Friday, 29 April 2016

Labour anti-Semitic crisis? What crisis?

My mother being Jewish makes me, naturally, Jewish. God-fearing or not. In Israel or in the diaspora.

It’s a law nearly as inescapable as the law of gravity.

That meant I was, from childhood, regularly exposed to Jewish humour. Broadly, there are two great categories of jokes about Jews. On the one hand, there are those told by anti-Semites which target the supposed meanness and deviousness of Jews, and are desperately unfunny because they are so heavily marked by hatred. I shan’t be repeating any of them.

On the other hand, there are the jokes told by Jews about themselves. They highlight supposed characteristics of the Jew in a stereotype to which, I’m sure, no Jew really corresponds, but they are often brilliantly witty precisely because they are marked above all by wryness and a certain love.

For instance, a woman meets a young mother pushing a double buggy.

“Oh, what a lovely baby,” she says.

“Which one?” asks the mother, “the lawyer or the doctor?”

But one of my favourites concerns a mother with her son on a Tel Aviv bus. She keeps talking to her son in Yiddish even though the son always replies in Hebrew. Eventually, one of the other passengers turns to the mother and points out:

“Madam, your son is a citizen of the state of Israel. Our official language is Hebrew. You should be encouraging him to speak it.”

“Yes,” she replies, “but I don’t want him to forget he’s Jewish.”

I like that joke because of a profound truth at its core. There is a particular kind of Jewishness characterised, above all, by European Jewry with its Yiddish-speaking roots. That community reacted to persecution by loathing all persecution. It voted massively left of centre, it proclaimed a doctrine of tolerance, it was in the best and deepest sense of the word, liberal.

It would not have dreamed of believing that a Palestinian, as a Palestinian, was entitled to fewer rights than anyone else. It would have laughed to scorn the idea that such a Palestinian might be persecuted by a Jew. “We, the perpetual victims of racism, to be perpetrators of racism ourselves?” 

Sadly, that is a set of attitudes that seems out of vogue in Israel. The nation that speaks Hebrew is far less imbued with those values, which I cherish, than the nation that spoke Yiddish once was. It makes Israel far less the home of certain kinds of Jews than it might have been.

But not all Jews find their home in Israel anyway. The Jewish Agency apparently believes that something like 5.3m Jews, just 100,000 fewer than in Israel, live in the US. It used to be said that many American Jewish families would of course eventually settle in Israel, showing solidarity with their brethren there – but only once the sons were past military age.

There was also a story in the community about a suggestion that American Jews might be given their own soveriegn state within US territory, but it had to be turned down when no one could be found to agree to serve as Ambassador to Israel.

Right now, the papers are proclaiming that the British Labour Party is suffering a crisis of anti-Semitism. Jim Callaghan, Labour Prime Minister in the 1970s, once famously said of some economic difficulties the country was suffering, “crisis? What crisis?” He was made to pay for the words by a self-righteous press that found he wasn’t taking them seriously enough.

I’m inclined, today, to say “anti-Semitism crisis? What crisis?”

Naz Shah in the House of Commons:
the MP now suspended from the Labour Party
Naz Shah was elected Labour MP for Bradford West in 2015, wresting the seat back from a particularly unsavoury individual, George Galloway who took the traditionally Labour seat three years earlier. She has now been suspended from the Labour Party for supposed anti-Semitism. Among other things, it seems that in 2014 she posted a tweet suggesting that the whole population of Israel could be moved to the US, and the problem in the region would be sorted.

It may not have been particularly funny. But was it any worse than the joke, from inside the Jewish community, about no US Jew wanting to serve as Ambassador to Israel? Or anything like as deadly as some of the barbs that have been thrown our way down the ages?

Why arent we able simply to grin, shrug our shoulders and walk away from it?

We are in the closing stages of a US Primary Election campaign which is likely to see Donald Trump win the Republican nomination. This man has said that he would be prepared, as President, to exclude all Muslims from entering the US for a period.

It strikes me that this kind of Islamophobia, which extends far beyond Trump, is much more pernicious than the occasional outbursts of anti-Semitism that we see. And when it comes to offensive remarks, it is far more brutal than her weak joke.

We Jews of the diaspora used to represent some pretty admirable values, which we’ve rather lost recently – most British Jews today vote Tory. But it feels to me that we’re also in danger of losing our sense of perspective. And worse still, the sense of humour which we retained even through the Holocaust.

Now that would be a truly lamentable loss.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

No bar too low...

It doesn’t matter how low you set the bar, someone can generally get under it.

In my case, it was the Spanish airline Iberia. I had to get from Madrid to Lyon for work and, the way the timings worked out, I had to use the scheduled service rather than a low-cost one (or should that be lo-cost?)

Low-cost airlines are much maligned, not least by me. Anything they can charge for becomes chargeable: hold luggage, food, any changes in your travel arrangements (as Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary so forcefully put it, “what part of ‘no refund’ don't you understand?”) So having paid five or six times more for the Iberia flight than I had for the Easyjet one that got me to Madrid in the first place, I expected a somewhat higher level of service.

Boy, was I in for a shock.

Like most of the scheduled airlines, Iberia allows on-line check-in only from 24 hours before take-off. Since I was out until quite late on that day, I decided to check in at the airport instead. A scheduled airline naturally allows that.

