isn’t composed entirely of good guys. In fact rather a lot of them are part of the very movement that attacked the US on 9/11.

ISIS. Heroic champions of democracy resisting tyranny in Syria
Or do I mean vile terrorist opponents of democracy in Iraq?
Which leads to the latest act (certainly not the last act) of this exciting drama. Because one of those rebel groups is ISIS. We’re told that stands for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is worrying if only because it suggests that they don’t know how to spell ‘Levant’. They’ve started taking over cities in Iraq, even though there are only 7000 of them. It turns out that the armed forces and police of the shiny Western-backed democratic government have been melting away in front of them.

As a result, the US is considering taking military action in Iraq again. They might bomb ISIS. And, because they like to be consistent, they might bomb them in Syria too. So instead of bombing Assad and the Syrian regime, they might end up bombing the rebels against him. Well, some of them anyway. Assuming they can tell one lot from the others.

Meanwhile, because ISIS is fighting for Sunni Islam against the Shias in power in Iraq – well, in office in Iraq – Shiite Iran is keen on blocking them too. They’re offering help to the government.

So the US and Iran could end up on the same side.

Isn’t that fun?

OK, no more enjoying the irony. Time to take the test below.

Middle East Crisis Test

Choose the option that most closely describes the way things are.

1. The West is:

  • for Iraq and against Iran
  • for Iran and against Iraq
  • against Iraq and Iran
  • all of the above
2. The West is:

  • against Syria’s President Assad
  • against some of the rebels against President Assad
  • against Assad’s friends in Iran
  • on the same side as Assad’s friends in Iran
  • all of the above
3. The rebels fighting the Syrian government are:
  • heroes taking on a repressive sectarian regime
  • people to back because they are the enemies of Iran
  • terrorists representing the worst threat the West faces today
  • fundamentalists we ought to help Assad crush
  • all of the above
4. The rebels fighting the Iraqi government are:
  • heroes taking on a repressive sectarian regime
  • people to back because they are the enemies of Iran
  • terrorists representing the worst threat the West faces today
  • exactly the same people as in question 3
5. The Western intervention in Iraq has been
  • a glowing success
  • an unmitigated disaster
  • an incoherent blundering action with no clear goals or exit strategy
  • exactly what happens when you think military force can solve civilian problems
6. Faced with the prospect of Western intervention in Syria, your reaction is:
  • it would be a magnificent act backing democracy against dictatorship
  • it would turn out as incoherent and damaging as it was in Iraq
  • who the hell would we back?
If you chose the final option to all six questions, you have grasped Western strategy for the Middle East, in all its coherence and clarity. You might consider pursuing a career as a highly-paid policy adviser on the region.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

It was something I said. And what UKIP wouldn't say.

The other day, I shamelessly stole a picture from a friend on Facebook and posted it on Twitter. It shows soldiers from the British Indian Army with the caption that “over a million Muslims fought for the British Army in WW2”.

I did sharpen up the message a little by adding my own take on it, “An inconvenient truth for UKIP and other xenophobes.”

Not everyone appreciated the sentiment...
The reaction was spectacular. It was retweeted over a hundred times. And several UKIP followers responded, apparently less than charmed. It’s instructive to see what they said and, perhaps even more interestingly, what they didn’t say.

By way of background, I should point out that, though some of UKIP
’s messages are pretty tough (e.g. “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?”, which ignores the fact that nearly 10% of those people are Brits), its followers are sensitive souls. Call them racist, for instance, as I may carelessly have done in the past, and they get terribly upset. 

“Name-calling!” they proclaim. “Try to debate the issues.”

Well, it’s always good to re-examine one’s own positions. Had I perhaps been too harsh? I thought about what I really knew about UKIP. For instance, that its leader Nigel Farage had described his discomfort on being in a train carriage in which everyone around him was talking a language other than English. Or the discomfort he reckoned most people would feel at knowing that they had Romanian neighbours.

Racism? Perhaps that
’s an overstatement. But clearly if he’s that uncomfortable, he must suffer from a certain aversion towards foreigners (despite being married to a German). Now aversion to foreigners is called xeonophobia. It seemed to me that to say that UKIP was xenophobic would therefore be non-contentious, a simple description, not an insult.

It seems I was wrong.

The most moderate opposition I received was over a detail of the photograph: the uniforms of the soldiers, or more precisely their headgear. One response was:

“I think you will find that these soldiers who fought for Britain were Sikhs.”

