Friday, 31 October 2014

A haunting story

There’s story that has haunted me ever since I first heard it.

Goro Shimura is in his eighties and an emeritus professor from Princeton, where he held a mathematics chair for many years of a distinguished career. But back in the 1950s he was a young mathematician in Japan, at a time when that wasn’t an easy country in which to forge an international career: a pariah just ten years after the Second World War, Japan was also still reconstructing and had little to spare for abstract studies such as pure mathematics.

Goro Shimura
Still working in 2010
In 1955, another young Japanese, Yutaka Taniyama, announced a new conjecture, which is basically a good idea that hasn’t been proved. He had actually got it slightly wrong, but Shimura teamed up with him and together they put it right the following year, when it became known as the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture.

Yutaka Taniyama
Brilliant, even when wrong
I won’t even attempt to state it. It concerns a relationship I don’t fully grasp between a set of numbers I understand only as a layman, and a set of objects which are entirely opaque to me. All I’ll say is that the conjecture proved hugely fruitful, and a great deal of pure mathematics of the next three or four decades depended on it; if it was ever shown to be false, an awful lot of other work would fall with it.

In 1967, another mathematician, André Weil, revealed a curious aspect of a particular application of the conjecture: if it could be proved, that would also prove Fermat’s last theorem.

Pierre de Fermat was a seventeenth-century French lawyer, but you can’t hold that against him (he could have been a banker, after all). He was also an amateur mathematician at a time when there were no professionals, and his talents in the area would have put many professionals in the shade anyway.

Pierre de Fermat
Amateur mathematician who baffled many a professional
In 1621, one of the classic Greek mathematical texts, Diophantus’s Arithmetica was published in Latin. As we no doubt all do, when a book appears in Latin, Fermat read it voraciously, covering the pages with notes. He included a number of conjectures which later mathematicians proved, one by one, until only one remained: his last theorem.

Fermat had written about it “I have discovered a truly marvellous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.”

That was a challenge, of course. An elegant proof, but not enough space to write it down? For three and a half centuries, mathematician after mathematician attempted to reconstruct Fermat’s proof. And failed.

Then came Andrew Wiles. He was fascinated by Fermat’s last theorem, and struck by Weil’s suggestion that proving part of the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture would crack the puzzle. Coincidentally, the area to which Weil had suggested applying the conjecture was Wiles’s specialty (elliptic forms, if you must know, though for my part, knowing that leaves me none the wiser.)

He worked for six years, mostly in secret. Then in 1993, he made the dramatic announcement: he’d proved the relevant bit of the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture – and therefore Fermat’s last theorem.

But that wouldn’t have been anything like dramatic enough. Over the next few months, it began to emerge that Wiles’s proof was flawed. It wouldn’t stand up. In despair, he went back to his reasoning, working with a friend. They struggled for months, without success.

Andrew Wiles
Announcing his proof of Fermat's last theorem. A little too soon...
And then finally, in September 1994, just in time for his wife’s birthday, Wiles had an insight. He suddenly understood how he could fix the problem. As he sat down for her birthday dinner, he laid the manuscript of his paper before her: he’d got his proof. He’d demonstrated Fermat’s last theorem.

Of course, what he’d really proved was the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture.

Shimura’s comment? “I told you so”. Nearly forty years on.

And now we get to the bit that makes the story really haunting. Taniyama had no comment, because he’d been dead, by his own hand, since November 1958. 

He left a strange suicide note:

Until yesterday I had no definite intention of killing myself. But more than a few must have noticed that lately I have been tired both physically and mentally. As to the cause of my suicide, I don't quite understand it myself, but it is not the result of a particular incident, nor of a specific matter. Merely may I say, I am in the frame of mind that I lost confidence in my future. There may be someone to whom my suicide will be troubling or a blow to a certain degree. I sincerely hope that this incident will cast no dark shadow over the future of that person. At any rate, I cannot deny that this is a kind of betrayal, but please excuse it as my last act in my own way, as I have been doing my own way all my life.

A month later, his fiancée also committed suicide. Her note said:

We promised each other that no matter where we went, we would never be separated. Now that he is gone, I must go too in order to join him.

Now that, along with the brilliance of the public person, the mathematician, is what fascinates me in Taniyama’s story. 

Though I’m also drawn by Shimura’s tribute to him – a strange, almost backhanded compliment, and yet oddly enviable:

He was not a very careful person as a mathematician. He made a lot of mistakes. But he made mistakes in a good direction. I tried to imitate him. But I've realised that it's very difficult to make good mistakes.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Good riddance. With a little nod to UKIP, for good measure

There was a knock at the door an hour or two ago.

“We are Milena and Robert,” the couple on the doorstep told us, “we are your new neighbours.”

What could be more banal? A couple moves in. They introduce themselves. But its very banality makes the incident special for us. For they are taking over from our neighbour from hell. She left last night, and I have never felt so joyful over the presence of a removals van outside our house.

Sign of joy.
When it appeared outside the house next door
Two years we’ve had the delight of living next door to the woman I shall refer to as Kayleigh, if only because that’s her name. She was a delightful neighbour on the many occasions when she was away; alas, though she was away a lot, there were inevitably times when she’d be home, and that made her less easy to like. If we saw the lights on between a Thursday and a Saturday night, we knew we were in trouble. On one or two of those nights, she would have ‘friends’ round.

Why do I put quotation marks around the word ‘friends’? Because there was nothing particularly friendly about the way they behaved to each other. More or less from the start they’d be talking far too loudly, as though at a convention for the deaf from which hearing aids have been banned. But then as the alcohol started to kick in, to say nothing of other substances less socially acceptable, that early phase would come to resemble the pleasant calm of a busy library.

By about 3:00 in the morning, they would start sharing deepseated views about the character, temperament and behaviour of the others present. The views were, clearly, held with passion, and communicated with concision, since anything involving a verb or an adjective only seemed to require a derivative of that fine four-letter Anglo-Saxon term for the way we’re all generated.

Expressing oneself simply is an admirable stylistic aspiration, so I can only admire their talent. Although it’s also possible that simplicity was a way of life, and there really was nothing more sophisticated to be said about any of them.

By about 7:00 in the morning, the company had exhausted the entertainment to be extracted from abusing each other with increasing intensity, so things really got serious. At this point Kayleigh, who could have found employment as a fog warning siren had she been interested in having any kind of employment, would start to dominate proceedings more than ever. She would request various individuals to depart her presence, preferably on a permanent basis.

She would communicate this desire by suggesting that they go forth and procreate, if I may be permitted a euphemistic paraphrase.

Sadly, it turns out that such desire was merely a passing phase in the Kayleigh mood journey. Once most or all of her guests had gone, which would generally be between 8:00 and 9:00, she succumbed to a sense of desolation and loneliness, which she would bewail to the few who were left or, if there were none, to some unfortunate she could raise by phone. This final stage of the night’s festivities would generally continue until some time between 10:00 and midday, at which point silence would finally descend on her house.