As indeed I discovered it did. Except that, as I was going through the process, the woman behind the counter started to look a little pained.

“The plane is full,” she told me.

“Yes,” I said, “I find a lot of them are these days.”

“Yes, but this one is so full that there is no seat for you on it.”

Naïvely, I’d come to think we’d seen the last of that ghastly habit of overbooking. This is when an airline sells more tickets for a flight than it has seats, to ensure that its planes always fly full. It counts on people not showing up for the flight, to save its blushes.

The calculation failed for my flight. But Iberia didn’t seem to be blushing at all. In fact, the way their representatives talked made me feel that they regarded it as my fault that I held a ticket for a plane which they’d filled up after I’d paid for my place.

“There are no seats,” they kept telling me, as though I was dumb or deaf. Or possibly both.

My name was added to the waiting list. Number seven, which was pretty hopeless. Especially when it turned out that there’d been only three no-shows. By sheer good luck, however, the top four on the list insisted on travelling together: they all flew or none of them flew. They dropped out and suddenly I was bumped up to number three – and got the third, and last, available seat.

Snow-covered Pyrenees
But I found crossing them with Iberia less inspiring
So I made it successfully to Lyon. Which was more than could be said for my suitcase. Regular readers of this blog may recall that this happened to me before, just a couple of weeks ago. Again on a scheduled airline flight.

At the lost luggage office, it emerged that I wasn’t the only one. The young man ahead of me in the queue had had his suitcase held in Madrid for “security reasons.”

“Why’s mine been held?” I asked when it came to my turn.

“It says code 19,” explained the airport employee, “but unfortunately I have no idea what that means.”

“Ah, well,” I said, “at least we know it’s a nineteen. That’s better than knowing nothing at all.”

“Indeed, Monsieur,” he agreed, “I’m glad we got that one clear.”

His colleague wasn’t quite as blasé. “Nineteen means they screwed up,” he explained helpfully.

As it happened, that worked out well. I’d been debating whether to pop by the hotel to drop off my case before heading to my meeting, but now I didn’t have to. Iberia kindly held onto my case for the day, freeing me up to indulge in the luxury of sitting on a restaurant terrace in glorious sunshine and enjoying that inspired French institution, the ‘plat du jour’. This is the basic meal many restaurants serve between 12:00 and 2:00, in that properly civilised country where company staff still mostly have a proper lunch hour, with a proper lunch.

Still, I was glad to get the suitcase a few hours later. The burst of lunchtime sun had turned out to be a flash in the pan, and by the evening, I needed a pullover again.

The experience overall leaves me bemused about Iberia. Especially in comparison the low-cost operators.

After all, whatever their faults, they get the essentials right. You may not be able to cancel tickets, but I’ve never been denied travel once I’ve bought a ticket (to be fair, I'm told others have been less lucky...). They mostly take off on time and land on time. Their safety record’s good. So far, not a single low-cost flight I’ve taken has lost my bag.

If only the grand old high-cost airlines could match that standard.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Toxic title

One great advantage of a value system based on belief in God is that it provides a bedrock on which to found certainties.

It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven because that’s the way God has organised the universe. Whether you favour the notion or dislike it makes it no difference: it’s a fundamental law. Although that specific principle belongs to Christianity, it wouldn’t take long to find similar tributes to the poor in most religions.

For those of us who see little evidence around us for the proposition that the world is anything but profoundly godless, there’s nothing on which to ground such reassuring certainty. We instead are probably safer to assume that there’s nothing whatever to guarantee rights to the poor or, indeed, the less than wealthy, to enter any gateway let alone heaven’s. We can count only on what we extract by our own efforts.

Rights are won, they aren’t granted, and they certainly aren’t guaranteed.

The underlying problem is neatly encapsulated in the idea of entitlement. Rights for the poor are being rapidly eroded in the prosperous nations, as employment becomes increasingly precarious, large swaths of wage-earners are obliged to give up relatively well-paid jobs and take work at lower income, or find no work at all, while at the bottom of the pile, the unemployed or the ill enjoy diminishing support. All this is happening at a time when trade union power is at its weakest for a century or more, and that’s no coincidence: when it came to forcing rights from power, no one achieved so much as the unions.

What this means is that increasing numbers of people are discovering that what they believed was their entitlement, they had not title to at all. They had exercised rights, but those rights could only be retained by constantly defending them. Giving up the instruments to wage that defence, or indeed switching their support to those who opposed the rights in the first place, put them in jeopardy.

At the other end of the scale, there are those who know all about sustaining their entitlement. Take Mark Cutifani, for instance. He’s the Chief Executive of mining company Anglo-American. Corporations, particularly in Britain and the US, have only one overriding obligation: to deliver value to their shareholders. Employees or the community generally count for next to nothing in comparison.

So when Anglo-American lost three-quarters of its share value last year, you might think the company’s executives would take a proverbial cold shower. After all, they justify their high salaries by the responsibility they take for performance.

But that’s to leave out the notion of entitlement. Cultifani has just run into some anger from shareholders because his proposed remuneration is £3.4 million. That’s equivalent to the income of some 130 British households on median earnings.

Britain is facing the increasing deterioration of its health services, as salary levels fall becoming unattractive to new recruits. Recently, it was announced that we are heading towards a critical teacher shortage, for exactly the same reason. However, it seems we’ll never run out of candidates for the top levels of industry, where incomes remain as attractive as ever, if not more so. As Cultifani shows, there isn’t even a requirement to perform to receive that level of reward.