As far as I was concerned, that matter was closed by the tweet:

“They are not Sikh turbans, as a Sikh I can unequivocally tell you that.”

And another, from someone called Waqar Latif:

“Turbans were part of the uniform for the Indian troops. Muslim and Hindus also wore them. My granddad did.”

Which created a response demonstrating that UKIP isn’t backward in handing out what it doesn’t like to receive:

“I think you, Latif, are a racist in search of conflict.”

Tony Byrne decided that I was being deliberately deceptive:

“You misled or are misled and misleading. Try using the truth in tweets.”

When I defended myself, he made clear what he understood as rational debate:

“I don’t care David, you are trying to create a straw-man argument to hide your deception.”

There were attempts to debate the substance of the matter:

“1 million Indians were NOT all muslim, and most remained in India to defend India from Japan 
and it was called the INDIAN IMPERIAL ARMY, they were not in British regiments from this country.”

This is an interesting view of history, in which Britain’s army in India is seen as protecting Indian rather than British interests. Incidentally, the total number of Indians in British uniform in World War 2 reached 2.5 million, not just one million, and many of them fought in Europe.

The complaint re-emerged that UKIP supporters are unfairly dismissed by their opponents:

“You are very wrong to suggest that #UKIP supporters are ignorant.”

Greg Cook took the debate on to the much more elevated level it deserves:

“As a @UKLabour member, your opinion is irrelevant. You are a traitor.”
“Martie Caine UKIP”  gently noted: 

“It’s a waste of time trying to explain the difference between immigration and open borders to any #Labour fool.” 

He matched his deeds to his words and didn’t bother to explain it. 

And to wrap up the matter, he produced the killer argument:

“... I think anyone voting Lab now is a fool.”

Ah, well. As long as they don
t suggest we may be ignorant. 

This was all highly entertaining, but I was much more interested by what the UKIP supporters didn’t say. At one point, I asked:

“What is the UKIP policy on education? or the health service? on the bedroom tax?”

I wasn
t alone in pushing for this kind of information. “Averyenglishgypsy” asked a string of such questions, including:

“What will replace the human rights legislation? Who decides what children are taught? Where are the policies regarding pension issue? Any plans to help small business? No action on sustainability? No consultation regarding fracking?”

Nobody answered. No UKIP supporter is able to provide any indication of what their party’s policy is on any matter other than the EU and immigration.

Now, I understand that reticence. UKIP knows that its supporters are a disparate band, held together by what I still maintain is nothing more sophisticated than xenophobia. If it actually picked a policy on the matters we raised, some group or other of their supporters would be put off. Much better to say nothing and let everyone project their own particular likes or dislikes on the party.

What that means is that we have no idea what they want to see done on any substantive matter that affects our lives, including those of their supporters. That led me to comment:

“Sadly, there are voters prepared to back a party (specifically UKIP) that commits to nothing.”

And I still find that sad today.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Naughty tale. And an unlikely moral ending

We all know the scene from the worst kind of school novel.

The little boy, bitter, embarrassed, furious is standing on the square of carpet in front of the headmaster’s desk. To one side is the teacher he cheeked.

“Well, Gove Minor,” thunders the headmaster. “What have you to say for yourself?”

“I’m terribly sorry, Mrs May,” mumbles Gove, staring at the floor in front of him, and refusing to look the teacher in her eyes.

“Yes, well, that’ll have to do. Now bend over.”

“Yes, Mr Cameron,” says Mrs May, for it is she who is about to receive the caning, not Gove at all.

In the corner, ignored by the main actors, is Professor Wilshaw, School Inspector-in-Chief, observing the scene and noting “Outstanding approach to discipline.” Unknown to anyone else, and indeed unknown to him, in two weeks time he will review that judgement and replace it by “Inadequate understanding of justice or the purpose of punishment.”

The book has no sympathetic characters and fails, in consequence, to engage readers. After selling poorly for five years, it is remaindered in May 2015 and unsold copies pulped soon after.

We’re living through that story in England now.

An anonymous letter, now widely believed to have been a hoax, announced some months ago that schools in Birmingham were being taken over by a conspiracy of Muslim fundamentalists intent on turning them into hotbeds of extremism or even terrorism. Some of the schools were inspected by the Schools Inspectorate, Ofsted, headed by Sir Michael Wilshaw, gave them a clean bill of health, occasionally even handing out the highest grade, 

When the allegations, now known as the “Trojan Horse”, surfaced, Ofsted visited 21 schools. We’ve now had their report. Two schools previously found to be outstanding were downgraded to “inadequate”, the lowest possible grading. No evidence was found of Islamic extremism, though there was evidence of a climate of fear and an increasing emphasis on Islam in the schools, some of which have a Muslim intake of over 90%.