One must, of course, be tolerant towards the customs and culture of others, even if in this instance the word ‘culture’ more aptly describes something in a Petri dish than in the great achievements of a community. But I have to confess to being bemused by Kayleigh. Those nights seemed to leave her wracked by sorrow and self-pity. I may be naïve, but it seemed to me that she wasn’t really enjoying herself all that much. Still, who am I to judge the pleasures of my neighbour?

What I could judge, of course, was the impact on ourselves as, yet again, we avoided all the inconvenience dreaming can cause. Or indeed sleeping at all. And that judgement was one that I felt was worth sharing with the police, the letting agents for the house and the landlord. Our friends on the other side of Kayleigh did the same, and by dint of keeping up the pressure, we eventually prevailed.

The turning point was no doubt Danielle’s recording of Kayleigh making it clear, in choice terms, that she didn’t wish to talk to her. Danielle got it all on her phone, which survived even Kayleigh’s throwing it into the road, providing a tribute to iPhones as well as a damning piece of evidence against the neighbour.

Hence the removals van last night, and Melina and Robert’s courtesy call today.

Poor Melina and Robert. The little front yard is already full of rubbish, partly what Kayleigh left there, partly what they’ve flung out of the house.

“The place is filthy,” they told us, as they took a brief break, still wearing their rubber gloves and knee pads. We offered them drinks (turned down, as they wanted to get on with the cleaning), and sympathy for the scale of the post-Kayleigh task.

The contact with them may have been banal. But in contrast with what came before, it was painfully welcome. A huge improvement.

Interestingly, Kayleigh is English to the core. Born here, bred here (for some value of the word “breeding”). While Melina and Robert are Polish.

Hey, UKIP: you really think it’s the immigrants that are the problem? Seems to me, we’ve got far worse difficulties with the native born. At least, with the very Kayleighs you draw on for support.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Who needs blockbusters?

“We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax,” said Sam Goldwyn, summing up his ideal vision of a film.

That sentiment came back to me when we started watching Get Low the other night. OK, so it doesn’t start with an earthquake, but pretty much the next best thing: a house aflame, blazing away. 

And then it gets going.

Now, I can’t pretend it’s one of the great classics. If you’re expecting dazzling insights into the human condition, and answers to the fundamental questions that have puzzled mankind down the millennia, Get Low is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, you like the idea of a man organising his own funeral, to be held while he
’s still alive, so that he can tell his neighbours what really happened forty years earlier, then it’s worth taking a look at. Especially if you like being entertained without being exhausted by the process.

Get Low: Robert Duvall calls in the undertaker (Lucas Black)
to plan his living funeral
We watched it at home the night after we’d been out to see Gone Girl. Bit more of a blockbuster than Get Low, but hats off to any film that can hold my attention for over two hours. The descent into hell has always struck me as a great plot device (particularly since Eyes Wide Shut, one of the best examples of the genre), and this one comes with a hymn to a master manipulator thrown in – what could be better? 

Well, actually, what would be better is a film that didn’t strain credibility quite so much. I do like a touch of verisimilitude with my fantasy, and in Gone Girl it was as gone as the girl.

So it was a pleasure to try another non-blockbuster, Bottle Shock. This tells the story of that great moment in wine history, the 1976 tasting contest when a panel of Frenchmen gave the top prize for both red and white wine to Californian vintages over French ones. A great story, so how could the film truly fail? Especially when you include Alan Ryckman in the cast. 

Actually, he was almost as good as the real star of the film, the wine: Rickman was wonderful as the Brit cold-shouldered by the French and distrusted (or disrespected) by the Americans. As he falls for the allure of the Napa Valley.

Two great stars, a fine combination:
Alan Rickman: a louche Englishman enjoys Napa Valley's best
And Bottle Shock has another attractive characteristic, just like the classic wine film, Sideways, that taught me to appreciate that prince of grapes, Pinot Noir. The thing about such films is that they prompt you to watch them accompanied by the ideal enhancement to the pleasure, a good bottle. That’s how we got the most from Bottle Shock: as well as the film we indulged in a little good Beaujolais, a drop or two of a fine Rioja. It was only a pity we didn’t have something special from the Napa Valley, to celebrate its success in its own vintage.

Still, it was a good evening. And it rather proved that, though the odd blockbuster’s worth seeing, it can be just as much fun to watch something far less well known. 

Especially when the experience is properly lubricated.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Be afraid of Ebola. Very afraid. And ashamed.

Ebola’s terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I think it is anyway.

Not because there’s any serious chance I’ll ever catch it, far less die of it. No. My terror is caused by what Ebola tells us about ourselves.

First of all, it appals me that politicians and journalists, two sets of people most of us claim to distrust more than others, can still whip up such a panic in such a short time. We don’t believe these guys when they talk about the economy or war, so why do we believe them when they tell us to be frightened of a disease?

Secondly, it’s profoundly shaming that we worked up no concern about the disease while it only affected West Africans. Now that there seems to be a chance that a few people could be infected in Europe or North America, we are taking it seriously. Indeed, far too seriously.

A courageous victim: Dr Craig Spencer fought Ebola in Guinea
Now his neighbours are panic struck
We seem to have gone from indifference to panic without pausing at any sensible place in between. So our nations failed to come up with the finance needed to fight the disease properly in West Africa. But now, since Dr Craig Spencer came back to New York infected with Ebola, contracted fighting the disease in West Africa, people living in the same block are telling us they’re fearful of infection from touching door handles or lift buttons.

Thirdly, we’re still showing the same indifference to the fate of West Africans. Far more have died of malaria since the outbreak of the crisis than have died of Ebola, but we don’t show the same sense of urgency over malaria as we do over Ebola. Indeed, how many of us know that one of the consequences of the crisis is that large numbers of West Africans will die of other conditions? With health systems at breaking point, with little capacity to handle Ebola and next to none for anything else, stroke or heart attack victims face an uphill battle to be treated.

Ebola in Sierra Leone: a health service at breaking point
No capacity to treat other conditions
Fourthly, Ebola is far from the most serious threat facing us. A handful of Americans or Europeans has been infected, while thousands of our citizens have been killed on our roads. And yet we react calmly to the carnage of the car.

This strikes me as perhaps the most terrifying aspect of our reactions to Ebola. It belongs with our attitudes towards terrorism. Boy, is that working for the people who want us terrified. Britain is gaily giving up civil rights to protect itself from people who might have travelled to Syria to fight with ISIS. So far, such people have killed not a single person in Britain – and yet we should allow the government to overrule Europe Human Rights Courts decisions to protect ourselves from them?

In the US, the paradox is still more obscene. Just yesterday, there was yet another school killing, in Seattle. Fortunately, this one caused fewer deaths than most have in the past: the perpetrator and one of his victims died at once, four other students were hospitalised, three of them in critical condition. That one shooting spree has caused mayhem at the same scale as Ebola has in the US so far. And there are a lot more guns around than there are Ebola carriers.

There have also been a lot more deaths caused, each and every year, by firearms in the US than have been killed even by terrorism. You want to help protect US citizens? Terrorism and Ebola are serious, but more serious still are the car and the gun. ISIS? Certainly target it. But start with the NRA – it does far more damage to the US population.