The beauty of such salaries is that they leave plenty of small change to invest in worthy causes. Like, for instance, buying a political party. It is people like Cultifani who fund the British Conservative party or the US Republicans (indeed, as Hillary Clinton demonstrates, a lot of Democrats too). So we get entitled people running our political establishment as well – men like David Cameron or London Mayor Boris Johnson, born with silver spoons in their mouths, educated at the most privileged institutions in the country, and then following a yellow-brick path into the top offices of state.

Obama with Cameron in London
Britain outside the UK might be at the back of queue

Johnson is perhaps the more interesting case of entitled thinking. He’s a leading voice in the movement to get Britain out of the European Union. As leading international figures, such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, speak out for the UK staying in, warning that leaving would serious disadvantage the UK specifically in its trading relationship with the US, Johnson has hit back. Apart from a racist dig at Obama for being “part-Kenyan”, he has argued – as have other anti-EU politicians – that the US and others among our major partners, would just have to come to terms with us.

You see, these are entitled individuals. They regard the nation as entitled too. The US can’t possibly deny us privileged trading status! Why, we’re Britain. We can simply demand better treatment than that. They may be in for a shock. For which we’d all pay the price.

What about the rest of us?

What’s happening to the health service and education should be an object lesson. We have no entitlement to them. Or to proper policing, a fair justice system, decent transport or any of the other things that we think we can count on for a reasonable life. If we leave it to the entitled, concerned only with their entitlement, we shall lose all those rights, as we are losing them now. 

We have no title to any of these things. Only hard-won rights. They need protecting – from the entitled.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The girl on the dockside

At a time when immigration is such a burning topic again, and immigrants so harshly received – to reverse the Pope’s words, numbers first and humans second – I’m constantly reminded of an image that has been with me for decades, of a three-year old clutching a potty in one hand, and her mother’s hand with the other, while her mother is holding the girl’s baby brother.

They are in a seaport of a deeply unfriendly nation, whose people have on more than one occasion visited deadly violence against their own. They’re about to travel a thousand miles to the west, to a nation they know little about and which speaks a language they have never learned. They are doing so because the husband/father of this little family had written to say “join me”, after having spent the previous year living there and making a life for his family.

Why had he gone? He was both a skilled craftsman and a perceptive observer of the world.

His craft was the design of shoe uppers for misshapen feet. He could take a foot, deformed from birth or by accident, and by feeling it with his hands, learn enough to build the upper to fit it (the soles he would leave to others).

As an observer, he really did watch the whole world, and not just his part of it. He had, in particular, kept a sharp eye on a region many thousands of miles east of where his family would catch their boat: he’d monitored with increasing interest events in a part of north-east China then known as Manchuria.

As the Chinese Empire failed, the Great Powers of the World seized themselves rich and advantageous positions within Chinese territory. The Western nations, and that now included the United States, emerging already as the new and redoubtable military and economic force on the international scene, had grabbed “concessions” and “treaty ports” where they could carry on trade on highly advantageous terms and even impose their own law.

Have you ever enjoyed a Tsingtao beer with a Chinese meal? It’s probably the best-known beer out of China. It resembles a German lager. That’s no coincidence: Tsingtao, on China’s North East coast, was a German holding, and the Germans established the brewery which continues to produce that beer to this day.

Japan had seized Korea, where China had previously held sway. The Northern border of Korea abutted the south of Manchuria. And there the Russians were building themselves what was euphemistically called a ‘sphere of influence.’

For centuries Russian strategy had been to find a warm-sea port. That’s a port which would not be frozen in the winter unlike, say, St Petersburg in the West or Vladivostok in the Far East. Manchuria gave them several such ports, most notably Port Arthur.

The Russians denied any intention to annex the territory – in other words, they ostensibly recognised that it was under Chinese sovereignty. No one was taken in. Least of all the Japanese, who felt sure that the Russian occupation of Manchuria would eventually lead to a threat to their (equally illegitimate) control of Korea.

Japan had deliberately isolated itself from the rest of the world at the start of the seventeenth century. It had only re-emerged as part of the world order some thirty years earlier. It was regarded as a growing power, but still far from one to take seriously. Neither its army nor its navy had proven itself, and their strength was not regarded as impressive.

A mistaken assessment, it would eventually transpire.

Why was this of interest to our orthopaedic shoe maker? Because it seemed to him that the worsening situation on the Manchurian-Korean border would eventually lead to war. Hundreds of thousands would die for a cause in which he felt absolutely no interest. He was, at it happens, a subject of the Russian Tsar, but that was not a matter of choice to him. His home city, indeed, is today the capital of an independent nation, Lithuania.

He had already spent seven years in the Tsar’s army. Why? Because rather like African Americans in the US Army in Vietnam, he belonged to a group regarded as expendable and liable to call up for all the least attractive and most dangerous jobs: the Jews.

He’d done his time in the army, and then some. He had no intention of becoming a soldier again, and certainly no wish to suffer death or injury by doing so. He decided it was time to try his luck in England. By great good fortune, he was allowed to immigrate, no doubt because of his skill. So he went to England ahead of the family, making contact in London with a Jewish agency that supported immigrants, but finding work reasonably quickly, so that he was able to send for his wife and children within a twelvemonth.