Meanwhile, Michael Gove, Secretary for Education, had let it be known that he considered Theresa May, the Home Secretary and therefore Minister in charge of counter-terrorism, responsible for the shortcomings. In response, the Home Office put on-line, at midnight, a letter from May to Gove in which she pointed out that he had known about the Trojan Horse allegations and demanded to be told why he had taken no action in response.

As the spat intensified between May and Gove, both leading contenders to replace David Cameron at the head of the Conservative Party when he loses office, he called them in and dressed them down. Gove was forced to apologise publicly to May, but May took the more serious punishment: she had to fire one of her favourite special advisers.

Uneasy neighbours on the government front bench
Isn’t it lovely to see the Education Minister behaving like an unruly pupil in one of the schools he oversees, and being reprimanded in much the same way?

No-one emerges from this story with any credit. Not the Muslims who are trying to convert secular, state schools, funded by the taxpayer, into centres of Islamic faith. Not the writer of the Trojan Horse letter who clearly massively overstated the problem. Not May and Gove doing their pot and kettle act. Not Cameron trying to re-establish his authority over a government that seems completely out of his control. And finally, not Ofsted or Wilshaw who seem to completely elastic in their assessment of schools, shifting their evaluations from one extreme of the scale to the other in response to scandal.

And the worst of it all? None of this would even be contentious if these schools were faith schools – of which we have 6000 in England.

Yes, state, taxpayer-funded confessional schools.

Gove may be upset about the Islamic takeover of schools in Birmingham. But he’s very much in favour of faith schools generally and would like to see a great many more of them.

I don’t like schools becoming centres of Islamic indoctrination. But I don’t like acting as centres of Christian or Jewish indoctrination either. That’s what we have Churches, Mosques or Synagogues for. Very few people go to them, but that’s their choice. I see no reason why the power of the State and the money we provide it should be used to make up for their indolence in religious practice, by teaching their kids at our expense what they refuse to study themselves.

They want faith schools? Let them found, and fund, their own. That’s what the French do: private schools can be faith-based, but the public sector is strictly secular.

A secular state school system? Now that would be a response to the Trojan Horse allegations we could be proud of.

Not likely to happen any time soon, though.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Richard Dawkins and tedious fanaticism

I enjoyed an article by Deborah Orr in Saturday’s Guardian, in which she took Richard Dawkins to task for his militant atheism.

It does seem extraordinary that anyone can be militant for non-belief. You fervently don’t believe in God? I’d have to ask, do you have a sense of irony?

In any case, there is a common feature that runs through all my friends who are believers. None of them attempts to convert me. I have my beliefs, they seem to say, and I value them but I’m not going to thrust them on you, and I’m certainly not going to expect you to embrace them.

As a result, they don’t try to put up an argument to convince me to adopt their viewpoint. Now, it’s perhaps unreasonable for me to try to assign motives to people whose beliefs I don’t share, but I think their behaviour is based on two considerations.

In the first place, they know that faith isn’t a matter of rational argument. If something can be proved, it doesn’t need faith to accept it. The whole point is that faith goes beyond rationality to a different realm – one, as Kierkegaard said, that requires a leap. I can see no way of proving that Christ was resurrected, or that the Archangel spoke to Mohammad, or indeed that Moses heard the voice of God in a burning bush. These are things you believe because you believe them; or you don’t.

Secondly, these are matters on which people must be allowed to reach their own conclusions. The believer may be saddened at the idea that a friend is making a decision that will exclude him or her from the Kingdom of Heaven, but that is no justification for trying to override that choice.

God’s so important if you believe in him
But why fixate on him if you don’t?
Now, I believe both these considerations matter deeply. I appreciate the religious friends who apply them. And I think at the very least I owe it to them to return the favour. Their choice to believe is as valid as mine not to. Since, what’s more, the choice is not one that is susceptible to rational argument, there’s no point even in debating it. I may ask for information, out of interest, about a religious person’s beliefs, but I see no more point in trying to refute them as in expecting to be converted by them myself.

So I really can’t get Dawkins’ position. Militant Atheism? If God exists, he’s all-important. But if you’ve decided he doesn’t, why on earth would you spend any time debating the matter? There are quite enough things that undeniably do exist and need debating; why would you fixate on one that, in your view, doesn’t? And if it offends people who deserve more consideration, people who are or could be friends, isn’t that an even better reason for desisting?