That’s what I find terrifying about the Ebola crisis. It reveals how cockeyed our priorities are. How easily we’re distracted from things that really matter. How easily our attention is captured instead by far less serious threats.

And notice what ISIS and Ebola have in common: they’re about risk coming from abroad. That nasty strange part of the world so many are telling us to distrust, even fear these days.

Yes. Ebola reveals a lot about us that’s worryingly ugly.

Friday, 24 October 2014

An honourable man who restores faith in politics

I know there are many people who regularly get up at 6:00 in the morning, and I have a great deal of admiration for them. For me, however, it’s one of those purgatorial experiences that I usually associate only with the pain of an early-morning swim. People keep assuring me that such swims do me a lot of good, and I believe them, though given the way it feels, that does take quite an act of faith.

Today, however, I was up at that time of day without fear a cold wetting. Two friends had invited me to attend a Rotary Club breakfast.

Now I love doing things I’ve always sworn I’d never do. Wear a tie. Work in business. Live in Luton. There
’s a kind of perverse enjoyment in breaking my vows to myself. I never actually swore never to have anything to do with the Rotary Club but I’m convinced that if anyone had suggested, even a few years ago, that I’d attend one of their events, I’d have laughed in their faces. But when invited by friends I admire as well as like? Of course I went.

In any case, the guest speaker was worth getting up for. He’s the kind of man who can single-handedly restore one’s faith in politics and make one realise that it can be an honourable profession.

He’s not my MP, as I live in Luton South, but he represents the constituency next door, Luton North. His name’s Kelvin Hopkins and he impressed me. Now, I may be in the same party as he is (the Labour Party – of course – what other?) but that doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with everything he says. His mentor in politics was the late Tony Benn, and Benn often infuriated me.

Kelvin Hopkins MP, outside the Palace of Westminster
It was well worth meeting him. And highly refreshing.
For instance, I’m not as keen as Hopkins on renationalisation of the railways. I remember the old British Rail, and my memories are far from uniformly fond. I see no reason to rush back to those far from good old days. On the other hand, I certainly agree that the State should have the right to compete for rail franchises and, when it runs one superbly following the failure of not one but two private companies, as happened on the East Coast line, it should be left to go on running it.

What I liked about Hopkins, however, was his attitude. He talked about his own school days when, as someone from a relatively prosperous background, he would turn up in class comfortably dressed and properly fed, and perform well, for which he would be rewarded. Classmates turned up hungry and dressed in rags, underperformed, and were punished for it.

“Being punished for being unfortunate,” according to Hopkins, is simply unacceptable. And it is that kind of conviction, he told us, that drives him in politics.

Nor was it only his general principles that impressed me. Hopkins also behaves at a personal level in a way that deserves respect. Even the arch-Conservative Daily Telegraph called him a “saint”, when it emerged during the recent parliamentary expenses scandal that hadn
’t fiddled anything.

In his own view, however, Hopkins had done nothing saintly. He had merely behaved as “an ordinary human being”. The message struck me powerfully: how low have we sunk when ordinary behaviour seems saintly to us?

What I’m sure about is that listening to him left me feeling that politics could, and should, be both clean and admirable.

That was worth getting up at 6:00 for. It left me feeling much better. Without even involving a plunge into cold water.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

To realise you're crazy, you don't need a shrink. A boiler repairman will do.

Coming home from a refreshing holiday’s never easy. But it’s a lot less easy when you’ve been somewhere peaceful and warm, and you come back to a neighbour from hell holding yet another all-nighter, and central heating that’s on the blink.

The neighbour from hell’s going in a couple of weeks, due to be replaced by a Polish couple in their 30s or 40s. That’s a “delightful” Polish couple, no doubt, or at least I hope we’ll soon be saying so. Because the neighbour from hell is exceptional: I really thought fictional characters who use “fuck” or its derivative every other word were exaggerated, until I met her. It really is 50% of the time for her, or at any rate, it’s 50% of the words we can hear through the wall, and we hear a lot of words.

But on this occasion, the central heating problem was worse. We turned it on, and the pressure gauge shot round to the max and beyond, faster than our eyes could follow. So we turned it off, which was something of a bore, given we’d just had a twenty-degree drop in termperature.

We headed for bed and tried to sleep through next door’s revels. Eventually by about 2:00 in the morning, fatigue overpowered us. But only for an hour or so, until we were woken up again by an appalling banging sound. We leaped out of bed and tried to work out what the hell her-next-door was up to now. Within a few minutes, however, we realised that for once, it wasn’t her, it was us. 

Or rather our boiler.

I went downstairs and stood in front of it. Believe me, there are few sights quite as terrifying as a boiler, six inches from your nose, rattling and making a noise like a two-stroke engine in a mineshaft.

Well, I suppose there are more terrifying sights, such as your neighbourhood ISIS militant turning up to explain that you may have got some of your theology wrong. However, though we have a lousy neighbour, we don’t live in that kind of neighbourhood.

What made my experience particularly mind-focussing was that I had absolutely no idea what to do. There was a tap which, I knew, would increase the pressure if I turned it. But the pressure was already about six, on a scale that only went to five. Where was the tap that turned the pressure down?

I had no idea so I stood there completely useless, with just enough mechanical engineering knowledge to know that “excess pressure” is a notion that tends to be associated with “explosion”, and that
’s not good for the health of the observer.

And then eventually the terrible row stopped. The needle started to dip a little. That was enough to satisfy me, but Danielle insisted that we actually needed to do something. So we engaged in the bracing activity, in the small hours, of bleeding a radiator or two. And the pressure did indeed fall a little further.

The next morning we called the repairman, but he couldn’t call for a couple of days. So we had two cold days, washing up in water boiled on the stove, and blessing the fact that we had a shower separate from the central heating.

Boiler repairman at work.
A challenge to one's sanity?
It was worse for us: ours had bushy beard.
This morning the serviceman showed up, turned the boiler on, watched it a few minutes and announced:

“It’s working fine.”

And he looked at me suspiciously.

I explained to him what had happened in the small hours of Sunday morning.

“No,” he said, “it couldn’t happen.”

Danielle took over from me.

“At first it made this noise. Brrrrrr-brrrrrr-brrrrr. Then it began to rattle. Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Then the noise really started. Banga-banga-banga-banga.”

It all sounded perfectly convincing to me. That was exactly how it was. How could anyone deny such eloquence?

“No,” he said, “it can’t happen.”

We were both dumbstruck.

He started to speak more slowly. It felt as though he was trying to choose small words.

“The boiler was off. When it’s off it can’t make that noise. It can’t make any noise.”

He smiled. Indulgently. To make sure we knew he was humouring us.

Logic likes to express its principles in the most pretentious terms. All I could think of as he was talking was a phrase I learned years ago, and which has never stood me in good stead. Or any kind of stead.

“From the phenomenon to the potential is a valid inference.”

I wasn’t sure he was ready for a notion expressed in quite those terms. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure he was ready to be told “if it happens, it’s a fair bet that it can happen.”

He was denying that it had happened at all. And you can’t argue about facts, can you? They either happen or they don’t happen. I was saying it had, he was saying it hadn’t. I was saying he had no idea what he was talking about; he was saying we were crazy.

