Saturday, 31 January 2015

On learning each other's languages. With a passing thought about Quakers

For their tolerance and gentleness, Quakers have always struck me as one of the most attractive faith communities I know. And my admiration has been shared by many down the years. Here, for instance, is an extract from an eighteenth-century account of a visit to a Quaker:

I never in my life saw a more noble or a more engaging aspect than his. He was dressed like those of his persuasion, in a plain coat without pleats in the sides, or buttons on the pockets and sleeves; and had on a beaver, the brims of which were horizontal like those of our clergy. He did not uncover himself when I appeared, and advanced towards me without once stooping his body; but there appeared more politeness in the open, humane air of his countenance, than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and taking that from the head which is made to cover it.

The endearing rejection of convention – the refusal to bow or remove one’s hat – without displaying either discourtesy or unfriendliness was far from the most admirable of the Quaker’s qualities. Here’s the same writer’s view of the behaviour of William Penn, the Quaker founder of the colony of Pennsylvania:

The first step he took was to enter into an alliance with his American neighbours, and this is the only treaty between those people and the Christians that was not ratified by an oath, and was never infringed.

William Penn, in the plain garb of a Quaker
His agreement with Native Americans was unsworn, and unbroken
The ethnic cleansing of the native American population has to rank alongside slavery as the great bleak underside of the experiment in freedom the United States represents. It’s good to know that one attempt at least was made by the White invaders to treat on more decent terms with the original inhabitants, and it was made by a group who never swore oaths, as a matter of principle, but kept their word far better than others ever did.

However, it’s not for what they’re saying that I quoted these passages, however apposite they may be. It’s for the language they are in. For they were written in English, but not by an Englishman: they come from the pen of a giant of French writing, Voltaire, in his Letters on England.

It’s curious that one of the complaints I often hear from from Brits who’ve been abroad is that so few people out there speak English. This from people who often speak no language but their own. Still, it’s true that it remains amazing how few ever learn any other nation’s language. There are exceptions: in Copenhagen at least (I don’t know how things are in the more rural parts of Denmark) I was astonished not just by how many spoke English, but how well. That led me to feel that English was, for them, more of a second language than a foreign one.

Amsterdam is a city where I often feel embarrassed, at the way that the simplest people can understand and express themselves so easily in my language, though I can’t speak a word of theirs. I’m often told how many speak English in Germany, but I have to assume the people who tell me that haven’t been out in the countrysode much. It only takes a day or two in the Black Forest to realise that much of Germany remains strictly monolingual, or possibly bilingual, between High German (or “written German” as they call it) and the local dialect.

And then there’s France. Last autumn I was in a car hire office in Mallorca when my ears were assailed by a woman’s complaining in French about where she could find anyone who spoke her language. “I may be able to help,” I told her in her mother tongue, and she latched on to me as to some kind of saviour. The young woman behind the counter had been trying to explain to her that, while the staff were Spanish, they did all at least speak the recognised international language, English, but could hardly be expected also to speak the language of every foreigner who showed up in the place.

That seemed reasonable to me, but obviously not to the woman I proceeded to help out. In exactly the same way as most Brits, she clearly felt that the world had an obligation to speak her language, a possible result of belonging to one of the two great imperial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: British and French felt they could use their own languages to issue orders to other peoples and expect to be obeyed, if only because they had the bayonets and cannon behind them to ensure it happened. There may be a hangover of those attitudes still left in both nations.

Clearly, that wasn’t the case with Voltaire. He showed up in England in May 1726, having chosen exile as preferable to continued imprisonment in the Bastille: he’d had an argument with a thoroughly worthless but unfortunately noble young man back in Paris, who’d had his servants attack and beat him with sticks in the street; when Voltaire demanded justice of the authorities, he found no one would back him, a commoner, against an aristocrat; when he persisted in demanding satisfaction, he was thrown in gaol.

Funnily enough, his departure from England was little different. It’s not known exactly what he did, but it seems to have involved something like forging a letter of credit. As he left France to avoid prison, he returned to avoid the gallows.

Voltaire: bright guy, though always in trouble
And able to master a language other than his own
In the meantime, he’d learned English, Indeed, within eighteen months he’d learned enough to start writing in the language, including the Letters on England I’ve been quoting. That piece turned into one of his most important works, the Lettres Philosophiques, whose subversive content nearly got him back in gaol again. 

It’s remarkable to me that it was initially in English.

We’re not all as talented as Voltaire, of course. We don’t all have the drive and the willpower he had to master a foreign language so thoroughly. But if international understanding starts with understanding each other’s words, as I believe it does, wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could at least aspire to imitate him?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Films: aren't they for enjoyment?

What I don’t like about most film reviewers is that they seem to emphasise originality above all other qualities. This means that they tend to value only those shows that have broken with tradition by doing something utterly different, like abandon plot, character or coherence. Sadly, in my view that means they end up doing something tediously the same: bore me to tears.

I cling to the outdated and banal notion that the cinema ought to be fun.

At the moment there seems to be a bit of fixation in Hollywood with to biopics about unusual and outstanding scientists.

That’s produced two highly entertaining films marked by some fine performances. I find Alan Turing exceptionally interesting. My admiration isn’t limited to his role in breaking the Germans’ Enigma code in World War 2, but is based at least as much on the thinking that prepared him for that work, and which he took further through it, on what has come to be known as the “Turing Machine.” That theoretical model of a fully automated, mechanical process underlies all modern computing.