Dawkins reminds me of one of Winston Churchill’s wiser sayings: “A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.”

Frankly tedious.

Friday, 6 June 2014

The anniversary of D-Day: might a little shame be appropriate?

Today, the seventieth anniversary of the D-day landings in Normandy, got me thinking about how we remember and respect our soldiers. 

In the US, the message is generally a variant on the theme “they gave their lives that we might be free”.

Do we exercise our freedom to pay for them?

Though other motivations also played their role, the Second World War genuinely removed a major threat to freedom. My grandfather refused to fight in the First World War and spent two years in gaol for his pains, but joined the Air Raid Precaution service (he was too old for combat) in the Second: as a Jew, he felt the fight against Nazism had to be won, where the Great War clash of imperialisms seemed no concern of his.

And since World War 2? The Vietnam War? The invasion of Iraq? I’m not sure how they served freedom. It was by defeating the United States that the Vietnamese gained some freedom. And it’s not clear how replacing a vicious but stable Iraqi dictatorship by a war-torn regime prey to vicious terrorists, and under the domination of Iran, serves any cause of freedom.

To suggest solders “died for freedom” in those wars seems a travesty. But it isn’t just the word “freedom” that bothers me in that phrase. It’s also the word “died”, because huge numbers of soldiers don’t die, though, sadly, many of them come later to wish they had. War memorials show the names of the dead; they don’t name the crippled either in body or, far worse, in soul.

Fit, young, brave and strong: in short, heroes
Americans like to produce uplifting, inspiring images of soldiers, with messages of gratitude and admiration for them. The soldiers appear as heroes: fit, young, brave and strong. We don’t see the far less heroic picture many present a few years later: unkempt, sleeping rough, their minds addled by drink or drugs, estranged from friends or families. Many of them are in prison: in Britain and the US, a disproportionate number of convicted criminals are veterans.

And, above all, these fallen heroes receive little or no support from the society that salutes them so warmly while they’re still well.

Perhaps our war memorials ought to contain inscriptions along the following lines:

“Private such-and-such, who died not in the fighting but nonetheless of its consequences, four decades later, uncared for, unloved and alone, abandoned by the society that claims to thank him for his sacrifice but feels no shame over its failure to rescue him.”

All this went through my mind as I listened to a radio interview with Tim Radford, now 85, but believed to have been the youngest person to have taken part in the D-Day landings. He was a fifteen-year old galley boy on a tug on 6 June 1944.

“There was a most tremendous bombardment taking place...” he told the BBC, “it was like Dante’s Inferno...”

“The water was full of dead men. A very sad memory of D-Day is all the poor devils who never made it to the beach, who were in the water with life jackets on, floating, and we hadn’t time to pull them out...”

For Radford, these weren’t scenes of glorious endeavour. In fact, he told us:

“I’m very much opposed to war as a means of settling differences, but there’s no question in my mind but that war had to be fought, we had to defeat Naziism otherwise we’d all be enslaved for generations.”

The war was justified, he felt, but nothing to exult over. And what about since then?

“... most of the wars there’ve been since, I can’t think of any exceptions, have seemed to me to be unnecessary and avoidable.”

So in his view, as in mine, they had little to do with any essential freedom that could not have been defended some other way.

Asked whether what he saw on 6 June 1944 had any glory to it, Radford was unambiguous:

“I don’t think it was glorious. You should respect the courage and self-sacrifice of people who give their lives for others. Of course. But there’s no glory in it.”

No. There isn’t. In Britain, we have what we call a ‘Covenant’ with our servicemen: we ask them to be ready to put their lives on the line for us, and in return we commit, firstly, not to call on them to do it except for a cause worthy of the sacrifice and, secondly, to look after them when they return (or of their families if they don’t).

In reality, we demand that sacrifice for reasons that are often at best dubious. And then we redouble the injury by failing to look after the ones who come back or the bereaved families.

That’s why all the rhetoric about our gratitude to those who died for our freedom disturbs me. It seems to me to draw a veil of sentimentalism over something much uglier that we ought to face up to. It’s a denial of behaviour on our parts, not theirs, for which we ought ultimately to be profoundly ashamed.

Perhaps a thought worth taking a few moments over on the anniversary of D-Day.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Mind over matter? Well, it's not that easy a battle

Some days I wake up horribly early.