Which left us at an impasse.

And then I suddenly realised.

I might be crazy, but I was a crazy man who had warmth. And hot water. Could even have a bath. At last.

Besides, I was a crazy man whose neighbour from hell was about to be evicted and replaced by a Polish couple.

No doubt a delightful Polish couple.

Things were on the mend. Who needed to prove a point?

“Thanks so much,” I told the repairman, with my most charming smile. And I can do charm. “So sorry to have wasted your time.”

Because I’m not so crazy as not to know when to leave well alone.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The great immigration deception

Ah, what a joy. In Britain, we’re going to be talking an awful lot about immigration between now and the general election next May. 

It’s a measure of the triumph of the far right, notably UKIP, and its followers in the press (which sadly make up rather a large proportion of our fine media), that this should be the case. At a time when the economy is in the doldrums and living standards falling, nothing could be better than to have an easy scapegoat to hand. Hence we like to make immigrants the focus of concern and fear, rather than government or leaders of industry.

And yet the population of immigrants in the UK is 7.5 million, compared to 5.5 million UK citizens living abroad. The net effect, therefore, is to contribute only 2 million to the overall population, about one person in 30. When we talk gaily about reducing free movement, let’s remember that we’d be jeopardising the rights of the one in twelve of us who would prefer to live abroad, as well as of those who come to live in the UK from elsewhere.

Kevin Maguire gets it right in the Daily Mirror
A lot of the anger against immigrants is channeled into hatred of the EU. But as it happens two-thirds of new migrants to Britain come from outside the EU.

And why do they come? The vast majority keep essential sectors of the country running. It seems practically impossible to recruit enough Brits to pick our harvests and work our farms, so we use foreigners. Our catering industry depends on foreigners. But perhaps most striking of all, huge numbers of our healthcare staff are from abroad.

We need these people. Essential services would fail without them. And why do we need them so badly?

The Cameron government, in its sustained drive for austerity, has put significant effort into cutting costs in healthcare. The result, among other damage, is that we are training far too few nurses, even though far more apply to enter the profession than are accepted. The result is that we have to make up the shortfall from abroad.

Among the loudest to denounce immigration, as a flow of people “stealing British jobs”, are a great many of the working poor or the simply poor, who would be entirely dependent on the NHS if they ever fell sick And therefore wholly reliant on those foreign nurses we keep recruiting.

That’s perhaps the most obvious area where the very people who seem most attracted by UKIP would suffer if UKIP’s policies were ever adopted. But whether it’s in food distribution, in the building sector, in transport, in catering, removing immigrant labour would also create havoc in their lives.

And yet UKIP, and the Conservatives who are trying to steal their clothes, and even many voices in Labour who lack the courage to stand up to them, are all playing the anti-immigrant card.

Because the alternative, from their point of view, would be far worse. It would mean admitting that the economic difficulties we face are caused by austerity policies, such as the decision to train too few nurses.

It might also mean facing up to the most striking statistic of all. At a time when public sector workers are being told to make do with 1% increases in pay, or no increase at all, where the bulk of private sector workers are being offered increases that barely keep pace with inflation, if that, Chief Executives of major companies are taking annual raises in the region of 20%.

That’s the bitter truth that is being hidden behind the rhetoric about immigration. The real problem in our economies throughout the West today, isn’t the inflow of migrant workers. It’s the shameless, relentless increase in inequality.

It’s so much easier to blame someone with a different language or skin colour than to face that harsh fact.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The pleasure of futility

Ah, the pleasure of futility. Yesterday, last full day of our holiday on Majorca, we indulged ourselves in a large portion of it.

I should explain that we’re staying on a little bay, or more of a rocky inlet, of the Mediterranean. Turn right and you get to a larger bay which enjoys a short strip of beach, decorated as usual with deck chairs and umbrellas, and the town of St Elm.

The day before yesterday, Danielle and Nicky swam from our bay to town. Danielle has a broken foot. Swimming
s great, since she can enjoy the exercise without much pain and it even seems to help. Of course, Michael and I assisted, driving into town to meet them with all the things they’d need when they came ashore.

Nicky and Danielle set off
Except, regrettably, that we forgot the bag with the towels and clothes. Fortunately, the round trip from St Elm to the apartment only takes eight minutes, so Danielle didn’t have to wait long shivering on the beach as the sun set in a blaze of glory – and a precipitous drop in temperature.

And, sadly, it was only when I got back that Nicky realised that he’d forgotten to include a tee-shirt in the bag. Fortunately, it was still only an eight-minute round trip to fetch one of those too.

We’d also forgotten Danielle’s crutches, but I’m glad to say we found them not far from the water line, the following morning, neither stolen nor washed away.

St Elm sunset. Glorious to watch if you're dry.
Not so good if you're shivering and waiting for a towel
The exercise had been such a success that yesterday we decided to have another long swim. Well, “long” in our terms. Out to the island in the middle of the bay. 

The island was perfectly placed. Far enough to represent a challenging swim, close enough not to allow us – well, me – to back out and protect my laziness on the grounds of difficulty.

I have to admit that I always like this kind of challenge. Mountain streams when hiking? Just have to cross them. That’s why I tend to come home from mountain walks satisfied but with wet feet.

The challenge of the island
Too far? Within our range? Any point in the first place?
It’s the same with islands. There’s a tremendous satisfaction swimming to a place which can’t be approached except by water. Well, obviously, only if it’s within range. I’m not crazy. And only when it’s in a proper sea, by which I mean a warm sea, like the Med, not the North Sea or even the Channel. I’m not a masochist. 

So Michael, Nicky and I had a go. It was perhaps the experience of the day before that put us off aiming for a goal other than our starting point: we’d learned that we weren’t good at making sure everything we needed was available when we arrived. So it was a round trip for us. Out to the island, and back again.

Initially, our intention was to land and have a bit of a break, but when we got there it was a lot less hospitable than it had looked from afar. No beach. Just viciously rough rocks encrusted with razor-like shells, on which the surf broke with considerable energy, as I discovered to my cost when I became the only one of us to try clambering ashore.

We swam round the island, found nowhere that appealed, and headed back to our inlet. It took us a good hour and gave us the sense of really having had a swim.

The sea has great advantages over a swimming pool. Lowering oneself in remains a painful experience, but actually less so than in the pool: the water in the Med’s at least as warm. It isn’t chlorinated. And it makes you more buoyant.

If there’s a downside, it’s that the stuff won’t stay still. It keeps piling itself up and throwing itself at you. It usually contrives to do so whenever I do something reckless like trying to breathe. I really feel something should be done about its behaviour, though nothing ever is. What do we pay our taxes for?

Still, I mustn’t complain. We had a good time. Expended a lot of energy, which I’m told is a good thing. And got back safely.

Back, of course, to exactly the same place we’d out from. All that energy, all that effort, all that swallowed sea water. It got us precisely nowhere, by way of somewhere we didn’t want to stay. Completely futile. And yet highly enjoyable.

Providing yet more proof that it isn’t the destination that matters, it’s the journey.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

When the Arabs fought the Chinese...