And then there’s the bitter tragedy of his life. Hounded to his death by the police in a Britain that still had laws against homosexuality, to which it sacrificed one of its most original thinkers.
Turing with the boys of Hut 8.
One of whom happened to be a woman
A film has to limit its scope, and the biopic of Turing, The Imitation Game, focuses on the battle against Enigma and on the persecution of the homosexual, and does both things well. That produces a fine and highly watchable film, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role, well supported by Keira Knightley. Its narrow focus does mean, on the other hand, that a great deal about this unusual man is left. Curiously, though, that very fact did spur me to tackle the biography, by Andrew Hodges, on which the film is based. Alan Turing: the Enigma gives a far more complete picture (well, yes, it’s a long book). It also explains where the phrase “the imitation game” comes from: Hodges uses it to describe Turing’s striving in the 1930s to appear to be someone he wasn’t.

The Theory of Everything does something slightly odd in the genre, by telling the story of a living scientist, in this instance Stephen Hawking. The performance of Eddie Redmayne in the lead role is outstanding; he contorts his face to try to look like someone suffering from Motor Neurone Disease to the point where at times I wondered how he could keep acting. And at other times whether I was really looking at Hawking.

Stephen and Jane.
In the short time before the MND struck
The film is based on the autobiography of Jane Hawking (brought to life by Felicity Jones), and tells the story of their life together from falling in love while Hawking was a postgraduate, to their divorce but continuing affection. It’s entertaining and well told. A good way to spend a couple of hours.

The French playwright Jean Giraudoux called one of his plays Amphytrion 38, on the grounds that he could count 37 previous treatments of the Greek myth of Amphytrion. On that basis, Ex Machina could probably be referred to as Pygmalion 99, though 99 may be a low estimate.

You know the story: a man (yes, it’s always a man), somehow fashions a woman (and, yes, she’s never particularly hard on the eyes). Then he falls in love with her and finds that she doesn’t entirely reciprocate his feelings, if she reciprocates them at all.

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina
making it clear you play at being a god at  your own peril
Ex Machina introduces some good twists and turns into that basic structure, and moves it into contemporary times – we’re talking Artificial Intelligence, curiously a notion dear to Alan Turning – rather than a statue into which a god breathes life. It also has an ingenious ending, which it approaches by sustained creepiness throughout, and all in a glorious setting.

And then finally there’s the film which even I have to admit is probably pretty rubbish, but which I enjoyed all the same. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I like sports films (as I like thrillers and court room dramas – all I have to see is police milling around with forensics experts in white suits, or lawyers going at each other hammer and tongs, to want to see more). 

Now most sports films follow one tried and tested formula: team doing appalling badly after suicide of star player/gaoling of manager/ghastly accident killing half the players (delete as applicable); new dynamic manager/fading star breaking from alcoholism/young player ignored by agents due to poor physique (delete as applicable) joins and the victories start to pile up; after a suspense-laden semi-final won in the last gasp of match time, the team qualifies for the final of the prestigious knock-out championship; in that final, against the favoured team of the year, it either wins in a nail-bitingly close encounter despite attempts to cheat by the opposing side, or is beaten in a nail-bitingly close encounter from which it emerges head held high and with honour resplendent.

Kevin Costner being thoughtful in Draft Day,
a film that requires little thought
Draft Day is nothing like that. First of all, it takes place within the space of less than a single day, thus preserving the classical unity of time (which, as I’ve said before, I rather like). If, like me, you know nothing about the process by which American football teams draft players from the College game, the film will teach you some quite intriguing lessons: it’s redolent of a slave market, which considering most of the players are black, is particularly poignant. I might add that I had a small and politically entirely incorrect smile when one black player announced “I’m going to be a Brown” (he was joining the Cleveland Browns), but I suspect that wasn’t an intentional joke.

What gives the film its entertainment value is the negotiating process in which the leading character, played by Kevin Costner, trades with other team managers the right to make different picks among the players on offer, in order to maximise what he sees as the benefit for his own club.

It’s a decidedly second – well, probably tenth – rate film, but I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Should we fear Tsipras bearing gifts?

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, the old saying has it. Though what Virgil actually wrote – timeo Danaos et dona ferentes – translates more closely as “I fear the Greeks even when they bear gifts.”

The Greeks brought us a gift on Sunday, and it’s certainly dangerous. Will Alexis Tsipras, the new Prime Minister, succeed in his bid to free his compatriots of the scourge of austerity while staying in the EU and even the Eurozone? Or will he throw the whole continent into instability and further crisis?

Tsipras of Syriza: bearing a gift, to be feared – or welcomed?
We simply don’t know. But one thing we learned from the weekend election is that if you create sufficient despair in a people, with a prospect only of more suffering ahead, they will ultimately vote for a change whatever the risks may be. Again and again, I’ve heard Greek voters telling journalists, “in winter, I can’t afford to heat.” 

Why would anyone put up with that indefinitely?

And it would indeed be indefinite. There’s no prospect of Greek recovery yet. The economy has shrunk by a quarter since the international financial collapse of 2008. It is growing now if you ignore the burden of debt repayment, but in the case of Greece, that’s not something you can ignore. The austerity Greeks have suffered for five years has only led to a crippling debt mountain which is beginning to fall due for payment, promising only more dreary pain ahead.

The answer proposed by the EU and the previous Greek government is more austerity. More, in other words, of precisely the same remedy that has failed so far and led to the despair so many feel. More of a remedy which we’ve known, since Keynes, isn’t going to work.

He called it the paradox of thrift. When in debt, the standard reasoning goes, you need to save money to pay off what you owe. That works fine at the level of the individual. But at the level of a nation, it’s a disaster. If we’re all spending less, the economy contracts. People lose their jobs. They stop paying taxes. Government revenues fall. Debts climb.