Which is why the little girl turned up on a dockside clutching the family potty.

The Russo-Japanese War: well worth avoiding

The following year, war broke out between Russia and Japan. To the world’s astonishment, especially the Russians’, the Japanese turned out to be formidable opponents. They won a string of bloody but decisive battles on land and, when the Russians sent a new fleet around to the Pacific, cut it to pieces too in a comprehensive victory at sea.

But by then, the shoemaker was well out of the way, bringing up his family in London. England, however, was no more generous to immigrants then than today, and that family was one of only few who were allowed in. Ninety of their relatives remained in Vilna, present-day Vilnius. Not one of them made it through the Holocaust. No trace even of their fate survived.

The little girl eventually became my grandmother. Later in her life, she decided to commit some of her memories to paper in the form of short stories. That’s where the image of the three-year old waiting to board her ship first came to me.

I’m grateful to Britain for having taken her in, particularly as my mother and I both still live in that country and are, as my grandmother became, deeply English. It’s only sad that my compatriots today seem as intent as ever on doing the least they possibly can to help today’s fleeing migrants.

Especially given that we now know what happens to the ones left behind.

The little girl, 27 years on

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Air travel can be so complex sometimes... Even when it seems simple

Please pay attention. This is a complex story. You need to focus.

Now, I readily admit that it doesn’t seem that complex at first glance. You might even be fooled into thinking it’s trivially simple. I know I was, but like you, I had to learn that I was sadly mistaken.

Over the last three days, I travelled from London to Vienna, then Vienna to Frankfurt, then Frankfurt to London. I know that doesn’t seem that complicated, but it really, really is.

I mean, what you’re supposed to do when you catch a plane is fly from point A to point B, do whatever you came to do, then travel from point B to point A. Even if there are intermediate stops in between, the basic principle holds. Out, then back.

A triangular trip? Way beyond the capacity of the airlines in our post-low cost age.

The first thing that went wrong is that I couldn’t check in on-line. So I turned up at the airport with nothing proving I was booked on the flight other than an e-mail from a booking system.

The second thing that went wrong was that the check-in machines inside the terminal wouldn’t check me in. A disdainful employee, aged about sixteen as far as I could see, came over to provide assistance. He clearly thought I looked about eighty.

“Let me see, sir, can I help at all?” he said, and you can just imagine the superior tone, can’t you? Underneath them is lurking the thought “poor old man, he doesn’t understand that you have to feed in your passport open, not closed.”

So he took my passport and fed it in, exactly as I had. “Your reference number, sir?” So I gave it to him and he typed it in, just as I had a few minutes earlier.

And then, just as I had, he stared, bemused, at the error message on the screen.

“You’d better go to a manned check-in desk, sir,” he advised, which at least had the merit of being exactly what I had intended to do.

The Austrian Airlines lady sorted me out, and off I went to Vienna.

Which is where the third thing went wrong. No suitcase greeted me on the carousel.

I went to see another Austrian Airlines lady.

“But,” she told me, “you are travelling to Frankfurt.”

“This is true,” I confirmed, “but not till tomorrow.”

“But your bag is in transfer, ready for the next leg of your trip.”

“Great. But what am I supposed to do during the day tomorrow? I have a meeting. My suit’s in the case.”

She considered this.

“Ah,” she said at last, “you are making a stay in Vienna.”

It was a relief that I had found someone with the necessary intellectual acuity to grasp the extent of my predicament.

She looked sorrowful, which didnt calm my apprehension at all.

“We can get the bag brought round, but it could be a long time.”

It was getting on for 11:30 at night. I could picture myself stuck there till 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. But in the end it only took twenty minutes, and she came round to check everything was OK, so we exchanged smiles and I thanked her warmly.

The fourth thing that went wrong was the next day, when I came to check my bag in again for Frankfurt.

“But you have a bag in the system already,” the third Austrian Airlines lady told me.

I looked, I hope pointedly, at my bag which was undeniably right there, stolid and unmistakeable.

“Do you have another bag?”

I explained to her that I didn’t. She called a colleague over. He explained to her that she had to delete the existing record for a bag in the system and then register a new one. She tried, and failed when the system told her she couldn’t delete the entry. So he had a go, slightly condescendingly, intent on proving that with his expertise, he wouldn’t make the same mistake she had. Until he bumped up against the same error message. At which point he hightailed it out of there, ostensibly to take care of the next passenger. 

I was delighted to see that the “next passenger” turned out to be a group of nineteen Mandarin speakers on a Kung Fu world tour. Served him right, I felt.

Meanwhile, my young lady called a support person, who was on break. Eventually, she got back from break and assured us she’d be right over, which turned out to be ten minutes later.

“So you want this bag checked through to London?” she asked.

I stayed calm.

“No,” I explained in measured tones, “Frankfurt, please. Where I can collect it.”

I made a point of checking the luggage tag carefully, to ensure it really was marked ‘FRA’. It was.

The fifth thing that went wrong was at Frankfurt today. I was pointed at a machine to get the luggage tag for my case.

Looks straightforward. But, believe me, it isn’t
“Your suitcase is already checked in,” the machine told me.

But this was Lufthansa, and they take no nonsense from machinery.