Arabs fighting the Chinese? Who’d have guessed that anything like that would ever happen? But it has happened, and on more than one occasion.

At the time of the Muslim conquests, Islamic armies – initially primarily Arab, later Persian as well – swept out over present day Iran and well into Central Asia, Afghanistan and Northern India.

But under the Tang dynasty, China also underwent a period of rapid expansion, reaching westward, partly in pursuit of the larger horses Chinese armies and merchants had met in foreign lands but didn’t have at home. There was also the matter of controlling and protecting the lucrative Silk Road, linking China with the Mediterranean, along which huge volumes of trade – far more than just silk – moved for many centuries.

Eastward driving Arabs more than once encountered westward bound Chinese, and fought a series of battles. Those conflicts culminated in 751, at the battle of the Talas river. Believe the accounts of the time and 200,000 Arabs and their allies met 100,000 Chinese with theirs, but you’d need to be particularly gullible to believe those accounts.

The Battle of the Talas in 751:
where the Chinese came off second best
But then their allies turned out – not to be allies
Whatever the true number, what definitely is certain is that both sides had allies. If only because the Chinese army only contained a small minority of ethnic Chinese, and the allies who made up its bulk switched sides at a crucial juncture. That meant that the Chinese found themselves caught between Arabs in front of them, and erstwhile allies attacking them from the rear. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese were crushed, losing 8000 out of the original force of 10,000.

They never came back. Within four years, a major uprising back in China brought all armies rushing to the homeland to protect the Emperor.

But why didn’t the Arabs press on?

Between the easternmost possessions of the Abbasid Caliphate and China lay the least prepossessing territories of the Silk Road. Thinly populated, poor land producing little of any particular value. The Silk Road itself made them important, but growing volumes of goods were already taking the seaways instead of the land route, through Indochina and India to the Arabian Sea.

It’s true that beyond the wilderness lay the riches of China, but that meant a massive expedition, difficult fighting and a dangerously extended supply line. I imagine the Caliphate decided that the game just wasn’t worth the candle.

Sensible. And a theme that marks our times still today. The words of the prophet are important, of course, but none is so important as the one word “profit”. Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, people of any religion or none, tend to back down when effort becomes unprofitable.

Not terribly honourable, but eminently sensible. 

Sadly, it’s good sense I suspect ISIS, self-declared heirs of the Caliphate, aren’t likely ever to show.

Let’s hope we can stop them ever reaching far enough to engage with Chinese forces, at the Talas River or anywhere else. If Arab forces meet the Chinese battle ever again, then God help us all. Any God. Anywhere.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

When UKIP and the Tories attack human rights legislation, whose interests are they serving?

What makes the appeal of UKIP truly curious is that it’s not only toxic, it’s completely incoherent.

It keeps telling us not to trust Westminster politicians. Vile bunch, the lot of them. Always lining their own pockets and corruptly working in their own interests.

In their next breath UKIP tells us that the burning question of our time is to get us out of the European Union, to repatriate powers.

To Westminster.

Do they actually listen to what they’re saying?

Behind this device there is a profound dishonesty. Firstly, because Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, is one of the few Members of the European Parliament to refuse to submit his expenses claims to the scrutiny of an independent audit. It seems that what he’s been doing may not stand up to detailed examination. Interesting: the man who denounces both the EU and the cupidity of MPs, would rather we didn’t look too closely at how he spends the money he takes from the EU Parliament.

Secondly, because UKIP, followed in this by the Tories, tend to make no distinction between the EU and other European institutions. So, for instance, they like to direct many of their attacks against the European Convention on Human Rights.

European Convention on Human Rights
Sponsored by Churchill, drafted by Brits
Pause for a moment to think about that. The Tories and UKIP are successfully making “human rights” a term of abuse. Lots of people, all of them as far as I can determine human, think it would be a good thing to get rid of legislation protecting rights that come simply by virtue of belonging to humanity.

Interestingly, when the Tory government launched its most recent attack, it appealed to the spirit of Churchill to stiffen resolve against this devious piece of European skulduggery. It failed to point out that it was backed by Churchill, who used British lawyers to draft it.

Nigel Farage went one step further in the descent into dishonesty, claiming that getting rid of Britain’s adherence to the ECHR wasn’t enough, we had to go a step further and leave the European Union altogether. As he knows, the Convention has nothing to do with the EU, but was adopted by the Council of Europe. That’s a larger and older body than the EU that oversees the European Court of Human Rights, charged with enforcing the Convention.

But what the heck, when you’re fooling people, why worry about mere truth?

Who needs the ECHR anyway? Interestingly, the answer is all of us.

One of the phenomena that has most marked the times we’re living through has been the unbridled behaviour of corporations. In a world where the drive for profit is increasingly unregulated, it can bring disaster on us all, as it did most spectacularly when the banks crashed in 2008.

Back in 1986, two individuals decided to take on one of these corporations. Helen Steel and David Morris began distributing leaflets about McDonald’s, making some damaging allegations against the company (some of which, though not all, were later judged to be true).

David Morris and Helen Steel, defendants in the McLibel case
They lost the case but won the battle
Britain has draconian libel laws. In particular, the burden of proof in a libel case is on the defendant, who has to show that any allegations made are true. This can be costly and difficult to do. And libel defendants do not receive legal aid in Britain.

So McDonald’s brought a libel case, as it had against a number of major media outlets, expecting the defendants to cave as the outlets had, and therefore to win a quick victory.

Three other defendants did indeed apologise, but not Steel and Morris. What followed was the longest trial in British history After ten years, some of the allegations were deemed not to have been proved, so Steel and Morris lost. However, McDonald’s realised that the McLibel case had done them far more damage than the original hand-distributed leaflets ever could, let it be known that it would not be collecting the £40,000 of damages awarded to it.

Now it strikes me that being able to stand up to the ever-increasing might of corporations like McDonald’s is essential for all of us, and likely to become even more important in the future. So resisting the corporations and such bad law as British libel legislation actually matters. And who ruled that Steel and Morris had been denied natural justice?

Why, the European Court of Human Rights. In 2005.

Its ruling was given against the British government. Today that government is calling for legislation to allow ministers to overrule judgements of the court.

It strikes me that we need to resist that suggestion. I’d rather like to see Ministers reined in, not gaining more power. Which is what the rhetoric of men like Farage suggests too.

But with them it’s only rhetoric. He’s at least as keen to see the authority of the Court curtailed. In favour of the very Westminster politicians he’s so quick to deride.

Then, of course, he’s planning to get himself elected a Westminster politician too, next May. And his party likes to take large donations from the corporate world. Besides, as we’ve seen, he likes to be less than candid about certain things. So, in a twisted way, his hostility to European legislation makes a lot of sense.

As long as you realise he’s just as self-serving as the worst politicians he denounces.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Healthcare: choice is what you really want. Or so the politicians assure you

For years now, British governments – sadly, Labour as well as Conservative – have attempted to convince us that what we really need in healthcare is free choice.

The argument goes like this. Everyone wants to be sure that the care they’re receiving is the best available. And they can only tell if they’re given the information they need; and once they know which the best choice is, they need the right to exercise it.