That’s what’s happened in Greece. It’s happened in Britain too. We’ve had five years of austerity policies. The health service is screaming in pain. Social care has been cut massively at a time when people hope it might take some of the strain off the NHS. Libraries are closing. The education service, for which the government likes to claim all sorts of success, is failing to turn out skilled labour so that the building industry isn’t able to gear up to the challenges ahead – and the housing crisis intensifies.

Meanwhile, the poor are being put to the rack like their Greek counterparts. The unemployed and sick, naturally, but even the working poor whose praises the government likes to sing: tax credits for low earners have been eliminated, assistance for young children gone, assistance from local authorities cut back as those authorities are starved of funding.

Meanwhile, as Polly Toynbee points out, at the opposite end of scale, the top 1% of earners, have done well from austerity – just like their counterparts in Greece. In the run up to the election on 7 May, the Conservative Party is explicitly promising more of the same: cuts that will take state spending down to the level of the 1930s, but £7 billion of tax cuts for the wealthiest.

So what gift have the Greeks given us? A model. An example we might care to follow. An illustration of the fact that one can say no, demand that the wealthy nations help the poorer with a more open hand, and that even within a nation, the rich can shoulder more of the burden to free the poor from some of the suffering.

But we’re told to fear the Greeks with their gifts. Certainly, there’s no guarantee Tsipras will be able to pull off his trick. And if the move to question the received wisdom of the self-serving Right is limited to the south of the continent – perhaps Spain and Portugal alongside Greece – while the wealthier North holds firm, there’s little likelihood that the movement will lead on to success.

But if the rest of us also learn to say no, and if we find leaders prepared to say no with us, the election of Tsipras may turn into a turning point that can transform our lives throughout Europe.

In which case we should all welcome the gifts the Greeks are bearing. Even if they are a little fearsome.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Germany: memories, but also a lesson for the rest of us

Yesterday, we went to the British Museum, to visit the “Germany: memories of a nation” exhibition before it shuts on Sunday.

It was also the opportunity to catch up with an old friend we don’t see anything like enough. She joined us at the show and we went for a drink with her afterwards, which made the evening especially pleasurable.

The show is part of a tryptic with a series of BBC Radio 4 broadcasts (now available as downloadable podcasts, for free, and well worth listening to), along with a book, all credited to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, who led the team that produced them.

Hans Schlottheim's golden Mechanical Galleon
or Nef moves around by clockwork, cannon firing
The exhibition has wonderful pieces, such as a golden mechanical galleon or the best known portrait of Goethe, as well known in Germany as the bust of Shakespeare in Britain: on radio, McGregor put this to the test by stopping people in the street in Frankfurt and asking them to identify the subject – no one was in any doubt. Even so, as our friend pointed out, the show ends disappointingly: after tracing the horror of the Nazi period and the Holocaust, and the division of the nation after the war, it takes us up to reunification in the early 90s and leaves it at that.

Tischbein's portrait of Goethe, recognised throughout Germany
It fails to cover the emergence of Germany as Europe’s leading nation, not merely financially, but in its striving to cultivate a society based on rights and tolerance. That’s a story worth telling, not least because it has by no means been straightforward: there’s been many an attempt to turn the clock back. Recently we’ve seen the emergence of the xenophobic PEGIDA movement, as unpleasant as France’s Front National or Britain’s UKIP. PEGIDA’s leader recently had to resign after having posted on Facebook a picture of himself in a Hitler hairstyle and even the toothbrush moustache.

To make up for the gap in the exhibition, I’m going to tell one of the stories from the book and series but only hinted at in the show: the tale of the Jews of Offenbach.

Back in 1916, a magnificent Synagogue was opened in Offenbach, a suburb of Frankfurt. But on Kristallnacht in November 1938, when Nazi crowds attacked Jewish properties throughout Germany (crystal night because so many windows were smashed), the Synagogue was desecrated. By 1945, few Jews remained in Offenbach, mostly not German but from further east, and even they had little intention of staying, but were merely waiting for the opportunity to move on to the US or Israel.

By the fifties, however, the community there began to feel that they were obviously going to be around for a while longer, so perhaps they really ought to have a Synagogue again. At least for as long as they were still there.

The authorities offered them their old synagogue back, but it was much too big, and had too many bad memories. So instead the municipality granted them a new plot of land across the street. The British Museum exhibition included a small architectural model of the buildings. Architect Alfred Jacoby told MacGregor “It was as far from the street as possible; it looks as if the architect squashed the building as far as he could to the back of the site.”

The Offenbach Synagogue of the fifties: keeping well out of the way
This was a community that didn’t feel safe and preferred to be inconspicuous.

But Jews kept coming. One of them was Rabbi Mendel Gurewitz, who moved there from New York. He makes a telling point in the series: “There was a Jewish history, a very Jewish history, here in Germany, and it’s a shame just to decide, because of Hitler, they don’t want the Jews here any more, that you should completely close that country, close it for the Jews.”

Most of the new arrivals came from the East and, in particular, after the fall of the Soviet Union, huge numbers came from Russia. Some of the emigrants decided that Israel simply didn’t have the climate for them, so they came to Germany where, paradoxically, they felt at home – and above all safe. Germany has the most rapidly growing Jewish community in Europe.

Suddenly, the Offenbach synagogue, charming though it was, was too small. The community that decided to extend it wasn’t living in fear any more and felt no need to keep itself invisible. The new Synagogue is imposing and it fronts the street. “We are here,” it says, “this is our home, we belong here as much as anyone else.” And it’s beautiful.