I know, I know. It means I’m getting older. It’s the only explanation. But before you do any gloating, just remember – so are you.

On occasion, if I’m awake at around 5:30, I think “I really ought to go for a swim.” This is because I’m convinced that I need exercise. If nothing else, it might help 
me sleep through the night and not wake up before the alarm goes off.

But a conviction that it would do me good isn’t the same as any enthusiasm for the prospect of exercise. Especially wet exercise. So I may be up and making coffee at quarter to six in the morning, completely convinced that this is a great opportunity for a swim, but it doesn’t mean I actually want to.

Inviting? Not at stupid o'clock in the morning

Why swimming at that time of day? Well, firstly because the pool is open to its full 50 metre length. So you don't have to turn so often. Which is a boon. Besides, I find that after three or four hours work, I’m even less inclined to struggle into the pool than at the crack of dawn; after seven or eight hours, reluctance at the idea turns into abhorrence. 

So it has to be first thing.

Now the reluctance isn’t intellectual. The mind is fully convinced that I’m going swimming. Which is easy enough for the mind. It isn’t the mind that has to deal with the water. It can loftily choose to do this horrible thing; the victim, the one that has to undergo the experience, is the body.

What therefore comes into play is that deep, veiled will that’s buried in our bodies themselves. It knows it can’t challenge the mind directly: it’ll always lose a rational argument. Instead it acts deviously, it works by misdirection.

“Look!” it says, “Washing up. You said you’d get it done.”

Washing up doesn’t take long. Might as well do it quickly. And the minutes crawl on.

“Does the cat have enough food?”

“Did you let the dog out in the garden?”

Eventually, in a last desperate throw of the dice, when already on the threshold, ready to lock up and head for the door, the horrified body raises a final objection: “did you lock the back door after you let the dog back in?” It knows that my mind is much too neurotic to say “screw it. Who cares?” and just go.

This rearguard action doesn’t often avoid the dreaded fate. But it means that it doesn’t matter what time I get up – it can be 5:00 in the morning – I’ll never be in the water until after quarter to seven. Delaying tactics live up to their name: they make you late.

Talk about mind over matter. Well, my body has a mind of its own. The battle
s no pushover. The body fights back. 

And at the very least, buys itself some time.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

In praise of shutting up. And a departing King

I always had ambivalent feelings about the late Ugo Chavez, de facto President for life of Venezuela. He sometimes said and did things I felt were right, above all to help the poor, but then he did so much that was wrong, and even did the right things in such a wrong way – hectoring, bullying, authoritarian – that I simply couldn’t warm to him. He seemed thoroughly obnoxious.

So it was with delight that I learned that the King of Spain had told him, in a conference of Spanish-speaking nations, to put a sock in it.
“¿Por qué no te callas?” he asked, “Why don’t you shut up?”

¿Por qué no te callas?
So well received were the King’s words that for a while they became the most popular ring tone on Spanish phones.

More recent anecdotes have been less flattering for poor Juan Carlos. It was a shame, for instance, that he chose to go elephant hunting in Africa. That he did so at a time when most of his subjects were struggling with the effects of the worst crisis to the hit the nation in a century, added a measure of insensitivity to the offence, and left his reputation in tatters.

A bare 41% of the population now approve his rule.

In passing, I should point out that technically this is irrelevant: a system in which you can change your head of state when you’ve had enough of him is called a republic. The whole point about a monarchy – or a state presided over by Ugo Chavez – is that you can’t.

Even so, Juan-Carlos has decided to abdicate, and Spanish parliamentarians are rushing through legislation to make it possible. Which must seem ironic to quite a few
 of their compatriots: many have lost their jobs over the last five years, without the benefit of special legislation.

So the King has decided it’s time to shut up himself, even if in his case what he’s shutting up is his shop. One has to congratulate him. I suppose we’ve all had situations in which we’d have done better to shut up, and wished afterwards that we had. His, I feel, is an example to follow. I can think of quite a few people who I’d be happy to see follow it, but I won’t name any of them here, since I’m sure you have your own list.

He’s going to be replaced by his son, Felipe. Curiously, he too knows a little about being told to shut up. He married a former TV anchor, Letizia Ortiz. The Guardian explained that at a press conference where the couple announced their engagement, “as Ortiz was explaining her plans to leave her job in the media, Felipe interrupted her. She snapped at him, ‘Let me finish!’”

I hope Felipe took it better than Chavez. Because in both cases, as in so many others, being told to shut up was excellent advice.