What this leaves out of account is that at the moment you need care, there’s every chance that you’re sick, which is hardly the best position to be in if you’re trying to make an informed choice. Why, you might even be unconscious. I’ve known people whose qualities of judgement wouldn’t be harmed by being unconscious – they vote UKIP, for instance – but usually, being out of it doesn’t make us more judicious.

Their relatives might be in a better position to take a decision, but if they’re worried, borderline panicky, they may not be the best judges either.

What about a GP? There’s someone who might be able to help. But one doesn’t always have the luxury of waiting to call between 8:30 and 9:00 the following day, only to be told that the first available appointment is on Thursday week.

The reality is that, faced with a medical emergency, we don’t waste a lot of time making a choice. Or rather, we make the choice on purely pragmatic grounds, without taking medical performance into account.

For instance, I’ve taken people into Accident and Emergency on several occasions. How did I choose the A&E department? Simple. It was the closest.

The L&D: unprepossessing entrance but a centre of excellence
And also my closest A&E department
As it happens, I’m proud of our local hospital, the Luton and Dunstable. It scores highly on most comparative reviews of quality. It’s launched some exciting and innovative initiatives, such as “silent wards”: instead of cutting back on expenditure on administrative staff, it’s taken on large numbers of ward clerks, so that nurses can be freed to concentrate on nursing. Phones and faxes, as well as printers, are looked after by the clerks, behind closed doors. Each nurse has an assigned nursing assistant and looks after ten patients, who don’t even have bells – since nurses are constantly moving round their ten beds, they get to patients more quickly than if bell pushes were in use.

The result? The elimination of bells, phones and faxes, means that wards have a quieter, more restful atmosphere. Restfulness is a major contributor to healing. That enhances the effect of more frequent contact with a nurse.

So I’m perfect happy with the L&D. But what if I’d been told that Milton Keynes (40 minutes away) was even better? Or the great university hospital at Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge (an hour and a quarter)? Would I really have taken a friend or relative in pain to one of those hospitals instead of getting them to hospital in under a quarter of an hour?

To ask the question is to answer it.

Many others answer it the same way. 95% of all hospital treatment for Luton residents is provided by the L&D. What really is the choice? Or more to the point, offered the choice, Luton residents choose to be treated at their local hospital. After all, where else is it as convenient for their friends and relatives to visit them?

It was fascinating to be given a striking illustration of these ideas at a seminar I attended last week, on Clinical Audit. Dr Kevin Stewart, Clinical Director of the Clinical Effectiveness and Evaluation Unit at the Royal College of Physicians, told the story of Bill Clinton’s heart attack.

The ex-President began to suffer severe mid-chest pain while walking in New York with Hillary Clinton who had to make a swift choice. Did she log on to the internet and check the published information on comparative performance of New York cardiologists? She did no such thing. She phoned one cardiologist – one who happened to be languishing in 137th place in the league tables.

On what basis did she pick that particular physician?

She knew him. Personally. His number was in her phone.

As we all know, he saved Bill Clinton, so he can’t have been that bad.

The essential point is that when we make choices of medical care, they’re as often as not arbitrary. So all that fuss about choice is just that: a lot froth, designed to whip up some support among certain voters who are currently in good health and lack the imagination to realise that, in an emergency, they wouldn’t exercise their right to choose anyway.

Choice is a lot cheaper than the real question. Which is care quality. If we could guarantee excellent care, in all hospitals, at all times, choice would be entirely irrelevant.

It’s a lot easier to pledge choice. Even if it would never be exercised.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The toxicity index climbs again

So Britain has its first elected, openly far right wing MP.

I say “openly” because previously such characters popped up in a party that likes to pass itself off as democratic, the Conservatives. Enoch Powell, for example, was for a while a leading figure among the Tories, but in 1968, he made one of the most notorious of racist rants, which has come to be known as the “rivers of blood” speech. He told his audience that anti-discrimination legislation, due to be voted on the following day, awoke in him an echo of the foreboding the Roman poet Virgil spoke of, when he saw the Tiber foaming with blood.

That was his reaction to an attempt to protect ethnic minorities from racial discrimination.

Today, the heirs to that kind of thinking can make themselves at home in their own party, UKIP. Its leader, Nigel Farage, gave the measure of the party this very morning, following yesterday’s election of his first Member of Parliament, when he proposed closing the borders of Britain against immigrants with HIV.

One of the achievements of Barack Obama was to do away with just such a ban in the US.

The proposal shows a complete want of humanity. Someone living with HIV needs compassion and may need support; Farage offers rejection and exclusion. On top of that toxicity, the idea is actually unworkable. The only people it would exclude would be, as the US discovered, those with the courage to admit they’re infected. Those who decide to hide their state, or aren’t even aware of it, will simply come in as before.

Nasty and useless. That’s pretty much UKIP through and through.

And now they have a voice in parliament.

As it happens, their success of last night, in the Clacton by-election, wasn’t quite the breakthrough some might like. Their candidate had until a few weeks ago been the Conservative MP for the same constituency. He’d merely switched party. As a result, he enjoyed the advantages that go with incumbency.

Even so, it’s a significant and depressing achievement.

In a sense, the worse news came from several hundred miles away, near Manchester, where another by-election took place yesterday, in the constituency of Heywood and Middleton. Labour held the seat before yesterday’s vote, and it hung on to it, but by little over 600 votes – a narrow win, and over UKIP, to boot. 

That majority is little over one tenth of what the previous incumbent enjoyed.

Liz McInnes: celebrating a victory in Heywood and Middleton
But by far too narrow a margin
Curiously, Labour improved its share of the vote over last time the seat was fought, at the general election in 2010. But the improvement was just one percentage point, and Labour lost the 2010 election. So not a lot of comfort in that result: Labour needs a much bigger improvement that that if it’s to win an overall majority next year.

Still, nothing’s so depressing as the fact that its narrow majority was over UKIP. In a traditional Labour area, the xenophobes ran it close.

That means a lot of people are going for a narrow-minded party devoid of fellow-feeling for those who most need our support and protection.

I’d like to have ended this piece with a punch line. But this isn’t really much of a joke. Not the kind you laugh at, anyway.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Fiction and lies; good and bad

One of the more curious quirks of the human mind is the way we distinguish between lies and fiction.

We know fiction is untrue. We expect it to be untrue. We don’t want it to be true. In fact, there’s even a psychological mechanism, suspension of disbelief, that allows us to enjoy the untrue narrative we’re reading or watching, because at one level we believe it – we get into the story – while at another we know perfectly well that it’s impossible to believe.

This even leads to curious paradoxes, such as our rejection of inappropriate actions by fictional beings. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, if Sauron had decided that his behaviour was reprehensible, chosen to retire, backing Aragorn for King and handing over the keys to Dark Tower to Gandalf before heading for a small cottage by Lake Nurnen, we might have had trouble going along with the narrative. 

Sauron may be a fictional character, but we understand how he should behave, and that isn’t it.

Sauron's lidless eye.  "This dark lording fair takes it out of you.
Time to put my feet up. Fancy a cuppa?"
 I don't think so.
Just to add a further twist, as we know what to expect from certain fictions, a good writer can achieve comic effect by making a character behave against nature. 