The Offenbach Synagogue as extended in 1998
A self-confident community, proud to be Jews in Germany
The detail that particularly caught my attention comes again from Alfred Jacoby, who designed the new building:

You have a new multi-purpose hall, you have a kindergarten and so on. In fact our kindergarten is interesting because it is a completely interreligious kindergarten with a Jewish base. We have one third Muslim children, one third Christian children and one third Jewish children, yet children will all sit and sing Jewish festival songs and so on. It actually works.

Yes. It actually works. You can mix people with different faiths and have them do joyful things together, even the things of one of the faiths. Start with the kids and, who knows, one might set a pattern for life.

A feel-good story. About multi-culturalism. With Jews at the centre.

From Germany.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Misty's Diary: cat flap treachery and domestic incompetence

Another entry from Misty’s diary. In which he witnesses the curious process of handiwork undertaken by the less satisfactory element of his domestic staff.

January 2015

Well, well. It’s been amusing watching Domestic number 2 at work.

Or what he erroneously imagines to be work.

It all started when my cat flap – MY cat flap – turned treacherous and viciously assaulted me. Oh, yes. You can’t imagine what that feels like.

A cat flap’s a passageway, a means of getting into and out of a place. This one came off the door and ambushed me. There I was, innocently coming through MY entrance to the house, when suddenly it grabbed me around the waist and wouldn’t let go. A plastic frame, like nothing so much as a gaping mouth, with the flap bit still attached, like nothing so much as a ghastly tongue.

I’m not too proud to admit that I was a little anxious for a moment. Not, I repeat not, panic-stricken as some slanderous tongues have suggested. Just worried enough to take appropriate action. What ought to have been a door had turned, without warning, into jaws that had me in their clutches. 

I went straight down on my back and let it have it with all claws drawn. Never been caught in a predator’s maw like that before and, believe you me, it’s no fun. I saw it off fast and made a break for freedom.

Domestic number 1 was quite nice about it.

“Oh, poor Misty!’ she exclaimed. “The cat flap’s come right off the door and he’s stuck in it.”

Domestic number 2 just laughed. Rather distastefully, it seemed to me.

“If he weren’t so bloody fat he’d have got through without difficulty. No wonder he got caught at the waist.”

Honestly, the things he says. And then gets upset when I bite him.

Anyway, he got his comeuppance straight away.

“I’m going to go an buy a new cat flap. I’ll even buy you a jigsaw,” said Number One. “Then you can put it in this afternoon.”

He said something like “Yes, dear,” but the fear in his eyes and his drooping shoulders told a far less positive story.

She turned up with the new cat flap and hour or so later.

“This one will do. It’s for large cats or small dogs,” she announced. As though it were good news. For the record, just because all the other cats round here are feeble little creatures, doesn’t make me a big cat.

You should have seen Domestic number 2 setting to work.

I never tire of watching Domestic number 2
trying to prove he isn't completely inept
“This illustration’s no good. The screws can’t possibly go there.”

“Yes, they can,” she explained in that tone of voice she adopts when he needs something simple clarified for him. You know, each syllable carefully detached from the previous one, all enunciated terribly clearly, and a little slowly. “That’s not an illustration, it’s a template. Cut it out, pin it to the door, mark all the way round, then cut to your markings.”

Well, he didn’t. He cut a bit round the existing opening. And tried to force the cat flap in. Which didn’t work. So he cut some more off. And failed again. 

Every time he cut the saw made an appalling racket. The chap next door works nights and tries to sleep during the day. He must have cursed! The domestics used to say they had a neighbour from hell. Shes gone, but the nice family who took her place must be wondering what sort of neighbours they have. 

Domestic number 1 came to take a look.

“What you’ve cut is far too small,” she said, “just take a look at the template.”

“It’s not a template,” he said, but by then it was just a grumble, without conviction.

“Look,” she said, “let me show you.”

She took a pair of scissors and cut expertly for a few seconds. She then held a perfectly cat flap shaped piece of paper up against the door.

“See? You haven’t cut enough.”

“Oh,” he said, looking abashed. 

Ten minutes more cutting and he’d got it about right. 

He’d cut a bit too much to be honest, so the plastic bit’s a little loose in the hole, but hey, for Domestic Number 2 that’s a triumph of engineering precision.

It had only taken him an hour and a half to do a twenty-minute job. Bending the jigsaw blade beyond repair in the process.

Still, the flap works fine. Much quieter. Smoother.

And it doesn’t try to make me look fat by taking me unawares and grabbing me round the middle.

Monday, 19 January 2015

A friend to treasure. Though we never met

Facebook does some things well. The best, in my experience, is that it can make friends of strangers, friends who haven’t even met, who in the old sense of the word, may never meet.

That was our experience with Bob Patterson.

It started with his posting occasional comments on my blog.They were always insightful or funny or both, and at one point Danielle asked me, “who is this Bob? He seems so clever and kind.” So in November 2010, we sought him out on Facebook.

That made us what I like to think of as “friends”. In the Facebook sense. With quotation marks.

Bob: a "friend" since November 2010, and then a friend indeed
The cleverness and kindness continued.

“He always brightens up the day, doesn’t he?” Danielle would say, as the occasional comments sprinkled our posts.

Gradually, they grew and blossomed into more sustained exchanges, and almost imperceptibly, we moved from simple “friends” to proper friends.

”You know,” Danielle added, “he could be a brother of yours, with his sense of humour and his attitudes.”

We had much in common, but he outdid me in gentleness and generosity of spirit.