The woman who dealt with my case – and I use the word in both senses – was a battleaxe with pink hair.

“Problem?” she said, “there is no problem.”

The bag got checked in and sent on its way. As was I. And at Heathrow there was my suitcase on the belt, waiting for me.

Now I just have to get it home and bring this terribly complex trip to what I hope will be a happy conclusion.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Time, the devourer of all things. Easy to say, more difficult to experience

Life is full of rites of passage, isn’t it?

I remember clearly the first time a bank showed eagerness to lend me money, rather than eagerness for me to pay it some back. The birth of my first child, marking with absolute finality my departure from the younger generation (it didn’t happen until I was thirty, so I did OK). The first time a policeman called me “sir”, marking my transition from likely suspect to citizen to protect (I have the good fortune of being what we call “white”, or I would in all likelihood still be waiting for that transition).

Why, I even remember the moment on a bus in Kyoto, Japan, when a woman walked half the length of the vehicle to point me at the seat she’d just vacated before arriving at her stop, having identified me clearly and, I suspect, accurately, as the oldest of the standing passengers and therefore the most entitled to take over her place. Even more amazing, the seat was still vacant when I’d walked half the length of the bus back to it – in London someone, probably someone much younger, would long since have occupied it.

So today I had another of those important experiences. As I went to climb onto a train, a young (well, younger) man offered to lift my case into the carriage.

As it happens, I’d packed for only two nights away so my case weighed, as the French so prettily put it, three times nothing. On the other hand, had it weighed as much as it does when I’m away for a week or more, I like to think I’d still have managed to lift it onto the train.

Time’s catching up with us all
Even if, like me, you think you’re keeping it at bay
Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the offer of help, which at least reveals better attitudes in society than many of us might have come to expect these days. In much the same way as I appreciate being offered a seat on a bus or being treated with courtesy by the cops.

But it worries me that there are those out there who already regard me as so obviously decrepit. I was out playing badminton this morning, and acquitted myself reasonably well. The notion that I can’t lift a case doesn’t really fit with the self-image I like to cultivate.

However, no self-image is proof to the ravages of the years. Time, said the Latin poet, is the devourer of all things. It devours me as it devours everyone. The only way not to grow old is to die young. That was never a pretty prospect, and I’ve left it too late already anyway.

I suppose I should be grateful that today’s reminder of all those truths was delivered to me in such a gentle, and kindly, way.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

A SIM card that proved a fundamental principle

One of the more useful principles that have stuck with me from school physics is that “matter can neither be created nor destroyed.”

That’s a principle of the natural world, of course. I’m saying nothing about what’s possible supernaturally. I don’t want to get into an argument with my religious friends, so I can assure them I’m making not claim about the creation or destruction of matter by an all-powerful God to whom, of course, anything is possible.

No, I’m talking about ordinary, day-to-day life where, by natural means, nothing material can be created or destroyed.

Why’s this notion so useful? Well, if you’re like me and constantly prone to mislaying important things – glasses, keys, even that cup of coffee made with the last of the grounds, having forgotten to buy any more – it is a great comfort to remember that, being material, it can’t have been destroyed. I know that I left it somewhere, possibly somewhere sensible, more likely somewhere completely stupid, but wherever I left it, it’s still there, waiting for me to find it.

I had a reminder of the value the principle the other day. Two years on, the contract on my previous phone ended and I was able to take a new one. Fortunately, the upgrade I went for didn’t require a new SIM card. I just had to take the SIM out of my old phone and load it into the new one. 

Which sounds simple enough.

It might have been wiser to wait until the morning, when I would have been less tired. Instead I dropped the SIM card onto the carpet at my feet. Or so I thought. I spent twenty minutes hunting for it without success. I took a break. And then looked again, just as uselessly.

It was at my feet. How could it have gone anywhere else? The phones are mobile, but only if we carry them. How does a SIM card become mobile on its own?

I have little confidence in my ability to find things I’ve lost. But Danielle’s different. So when she also spent twenty minutes looking and failed, I had to fall back on the physics principle. The card had still to be in existence somewhere, we just didn’t know where.

We decided it had to be inside the dog. I hadn’t seen her getting close enough to swallow it, but it was hard to think of any other explanation. Still, I didn’t like the notion – it was much too reminiscent of the classic schoolboy excuse, “the dog ate my homework.” I wasn’t convinced.

And, indeed, the very next morning, my eye was caught by a glint of reflected sunlight. The SIM card! There it was. Lying innocently on the floor, as though it had done nothing to irritate me. In the kitchen, nowhere near where I dropped it.

So how did that SIM card travel so far? Was it hiding in a fold in my clothing? Did it attach itself to a shoe? Had the dog scooped it up and then sensibly dropped it (it certainly showed no traces of having been any further through her)?

Unlikely demonstration of the principle of conservation of matter
Ah, well. It showed up. It’s now my phone and working just as I hoped. Having proved, yet again, that though it can be mislaid, matter cannot be created or destroyed.

And that Im not good at keeping an eye on things. Or finding them when Ive lost them.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Spies, arms dealers, and a deflated secular saint

Rudolf Abel – not his real name – was a British-born Russian spy sent by the Soviet Union to the US and arrested in 1957.