Terry Pratchett has a vampire character, Otto von Chriek, who has taken the pledge and forsworn the drinking of blood (the “b-vord”, in his Germanic accent, as he prefers to call it). Otto proudly wears the black ribbon of vampires who are on the wagon. To distract him from his addiction, he has become a photographer, which is awkward since vampires can’t handle bright light. He therefore carries a small phial of animal blood around his neck, so if his flash causes him to turn into a pile of dust, it will break and let the blood out to reconstitute him.

Layers upon layers, you see. There are no vampires, but we know how vampires should be; we know that light turns them into a pile of dust; we know it only takes a drop of blood on that dust for them to resuscitate; because Pratchett has stuck to these conventional characteristics of the vampire, he can take liberties with others and create a wonderful comic figure for us.

So fiction may not be true, but it does have rules. Which is perhaps what distinguishes it from simple lying.

Those rules are particularly strict when it comes to historical novels. The basic events described have to be as accurate as possible. The best exponents of this genre therefore put a lot of effort into making sure they are as well informed as they can be, given what’s known about the period in which they set their book. Hilary Mantel’s books about Thomas Cromwell are compelling not just because they are a fine telling of a gripping story, but because we know she’s gone out of her way to get the factual basis right. Of course we realise that she can’t possibly know what Cromwell said to Henry VIII in private, or how he felt about his wife and family, but we allow Mantel licence in that area – we suspend disbelief – because she’s so rigorous elsewhere.

The same is true of Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy, a masterly novel on the Dreyfus affair and its finest figure, Colonel Georges Piquart. If you haven’t read it, read it soon: it’s a great and enthralling piece of fiction supported by fact.

Then, however, we get another kind of writing which is far less honourable. The kind that claims the same kind of adherence to fact as Mantel and Harris espouse, but fails to live up to it.

“All rituals, science, artwork, and monuments in this novel are real,” claims Dan Brown at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code. And then proceeds to lay before us a stream of undiluted tripe. The Priory of Sion was a secret society founded in 1099, he claims, when in fact it was a hoax set up in 1956. There are 666 panes in the Louvre pyramid, the number of beast, according to Brown; in reality, there are 673. Extraordinarily, at one point his characters take the London tube at Temple station, to travel to King’s College, London. Which is right next to Temple tube. No other station is closer.

The Da Vinci code's claim to factual advice
doesn't stop it being unadulterated drivel
This isn’t playing with the rules of a genre, as Pratchett does, it’s flouting them. You make a Mantel type claim about respect for fact, and then deliberately break it.

To me that no longer feels like fiction. It’s simply lying. And I’ve had nothing but contempt for Brown since I realised that’s what he’d done.

Why am I talking about this now? Because something came up the other day to remind me of this particular kind of lie.

We recently watched the 1996 film Fargo and the series of the same name that was spun off from it. Each episode of the series starts with a claim that echoes the one made at the start of the film:

This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

That’s rubbish. The events are completely fictional. Fargo’s claims are just as false as The Da Vinci Code’s. Which is infuriating. 

However, what infuriates me is not that I can’t forgive the creators of Fargo for being so free and easy with the distinction between fiction and lying, but because I can’t write them off for it as I did Dan Brown.

And why can’t I feel as ill-disposed towards them?

Because Fargo
s good. And The Da Vinci Code’s drivel.

Fargo. Outstanding. A lie's a small price to pay
Ultimately, that’s the reality. Fiction? Lies? The only distinction which matters is quality. If it’s well put together, fiction can be forgiven anything, even if it strays over the boundary into falsehood.

Fargo’s good enough. But Dan Brown never wrote sufficiently well to merit that kind of indulgence.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

If you can't handle greatness, it's probably best not to have it thrust on you

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

It’s hard to imagine a time when Britain might need a Labour government more than now. We have a Tory-led administration, supported by walking-dead Liberal Democrats, which has decided that nothing matters more than to get the public sector deficit under control. And, what’s more, that the poor should pay.

They’ve inflicted serious pain pursuing that goal, with legalised loan sharks seeing their business grow astronomically, a huge increase in dependency on food banks, terminally ill people being deemed fit for work, and many of the poorest facing eviction from their accommodation for having a spare bedroom.

And yet they’ve failed to come anywhere near the target they set themselves, at the last election, of eliminating the structural deficit by today.

Just last week, the Conservatives announced that, given the chance, they will do it all again and more. There will be a tax bribe for the middle class, and an attack on support for the poor, and not just the unemployed, but the working poor too. The “hard working” individuals for whom they claim to speak.

This additional suffering, they promise, will let them do in the next five years what they promised and failed to do in the last five.

Even more worrying, for 70 years, the National Health Service has been providing healthcare based on a key principle: it should be free at the time it’s delivered. Nobody in need of care would be asked whether they had the means to pay for it. Now, though, there’s talk of introducing a nightly charge for hospital admissions. Ability to pay and not need might determine access to care. A major liberating component of the post-Second World War settlement is in jeopardy.

In the circumstances, we desperately need Labour back in power, to start to set the balance straight. Labourites launched the NHS; we need them back to defend it. Labour is the party most attached to the welfare state; we need Labour back to keep it alive.

What’s actually happening? Labour, which had an eleven point lead in the polls, saw it fall to seven, and then to three or four. But that lead remained stubbornly in place for months. Nothing the Tories could do would dislodge it. Clearly, as we went into the party conference season over the last few weeks, the key task for Labour was to protect, and if possible extend, that lead.

Instead, Labour had a dire conference. The worst performance was by the leader, Ed Miliband. He insists on giving his keynote addresses without notes. It’s as though we were expected to be impressed by his ability to memorise a speech. He doesn’t seem to have grasped that it’s about as overwhelming as seeing a politician juggle knives: admirable if he does it right, but hardly relevant; and if he does it wrong, he could end up damaging himself seriously.

Ed Miliband, Labour leader: sincere and well-intentioned.
But has he decided to win? Because we need him to
Which is what Miliband did. Intent on proving that he could remember an entire speech, he forgot a key passage from it: he failed to mention the economy. 

An open goal to the Tories, already massively more trusted on the economy – despite failing to keep their promises – than Labour. “Miliband isn’t interested in the economy. He’s forgotten about it,” they proclaimed in their delight.

And went on to hold a far more tightly organised conference where they launched their tax bribe to the middle classes. Result? They increased their “more trusted than Labour on the economy” lead to 20 points, and turned Labour’s 3-4 point lead in the polls overall into a 2-point deficit.

Far from consolidating its position, Labour has lost it.

Sadly, even the walking dead of the Liberal Democrat Party have performed better. Though they’re in coalition with the Tories, their leader Nick Clegg – David Cameron’s deputy – described Cameron as unable to decide whether he was a poor man’s Margaret Thatcher or a rich man’s Nigel Farage. That had him to a tee: caught between an iconic figure of his own party, adulated by its grandees, and the beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking populist leader of UKIP, adored by some of the smallest people in the land.