It did occur to us that only chatting on Facebook, while perfectly satisfactory as far as it went, would never beat actually meeting, physically, in the flesh. Danielle and I could travel to the States to catch up with him in Kansas; then again, Bob seemed attracted to the idea of coming over to Europe so that we could all three travel down to Italy. Great plans, to be revisited at some unspecified date in the future, when we would all have more time.

While we were waiting, the comments continued. Never unpleasant, always warming. He’d crush a lousy pun of mine with a far worse one or, even more gallingly, a more subtle one. Or he’d simply throw out some gentle wit or wisdom.

On a photo of me trailing along fifty metres behind my dog, it was “dog walks man.” Laconic, perfectly balanced, entirely inoffensive, deserving a smile.

Back in December, replying to a post about the cough afflicting both Danielle and me, he wrote: “Mankoff and womankoff in your household? Get well.”

On New Year’s Day, he posted a card which advised us all to kiss someone who thought we were wonderful.

“The last creature to kiss me who thought I was wonderful,” Bob pointed out, “had ears down to her knees and legs up to her wagging tail.”

Deprecating his own insomnia just over a week ago, he posted: “Popsicle sticks are made from the wood of the white birch. Go back to bed.”

I enjoyed the whimsy of the thought, and as always with Bob, it left me smiling.

Those smiles, those little brightening moments, are what we’ll most remember of Bob. They’ll be cheering memories but, sadly, memories are now all we’re going to have. Because during the night of Saturday to Sunday, Bob who we thought had been recovering from his long spate of ill health, succumbed to it and died.

There’ll be no more comments, and it’s only now I realise how much I looked out for them: a “like” was always welcome, a reply still more so, the absence of a comment frankly disappointing. There’ll be no meeting in Kansas. There’ll be no trip to Italy. We waited for when we had time, and now time has run out.

It was wonderful to have had four years of Bob’s friendship. But I would have liked another five or ten or fifteen. We would both have liked to get to know him a great deal better and do some of the things we’d panned.

Which brings me back to the beginning. Facebook does many things well. But it’s only a vehicle, a medium. What brings it to life, what makes it shine, is people.

When it comes to people, nobody did more than Bob to make Facebook shine. With a gentle, warming, cheering light that did everyone who felt it good.

Farewell, Bob. We’re going to miss you. And remember with pleasure the short time we shared.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Thoughts spun, words mangled

It’s wonderful how the human mind can twist its thoughts to meet its wishes.

My wife has just finished her first week in a new post. Interestingly, she’s taken a job in the same line as our eldest son, neatly reversing the tradition of children following parents into their chosen professions. 

The stress of taking up a new position makes it perfectly comprehensible that this morning, a Saturday, she slept in a little.

But me? I had no such excuse.

The result of waking late was that, when I decided that the minor badminton injury I’m still carrying meant I shouldn’t play today, and that we could go for a swim instead, it was perilously close to the 10:00 end of the session at our local pool. In the end, we had only 25 minutes in the water, an embarrassingly short swim.

“Ah well,” I said to myself, “it’s best to start gently again after a week off for an injury. Gradually ramp back up.”

Now I know that’s just a variant on the sour grapes story: presenting the effects of laziness as an apparent instance of judicious thinking on my part.

Still, in the French version of the Fox and the Grapes story, La Fontaine finishes by asking whether the disappointed animal didn’t do better by writing off the unreachable grapes as undesirable, rather than living with his regret. “Didn’t he do better than to complain?” the poet asks.

The Fox and the Grapes:
La Fontaine gave a new twist to Aesop's fable
I think my gentle – how shall I put this? – readjustment of the reasons for the shortness of the swim, admirably fits that approach to life. It’s spin, of course, a key tool of us marketing types, and boy, is it useful. As any politician or other advertiser can testify.

The visit to the pool provided other lessons too. The Brits complain of the Germans devious use of beach towels to book sun loungers by hotel swimming pools, or deck chairs on the beach (odd term that, isn’t it? What deck are they on?) This is something my compatriots consider both deplorable and risible.

So it was amusing to find that a lot of the swimmers this morning had left their outdoor clothes and other kit in the changing cubicles, thereby booking them for their own private use. 

A secondary effect is that it avoids them the expenditure of 20 pence on a locker. There must be things you can still buy for 20p, but I can’t think of an example off hand. And certainly nothing particularly desirable. Many of these cubicle occupiers are children on swimming courses that cost their parents significant sums; it’s hard to imagine that 20p more would make much of a difference.

The habit’s particularly irritating when sheer numbers of people mean there are no other cubicles free, as was the case today. The solution was obvious, and we adopted it: we used the cubicles anyway. Telling kids frantically knocking on the door that the cubicles weren’t theirs to book was as satisfying as piling a bunch of beach towels onto one deck chair, to use the others.

Private booking of public amenities
Irritating but by no means confined to the Germans
Not that the kids will have learnt anything. Words are far less powerful than one likes to believe. But then, we misuse them so often. I recently reminded a colleague that others were waiting for him to complete a task, and he replied:

“Ah, yes, sorry, that still requires an action on my behalf.”

My view was that the only action required on his behalf was a well-placed but metaphorical boot up the backside. That might get him to do what was needed on his part.

But perhaps I’m being unfair, inferring more from his statement than he was implying. Or, as he would no doubt express it, the other way round.

Ah, words, words. How we misuse them. Back in the pool, I got to thinking about the word “cool”. I suppose its positive connotation comes from a certain ideal of calm and self-control. There are, however, plenty of things it’s not particularly cool to have cool: a bath, a coffee, a reception.

Come to that, the pool’s pretty cool. Which is one of the least cool things about it.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

France and Britain: defending our freedoms. Aren't they?