James B. Donovan, a lawyer with little experience of criminal law, accepted the brief few others were willing to take up, to defend Abel. Naturally, he lost but he was able to save Abel’s life, if only by arguing that a living Soviet spy could be swapped for an American captured by the Russians, whereas a dead one had no useful purpose.

It turned out to be an inspired decision when, in 1960, Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in a U2 spy plane. Inevitably, Donovan was called in to negotiate the exchange – after all, it was his idea in the first place, wasn’t it? At least in a manner of speaking.

In Steven Spielberg’s film, Bridge of Spies, using a script to which the Cohen brothers contributed, Donovan is ably and engagingly played by Tom Hanks. But the show is stolen by the actor who won the film’s only Oscar (best supporting actor), Mark Rylance – amazing that an actor that good has only recently won himself an international reputation – playing Abel.

Abel, played by Rylance, next to Hanks as his defence counsel
A good story, with a fine script and excellent performances, Bridge of Spies is well worth seeing.

Just as powerful is the TV series the BBC built from John le Carré’s The Night Manager. Watching it tore me apart, between the compulsion to see what happened next, and the foreboding that whatever it was, it would be grim. Since the end of the Cold War, le Carré has made a specialty of writing books which are frankly dismal in outlook, long denunciations of the corruption and injustice of Western society. I don’t disagree with his judgments, but I prefer my reading of thrillers to give me a break instead of rubbing my nose in them. In other words, I’m keener on like The Little Drummer Girl than The Night Manager .

I’d forgotten the ending of the book, except that I had a sense it didn’t leave me feeling any better about myself, the world or anything else. So I kept waiting for the same thing to happen in the series, with growing depression at the idea. Without wanting to hand out any spoilers, the series ends on a substantially different note, which was a relief, although sadly by doing so it felt rather less believable… You can’t have it all, can you?

A star-scattered cast in the BBC's gripping version of
The Night Manager
It’s hard to list all the stunning performances: Hugh Laurie as the ghastly British arms dealer Roper (funny, after House to hear him playing with his native accent once more), Olivia Colman as his nemesis (a highly successful recasting of a male character in the book as a woman), Tom Hollander as Roper’s sidekick and Tim Hiddleston as the night manager were all outstanding. 

In passing, I should say that it was amusing to watch Hollander playing an adversary of Colman’s, after seeing them as husband and wife in Rev

Overall, The Night Managers story’s excellent, the pace just the right side of frenetic and the ending, as I said, cathartic if slightly implausible. Like Bridge of Spies, not to be missed.

I was looking forward to seeing Steve Jobs, with its screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Certainly, the writing abounds with great Sorkin-isms, probably the best being the moment when Jobs berates a colleague, Andy, for being too slow in his work.

ANDY: … this can’t be fixed in seconds.

STEVE: You didn’t have seconds, you had three weeks. The universe was created in a third of that time.

ANDY: Well someday you’ll have to tell us how you did it.

The structure of the film is creative too, as it simply tracks the behind-the-scenes tensions at one product launch after another, in effect telling the story of Jobs’ relationship with his colleagues and his family through a series of conversations (well, mostly rows) and flashbacks.

Most striking was seeing the Jobs’s saintly image being punctured. I don’t know what to call the opposite of a hagiography, where a reputed saint is cut back down to mortality, but this was certainly it. Unfortunately, just as a hagiography tends to be ultimately unconvincing and unsatisfactory, so was its reverse.

Steve Jobs: left a little to be desired
The film left me disappointed, hoping for more than it delivered. Plenty of good material in the script, some fine performances (particularly by Michael Fassbender in the title role and Kate Winslet, with a curious accent, as his marketing executive), but somehow it didn’t quite work. The verdict? Should have tried harder.

Monday, 11 April 2016

The US and counter-insurgency: not a formula for success

Imagine the following scenario.

The United States comes under attack, losing a number of lives of citizens who were expecting no aggression. The response within the country is one of horror, and a growing desire to hit back against the threat. As a result, American forces begin action around the globe, including regions not apparently in the least connected with the original outrage.

In one country, a long way from home, US troops are initially greeted as liberators from a previous autocratic regime. However, as it becomes clear that the they intend to overstay their welcome, an insurgency develops against the occupation. The US engage in a long and often brutal battle, inflicting heavy losses, including many among the civilian population. In some instances, they commit what it would be hard not to regard as war crimes.

There is no accurate count of the number of local casualties. Estimates range between 34,000 and 200,000. At no point does it become clear that the US action in any way addresses the issue that originally precipitated it.

Does that all sound drearily familiar?

Well, I’m not talking about the 9/11 attack or about the US response in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor, therefore, am I thinking of the possibly 200,000 lives lost during the US battle against the Iraq insurgency.

No. The trigger event, that whipped up the war fever in the States, was the sinking of the US cruiser Maine in Havana harbour. Why in Havana? Because Cuba was then a Spanish possession facing a local uprising for independence; the Maine was there to cow the Spanish and provide tacit support to the independence movement.

A US commission concluded she’d been struck by a mine.

Interestingly, more recent scholarship suggests that the ship blew up because of an internal explosion. It may have been caused by burning gas from the boilers reaching the magazine and the ammunition it contained.

The incident led to the Spanish-American war of 1898. US forces took on the Spanish in a number of theatres around the world, including the Philippines. Which is where the counter-insurgency I mentioned took place.