Oh, if only Miliband, Cameron’s opponent, could be as effective in demolishing him as Clegg, his ally.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness. Miliband had his greatness thrust upon him. He ran for leader of the Labour Party and was losing to his brother, David, right up to the last round of voting, when the unions expressed their view – and gave him a wafer-thin victory.

I often wonder whether he ever really intended to win, or expected that his brother would beat him, as most of us did (and rather hoped: David Miliband has the image and persona of a leader, in a way Ed simply doesn’t). Perhaps he hoped to come a strong second and guarantee himself a big role in his brother’s team.

But then he won and had to decide what to do with his victory. And he doesn’t seem to have decided yet, if fluffing his lines at the last conference before an election is anything to go by. And the question now is, will he ever make up his mind? Is he going to have serious stab at becoming Prime Minister? Or is going to keep on shooting himself, and us, in the foot?

It could be quite funny, in a bleak sort of way. But sadly rather a lot of people depend on it.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Not Islamic. And nothing like a state

The terrorist group Isis has pretensions to being an Islamic State. That State, it claims, will be a new Caliphate. A claim that only demonstrates how little it knows of Islamic history.

Islam had its heroic period. Most cultures do. I’m not terribly keen on heroes or heroic periods, since they tend to cost a lot of other people their lives or their livings. I’m pretty certain that as the Arabs swept out of their peninsula, beat both the Persian and Byzantine Empires to their north, and then spread along the whole of the North African littoral, what happened on the battlefields was ugly in the extreme, and what happened immediately afterwards probably not much better. It was a time when men met in combat to damage each other brutally with steel, and did little that was wholesome to the civilian populations once they
’d beaten their enemies

Just like today, in fact.

So I’m sure heroic Islam had its seamy side. On the other hand, it also did something remarkable. It didn’t hold grudges. The Islamic armies didn’t put their opponents to death; they didn’t even try to convert them. Their defeated enemies might be reduced to what was technically slavery, but they weren’t killed or tortured and they often found themselves being recruited into the armies that had just beaten them – where they could pursue careers under their new masters.

The result was that often within a generation, the newly subjected peoples were in the forefront of Islamic advance themselves. Now, that’s what I call true statesmanship: make an ally of your former enemy, and you strengthen him and yourself. What could be shrewder?

And what could contrast more starkly with what’s happening in Isis today? Where they go, they rape and murder. Those who are not of their religion are put mercilessly to the blade – literally, since beheading is one of their favourite rituals. Far from turning those they conquer into allies, they turn them into mutilated corpses.

Worse still, they even kill the individuals who are trying to help their people. Alan Henning, the latest hostage beheaded by Isis, was an aid worker trying to bring help to Syrian victims of civil war. Muslims, co-religionists of Isis. And yet he was killed too. Which is certainly not a response to service that Islam favours.

One of the most striking illustrations of how different the original Caliphate was is provided by the Muslim conquest of Spain. The army that took on and defeated the Visigothic Spanish kings, was predominantly Berber rather than Arab. And yet the Berbers had been overrun by Arab Muslims just a generation earlier.

Gibraltar: Jabal Tariq, where Tariq ibn Ziyad landed his
predominantly Berber force and began the Muslim conquest of Spain
Even once in Spain, the Muslims armies didn’t massacre non-Muslims. On the contrary, they brought peace to a mainly Christian peasantry, so that it kept producing the wealth the Caliph’s new province needed. Even the Jews, victims of persecution by the Visigoths, became allies who held one city when the soldiers moved on to attack the next.

Statesmanlike. And servants of Islam.

But nothing like Isis.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

A good man murdered by ISIS. And the consequences we have to resist.

Some weeks ago, the BBC interviewed several Manchester taxi drivers, about their former colleague Alan Henning, the latest victim of the ISIS group in Iraq and Syria, which tries to call itself “Islamic State”.

His colleagues described a man who always had the time to help out others. Henning was particularly adept at fixing the electrics on a car; he would give up his own opportunity to take fares, working on other cars instead, if colleagues needed it.

It was that same willingness to help others which took Henning several times to Syria, to try to bring much-needed help to the victims of civil war in that country. It was on a visit nine months ago that he was abducted and held by ISIS, which apparently murdered him yesterday.

The qualities that drove him to travel to Syria are precisely the kind that Islam values. It is, after all, one of the pillars of the religion to provide alms to the poor; here was a man trying to help people made poor by conflict
. Indeed, many of his fellow aid workers were Muslim, underlining the point that what they were doing was wholly in keeping with the tenets of their religion.

None of that stopped ISIS beheading him.
Alan Henning: driven by compassion, murdered by ISIS
Then again, ISIS has little or nothing to do with promoting Islam. It is a barbaric organisation in pursuit of power and more than happy to crush anyone who gets in its way. Indeed, not just happy, they seem to draw real pleasure from the prospect of killing, and killing in the most cruel and vicious way. Rape and torture follow in their wake wherever they go.

Equally, British government opposition to ISIS has little to do with religion or even with the protection of men like Alan Henning. The government has, no doubt, given up hope of rescuing any of the hostages held by ISIS: they will be murdered, one by one, as ISIS decides that the time is right, and no one in the West can do anything to stop them.

The government’s motivation is also primarily to do with power. On the one hand, there is popularity to be won by taking on and, it is to be hoped, defeating ISIS. To say nothing of the great photo opps that a war provides for an embattled Prime Minister.

Cameron visiting RAF crews in Syria
Support crucial to their effectiveness.
And, coincidentally, a good photo opp too
But there’s also another aspect that Cameron is enthusiastic to turn to advantage: the sheer savagery of ISIS has excited a wave of aversion in Britain, and with aversion comes fear. Cameron is whipping up that fear and using it as wonderful means to drive more people to support a government perceived is the last best defence against this terrorist group, and in order to limit still further pesky human rights legislation, always an annoyance to government.

There have already been calls by such significant Tories as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to require people returning from Syria to prove they were not engaged in terrorism, reversing the usual arrangement whereby it is up to the prosecution to prove that they were.

We recently saw a case of where the government is heading. An action was brought against former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg who had made a number of trips to Syria. Two days ago, as his trial on terrorism charges was about to start, MI5 admitted that it had maintained excellent communications with Begg, interviewing him several times and using him as a source on the situation in Syria, even guaranteeing him the right to return to Britain from Syria unmolested. The case fell apart.

Now I don’t know whether Begg is as clean as wind-driven snow, or up to no good. What I do know is that he hasn’t been convicted of any crime – indeed, the case against him had to be withdrawn by the prosecuting authorities. From the point of view of the law, he’s innocent.

And yet – the government decided it would not immediately unfreeze his assets. A man who has not been convicted of any offence, has his assets frozen on the mere say-so of the government.

The same government that now wants ministers to be able to overrule judgements of the European Court of Human Rights, on their own authority.

A lot of people will find Begg thoroughly antipathetic. They will feel that he deserves everything he gets. But what they are losing track of is when once you give the government the right to decide who deserves to have his or her rights protected, you give it that power over you rights too.

It’s worth remembering the words of the anti-Nazi pastor, Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist. 

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist. 

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew. 

Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me. 

Let's hope that Alan Hemming, brave and generous, receives a better tribute.