Now that the first outburst of grief and solidarity’s past, we’re beginning to see what the longer-term impact of the terrorist action against Charlie Hebdo is going to be.

Make no mistake: they may be dead, the magazine may be publishing five million copies, the cartoons may be travelling round the world, but the terrorists haven’t failed completely. And sadly the measure of victory they’ll have gained will be through our self-inflicted defeat.

First of all, France that has proclaimed most loudly its passionate determination to defend free speech against this attack, has arrested 54 people and summarily jailed several of them, for voicing support for its enemies or merely criticism of the nation and its principles. It seems, for instance, that three men have been jailed in Toulouse, for shouting obscenities at the police, including in one case the sentiment that the Kouachi brothers (the Charlie Hebdo murderers) were “just the start.”

The police protect precisely those freedoms
governments feel we should be allowed
It’s a vile sentiment, and also a vacuous one – this is by no means the first terrorist attack the West has suffered, so it certainly isn’t the start, and if he was saying that there would be others, he was teaching us nothing we didn’t already know: we surely all realise there will be more attacks, and our jobs is to learn to resist and to face with fortitude whatever they throw at us. In any case, vile though the statement may be, we’ve rightly been loud in proclaiming that there is no right not to be offended, and indeed that the right to be offensive is essential to freedom of speech.

We should be above taking offence at such inept comments. But, above all, even if allow them to offend us, we should be asking ourselves about what right we have to jail anyone for voicing them.

This is part of a pattern. It was only last November that France tightened the law on what could be posted on the internet. In common with a number of other nations, it also has a law against Holocaust denial, a particularly bizarre limitation on freedom of speech: to deny the Holocaust is massively stupid but, taking my cue from A Few Good Men, being a moron isn’t against the law. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

In Britain, in the meantime, the security services have been quick to demand additional powers, “to protect us.” The government is calling for an end to encryption on the internet (which as well as being an unwarranted intrusion into our privacy, would destroy e-commerce that depends on passing encrypted credit card details). All this to ensure that the spooks can collect even more information about us all.

This is despite the fact that the French authorities knew about all three the terrorists, just as the British agencies knew the men who literally butchered Fusilier Lee Rigby, with knives and a cleaver. It isn’t that they have insufficient information, it’s that they haven’t found a way yet to identify the information that really matters from the mass at their disposal – or rather, not to identify it each and every time: a great many plots are foiled, but it seems impossible to stop them all.

Meanwhile the British government is calling on the British people to acquiesce in further erosion of its rights, on the grounds that this is the way to make them safer. While the French government, no doubt with popular support, sets out to mark its commitment to free expression by jailing men for expressing views it dislikes.

The fact that neither I not the vast majority of my compatriots on either side of the Channel (I’m a citizen of both countries) don’t like the views either, doesn’t make their repression any less of a blow against free speech.

Be careful. The terrorists will have won if we go along with our governments’ instinctive reaction to such an attack, which is to limit freedoms further. Now that the dust has settled, it’s our job to resist not just the terrorists, but government overreach too.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Solving the NHS crisis: it's the staff, dummy

It’s pretty widely known, even beyond British shores, that the NHS is in crisis (even though the crisis is denied, within these shores, by the government chiefly responsible for provoking i).

A recent NHS England document summed up the problem. An ageing population and the changing conditions the NHS has to treat, generate a 1.3% increase in demand each year. Add to that the arrival of new, often far more effective but significantly more expensive treatments, and the increase is more like 3%. In response to that upward pressure to do more, the government is demanding that the service keep finding ways to save money, by doing things more efficiently.

That’s from a service which has been squeezed on pay for years. In the current year, 2014/15, the independent pay review body set up by government recommended a 1% increase, which was derisory. But the government refused to implement even that: staff have been told to make do with no increase, and therefore a real-terms pay cut.

The staff hit back: sign at Hinchingbrooke Hospital
This isn’t to deny that there are ways the NHS could do things more cheaply. 

The big change is to prevent avoidable admissions to hospitals. Treatment in hospital is much the most expensive way of delivering care, and in the current year – which ends in March – we are already running 4% over plan. Clearly, something’s not right.

Keeping people out of hospital isn’t easy, however. What it requires is the provision of significant levels of care out in the community. For instance, a lot of care could be delivered by district nurses, who travel to patients’ homes, provide some of the care they need as well as helping the patients look after themselves. Since a district nurse visit costs in the region of £50 as opposed to £500 as pretty much the minimum for a hospital stay, it clearly makes sense to push this option – especially as most people prefer to be treated in their own home and often recover far better there than in hospital.

So it seems contradictory that from 12,000 district nurses in 2003, we’re down to 5500 today.

Equally, a lot of hope is being expressed on having some of the burden taken up by social care (care homes, domiciliary visits, social workers, etc.), run not by the NHS but by municipal government. But local councils have been hit particularly hard in the last few years, so social care budgets are down by 26%.

In other words, we know what needs to be done, but we take away the resources to do it. 

Sadly, Labour, while saying it would do more for healthcare, is also trying to cultivate an image of fiscal prudence, claiming that while it might not hammer public service as savagely as the Tories, it is still going to make cuts. Which may help explain why Labour has been haemorrhaging support among the young to the rather more radical Green party.

But let us come back to the question of that pay freeze in the NHS.

Things haven’t been particularly good in the private sector either, where pay rises over the last few years have tended be anything between nothing at all and a couple of percent or so, except at the very top: the people who’ve been loudest in proclaiming the necessity for pay restraint at the bottom have been more than happy to help themselves to 10, 20 or 30% increases in their own pay packets.