Like Cuba, the Spanish colony of the Philippines was in a state of turbulence. A struggle for independence had started two years earlier. Many in the movement at first saw the arrival of the American troops as an aid in their struggle, but it soon became clear that they weren’t there to free the islands, only to replace one form of foreign domination by another.

Mark Twain – yes, he of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn fame – outlined how few enemy soldiers were generally killed in American battles, even in the Civil War. He then described the deaths that occurred when US forces surrounded insurgents, including women and children, in the Moro crater, an extinct volcano:

...with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded... The enemy numbered six hundred – including women and children – and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.

The Moro Crater massacre
Unedifying. And sadly setting a precedent.
Were you upset about the conduct of the Iraq War? About the outrages in Abu Ghraib prison? About the senseless waste of civilian lives?

Sadly, none of these things were new. The war in the Philippines ended, in theory, in 1902. The Moro Crater massacre took place in 1906.

The conclusion? We didn’t learn much in the century that followed. And, by failing to learn from our errors, we committed them all over again – with ISIS as our reward.

A pity Mark Twain’s powerful sarcasm echoed so little with Blair and Bush when it should have.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Faith can move mountains – or hearts. Or it can kill shopkeepers...

I’ve met many people who are improved by their religious faith. Somehow, the teachings of their beliefs improve their naturally good qualities.

Sadly, however, the exact opposite can also apply. There are many for whom belief, and in particular the belief that all their basest instincts are endorsed by a supreme power, only emphasises their worst characteristics. Indeed, they treat it as authorisation to act on them.

Asad Shah, who was murdered on Good Friday, was a Glasgow shopkeeper viewed with great affection by the community he served. He regarded himself as a Muslim but liked to keep lines of communication open to other faiths – not long before he died he used Facebook to post the message “Good Friday and a very Happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation.”

A community grieving for Asad Shah's death
Their slogan? “This is not who we are”
He also liked to distribute personalised Christmas cards to his customers. That reminded me of my Jewish grandmother who used to exchange Christmas cards, each and every year, with her neighbour, for decades. The fact that one of them was Jewish changed absolutely nothing in a small gesture that was intended to communicate goodwill and bring a little happiness. To both of them.

The general form in murder cases is for the presumed perpetrator to deny everything, plead not guilty and struggle to get off the hook. In this case, however, the defendant, Tanveer Ahmed, has taken the unusual step of issuing a statement, in his own words, through his lawyer:

This all happened for one reason and no other issues and no other intentions.

Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. Mr Shah claimed to be a Prophet.

When 1,400 years ago the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him has clearly said that “I am the final messenger of Allah there is no more prophets or messengers from God Allah after me.

“I am leaving you the final Quran. There is no changes. It is the final book of Allah and this is the final completion of Islam.”

Just to make a trivial point in passing, this communication makes me hope he isn’t the product of a British school system. Because if he is, it’s no testimonial to his teachers’ ability to teach him English.

The chilling part is the reference to Shah disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad. No wonder he had to die. Ahmed at the end of his statement tells us, “If I had not done this others would and there would have been more killing and violence in the world,” which is a glorious notion: he killed a man, by stabbing and beating him, in order to reduce the killing and violence in the world. That has all the rationality of NATO powers going to war to preserve international peace.

Mr Ahmed’s hatred was directed at the man who disrespected Islam, while claiming to be a Muslim. We hate no one as much as a traitor, do we? The man who turned his coat is far worse than the man who was always an open, avowed enemy.

To make things still graver, Shah belonged to a sect, the Ahmadiyya, whose members are not even allowed to refer to themselves as Muslims under the law of Pakistan. A man who persisted in calling himself a Muslim, though he belonged to a group deemed beyond the Pale by one of the world’s great Muslim Nations? No wonder he had to die. 

Especially if he disrespected Muhammad.

Treason, when it occurs in a religious context, has its own term: apostasy. And religious authorities who, down the ages, have never been reluctant to resort to fairly hideous forms of punishment, reserve the worst for the apostate. Catholics and Protestants burned each other with particular glee precisely because each side saw the other as traitors from inside the same Church, who had turned against it. Why, there was plenty of persecution even of Protestants by other Protestants.

Similarly, Stalin, despite having taken supreme power in what was then the Soviet Union, couldn’t rest until Trotsky had been murdered. Trotsky, reduced to a rootless exile, travelling from country to country until he found some kind of asylum in Mexico, thousands of miles from Russia and Stalin. Yet even there, Stalin could not bear to let him live, and sent in Ramón Mercader to see him off with an ice axe.

He contrived the murder in August 1940, the same month in which he signed the Nazi-Soviet pact. Stalin could shake the hand of Hitler, but couldn’t bear the thought that he was sharing the world with his old comrade from the St Petersburg barricades of 1917.

Just like Tanveer Ahmed, who couldn’t bear the idea that Asad Shah was drawing breath at the same time as he was.

Most of us take limited action against those we feel have betrayed us. A friendship ends. A professional relationship dies. Maybe a marriage leads to divorce. Generally, we stop short of violence. A long way short.

But when there’s a belief at stake? If what you’re doing is the will of God? Or, as in Stalin’s case – and Hitler’s – obeying the dictates of history? Why, what possible limits should you put on a righteous anger in the name of an unlimited cause?