But even with small increases, over time the gap in salary between the health service and private industry, for the same skill level, has been growing steadily. Just as the constant increase in demand for healthcare has put staff under increasingly severe pressure. All of which makes a transfer out of the service more and more attractive, year by year.

That’s a step my wife has just made.

The same NHS England document I mentioned before assures us that “Our staff are our most precious and expensive resource, accounting for around two thirds of provider expenditure. There are opportunities to improve efficiency and the quality of care through better retention of our existing staff…”

Indeed. It might be good if the people who control the purse strings heeded that kind of notion.

The Tories will never listen. But Labour: are you listening? The NHS is one of your strongest vote winners. You have to get behind the changes that are needed: extending community care, reversing the decline of social care – and, above all, backing the staff.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

After Charlie Hebdo: defending free speech. Or are we?

A million people are marching Paris, including 40 world leaders, to demonstrate their solidarity against terrorism and in favour of free speech.

Well, up to a point anyway.

Marching against terrorism. But not perhaps for freedom of speech
They don’t like terrorism, which is rather like saying one doesn’t like the plague: a worthy sentiment with which most of us probably agree, but hardly strikingly original or insightful.

They do like free speech. Now there’s a much more interesting notion. And a much more questionable one.

Ever since the attack on Charlie Hebdo, voices have been raised across the political spectrum in favour of an unfettered right to free speech, as though this were somehow the touchstone of democracy. The reality is rather more complex. For instance, to give the old counter-example, no one feels there should be an absolute right to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre that isn’t, as it happens, on fire. Most of us would regard that as an abuse of free speech and feel it ought to be proscribed.

Which means that we favour limiting free speech.

But then we don’t much like libel or slander either. Incitement. Conspiracy. The freedom to use speech in these ways is limited in all democratic societies, and it’s legitimate to do so. Or at least it’s legitimate to do so up to a certain point. London, for instance, is regarded as the libel capital of the world. Some wealthy man who wants to sue a publication that has offended him will look for evidence of its having been distributed in England, so that he can sue there: the burden of proof is so slanted to the defendant that it makes it far easier to win his case.

If we were that keen on freedom of speech, we’d see English libel laws made far less draconian. Sadly, however, even though both the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, will be marching for free speech in Paris, I don’t expect either to come up with any proposals for reform any time soon.

The danger of the abuse of free speech is nowhere more blatantly demonstrated than in the United States. The first amendment right is constantly invoked to justify massively expensive TV advertising for political campaigns, or indeed huge contributions to those campaigns. What on the face of it sounds like a defence of democratic values is in reality a distortion of them: the effect is to subordinate politicians to donors and therefore lobbyists. Only those with the deepest pockets can make their voices heard in Washington.

To understand just how grave, even life-threatening, that can be, we need only consider that the events that have shocked France and the world cost 17 lives. In December 2012, 26 lives were taken in the shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Twenty were children. The National Rifle Association with its bottomless campaign chest was easily able to outmanoeuvre the bereaved parents and their supporters, and make sure that precisely nothing was done to prevent such an event happening again.

Finally, there’s an even greater difficulty with campaigning for this particular right. It’s easy to demand it for people with whom one agrees, or whose position one is reasonably close to: some of us may feel that Charlie Hebdo didn’t need to be quite as offensive as it often was, even though we defend its right to be as offensive as it chooses. But if we truly believe in freedom of speech, we believe in it for everyone.

Now I believe that Al Qaida and ISIS are vile organisations and the sooner they vanish into the sewer of history, the better. However, if I want to be seen as a real champion of freedom of speech, I have an obligation to defend the right of individuals to speak up in their support.

As long as they’re not slandering anyone, inciting anyone to break the law or conspiring with anyone to commit a crime, if I truly believe in free speech, I have to back ISIS and Al Qaida supporters’ right to speak in favour of their cause.

Lots of people keep quoting the fine old principle that, while I may not agree with your view, I will defend to the death your right to express it.

Will they defend to the death the right to speak up for the jihadists’ aims? Will the million marching in Paris? Will the political leaders who have joined them?

Ah, freedom of speech. A trickier subject than some imagine.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Locke: a classic gem

Occasionally, one comes across a real little gem on TV (and I should say in passing that Netflix is good at producing them).

The latest we’ve watched is a TV-length film, Locke, written and directed by Steven Knight. No, nothing to do with the philosopher. In fact, the eponymous protagonist, played with fine self-restraint by Tom Hardy, is a construction director, on the eve of the greatest “concrete-pour” Europe has ever known. And he’s leaving his post in charge of this historic event…

Locke: short but classically perfect
What makes it a gem? It reminded me of so much from my long-distant student past. I studied French, and therefore, in particular, the drama of the seventeenth century, and its preoccupation with observing the canons of classical theatre. The unities, for instance, of place and time and plot. And the carefully prescribed elements of tragedy.

Tragedy,” explains Aristotle in the Poetics, the authority on these matters, is an imitation not only of a complete action, but also of incidents arousing pity and fear. Such incidents have the very greatest effect on the mind when they occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one another; there is more of the marvellous in them then than if they happened of themselves or by mere chance. Even matters of chance seem most marvellous if there is an appearance of design as it were in them; as for instance when the statue of Mitys at Argos killed the author of Mitys’ death by falling down on him when a looker-on at a public spectacle; for incidents like that we think to be not without a meaning. A Plot, therefore, of this sort is necessarily finer than others.

Locke gives us all of this.

The unities are all about plausibility. How can an audience be expected to believe that several years have passed, when they’ve been siting in their seats for only an hour or two? The seventeenth century in fact took a bit of a liberty: the action could be stretched to twenty-four hours and still respect the unity of time, but no more. Locke does far better: it occurs as near as possible in real time – it lasts an hour and a half and shows us an hour and half of a man’s life.

Similarly, the unity of place was designed to limit the need for suspension of disbelief, by not constantly moving the setting of the action. None of the brutal, anarchic shifting around the place as in that uncouth Shakespeare: you couldn’t have a play start in a Royal Palace, continue at Southampton as the King prepares to cross the Channel with his army, and culminate in a muddy field near Agincourt in Northern France. Now Locke handles this unity cleverly: we travel from the English Midlands to London, but always in the protagonist’s car.

Finally, Locke majestically maintains unity of plot: the focus is entirely on Locke, as his life gradually unravels before our eyes, from one mobile phone call to the next.

And those calls? Exactly the components of tragedy for Aristotle: incidents that occur unexpectedly and at the same time in consequence of one other. Locke is a man who made a mistake but is true to himself. It is that mistake and his unbending commitment to the principle that he will make it right that will destroy him. There is indeed even a sense that his fate is in his genes, as he explains to his absent, dead father that he has no intention of behaving in the same shameful way, even at the cost this will inevitably inflict on him.

So we sit and watch his destiny grind out stolidly, imperturbably, inescapably, event by event, call by call. Our fear and pity mount for the man who cannot escape the effects of the machine he himself set going. Like Mitys’ murderer killed by Mitys’ statue, one event linked to the other, he is being crushed by its inexorable logic.

Just an hour and a half. A real gem for anyone who might enjoy the classic canons applied, with freshness and intelligence, in a modern setting.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Je suis Charlie: terrorism and free speech

Occasionally college lecturers get things right, and I’ve never forgotten the one who told us that the point about really good satire, is that it had to make you feel uncomfortable. You laugh as you read it, but you turn the page in apprehension, for fear you were about to find yourself targeted.

Thats Charlie Hebdo. Hilarious at times, uncomfortable at others. Plenty to stimulate thought and provoke smiles, plenty to offend and annoy. Exactly what satire is supposed to do.

It’s the impact satire can have that makes it so important. It teaches us not to take our sacred cows too seriously. If we learn that lesson, we’ll probably learn that the cows weren’t that sacred in the first place. It’s an important stance to take towards governments, always inclined to view themselves as far more important than they really are (I was in Italy for two months in 1979: when I got there, the country had been without a government for four months; when I left, it had been without a government for six months. But the restaurants were open, the shops sold goods, the buses ran… It was an object lesson to the world.)

A bunch that needs laughing at and relativising even more than government is religious fundamentalism. To join their numbers, you have to have your sense of humour surgically excised. Incapable of seeing your cows as anything but sacred, you also insist that everyone else shares your reverence for them.

Unfortunately, few organisations are as irreverent as Charlie Hebdo. It didn’t just get up Muslim noses. Before the attack of 7 January, the most serious threat the magazine had faced was in 1970, when it was called Hebdo Hara Kiri. Charles de Gaulle, former president and hero of the Second World War, died in his home village of Colombey-les–deux-Eglises, just ten days after a terrible disco fire elsewhere in France had killed 146. The weekly’s headline after the ex-President’s death was “Tragic Dance at Colombey: one dead”.

Announcing the news of de Gaulle's death
The move to suspend the publication
led to its taking the name Charlie Hebdo
The Minister of the Interior, as appreciative of humour as any fundamentalist, suspended the paper’s right to publish, which changed its name to Charlie Hebdo to get round the ban.

But the paper was most famous for its irreverence for Islam. They repeatedly printed cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, in clear breach of Muslim teaching. Humourless Islamists responded on 7 January with the only weapons they knew how to use: real ones. They made another attempt to shut the publication, by killing two policemen outside the building and ten staff inside it, including the editor and cartoonist Charb, and the cartoonists Cabu, Honoré, Tignous and Wolinski.

The shootings will, however, do their cause no good. The immediate reaction has been to rally huge numbers round the journal and speak out in favour of the absolute right of free speech. Many leading figures, in France and around the world, have leaped to defend that right, even the political heirs of those who tried to shut the publication in 1970. And, as the New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz points out, cartoons that had previously only been seen in France will now be seen around the world. Exactly the opposite of what the terrorists intended.

Steve Bell gets it exactly right in the Guardian
Nor will the action slow the determination of those fighting ISIS and Al Qaida in the Middle East. If anything, all it will do is strengthen support for operations against them. Again, precisely the opposite of what the terrorists’ cause should be seeking.

The depressing effect will be in increasing division within our own, Western societies. There were a handful of attacks on Muslim centres in France yesterday: the nation has nearly seven million Muslims; three carried out a vicious attack; there are people stupid enough to try to pin the blame of the three on the millions, and to resort to violence themselves against the violence they denounce.

As stupid was the statement made in Britain by Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right movement UKIP, who deplored the presence in this country of a fifth column “holding our passports that hate us.” He’s right to want to put an end to these corrosive forces that try to divide our people against each other and stir up bitterness between us. He can personally do something about the problem, by shutting up himself and disbanding his noxious little party.

I take comfort from the fact that journalists in France have rallied round and will help get next week’s edition of Charlie Hebdo out. The best news? It will have a print run of a million copies, against the usual 45,000. You can bet it’ll sell out. You can also bet it’ll contain a cartoon of the prophet.

A fitting response to this week’s outrage.

My favourite Muhammad cartoon is from Le Monde not Charlie Hebdo:
Plantu writing over and over again "I must not draw Muhammad"