As assuredly as Mercader wielded his ice axe, or the two sides of the Reformation wielded their bonfires, Tanveer Ahmed wielded his knife in the name of something they all saw as greater than themselves. Most often, against victims as hapless as Asad Shah. 

No wonder he had to die.

I know many people who have been helped to lead blameless, even praiseworthy lives by their beliefs. Unfortunately, however, belief can also have the opposite effect. Instead of intensifying the better instincts of man it can justify the worst – and sadly Asad Shah and his community have paid the price.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Happy New Year!

It’s time to wish the British taxman a happy New Year.

British accountants too, I suppose.

Tax Collectors and Accountants
A New Year for both sets of adversaries
“A happy new year?” I hear you cry, “on the 6th of April? Why such a bizarre date?”

Perfectly logical, I reply. The tax year, like the calendar year, started for many centuries on Lady Day, the day of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus. Which falls, naturally, exactly nine months before Christmas, on 25 March.

“But that still isn’t 6 April,” you object.

Well, that’s true. But in the sixteenth century, most of Europe went over from the Julian Calendar, introduced by Caesar, to the Gregorian, introduced by the then Pope who, you’ll be surprised to learn, was called Gregory. It meant giving up nine days, but it brought the Calendar back into line with the true length of the solar year.

England, of course, was a Protestant nation so it stuck two fingers up to the Pope and stayed with the old way of doing things. Until the eighteenth century, when it decided that its point had been made, and switched to the Gregorian Calendar too. By then, the correction was eleven days and a lot of people were upset to have that many days “stolen” from their lives.

Not least of them, the tax authorities. Who weren’t going to give up their revenue. They adjusted the tax year so that it started eleven days after 25 March.

Which, you will quickly calculate, takes us to – 5 April. So we’re not quite there…

One of the other peculiarities of the Gregorian Calendar is that century years aren’t Leap Years – there’s no 29 February. Well, unless they’re also Millennium Years. 2000 was a Leap Year, but 1800 wasn’t.

“You’re stealing another day!” the tax collectors chorused in 1800. So the start of the year was moved one further day on.

After that, they stopped fiddling with it. And 6 April has been the start of the tax year in Britain ever since.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, 4 April 2016

Privatise the railways? Nationalise the railways? Non, merci.

The most convenient airport for our recent holiday in France was Geneva. Which, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice, is actually in Switzerland.

However, the Swiss and French have come to an excellent arrangement, by which a part of the station in Geneva is made available to the French railways (the SNCF). So we bought our tickets on-line in England, and travelled out bearing the SNCF’s e-mail instructions about printing out our tickets at the machine in the station.

Only to discover that the station boasted no such machine.

“But it says here…,” we protested.

“Ah, yes,” we were told by a Swiss railway official, “but this is Switzerland. The SNCF doesn’t have one of those machines on Swiss territory.”

“So – what do we do?”

“You could go to the SNCF ticket office around the corner.”

“But it’s Saturday. That office isn’t open on a Saturday.”

“Ah,” said the lady, trying to look helpful. And then shook her head. “I shouldn’t like to be in your position,” she commiserated. Which, when it comes to helpfulness, fell rather short of the mark.

So we decided to get on the train anyway. I’ve had experience dealing with French ticket collectors in the past, and it’s always proved a great deal more satisfactory than dealing with machines. And, indeed, we saw two collectors on the platform, even before the train had left the station.

“No problem,” they told us, “get on the train and we’ll come and see you once we’re on our way.”

And one of them did. In fact, he sorted out our tickets in about two minutes, and then sat down to chat with us for a further twenty or so.

He had plenty to chat about.

“It was such a pleasure,” I told him, “to find a human being to sort out the problem with our tickets.”

“Well, yes. Enjoy it while you can. It’s not going to last.”

It seems that SNCF staff numbers have been falling for years. In 2003, there were 178,260 employees; by last year numbers were down to 149,500. The French newspaper Le Figaro claims another 1400 jobs are due to go this year.

The worst of it is that salary costs haven’t even fallen. Apparently, they went up by 1.289 billion euros between 2003 and 2013. Wage increases have contributed to the rise, but the other factor has been the decision to increase the proportion of managers – where there were 6.8 employees per manager in 2003, ten years on there were only 4.2.

“Too many managers,” our ticket collector complained, “we’re the most managed industry in France. And all they demand of us is – profits. Forget the service.”

He was pretty bitter. And I have to say, I was a little annoyed with managers who couldn’t manage to provide a ticket machine at Geneva, even though their own instructions told us to use one.

The message, as we sat on our slightly threadbare seats, or used the less than appealing toilets (still providing a hole onto the track…) seemed clear. Even the SNCF, the much-vaunted, nationalised French railway service, has fallen on hard times. Its service to passengers is declining and, more spectacularly still, it’s failing its staff. While it’s as obsessed with generating a profit as any private organisation might be.

Ticket Collector on a French regional train
Not quite the same service as the TGV. And the staff are under threat
Now I’m back in Britain, with our privatised services. So privatised that even after two companies failed on the East Coast service, and a nationalised organisation succeeded spectacularly, the government re-privatised the lines. It seems ideology demands private ownership, for Tories, just as it demands nationalisation for certain areas of the left.

Whereas to me, looking at what’s happening in France, I’d have to say it’s the great non-issue.

What matters is how you treat your customers. How you treat your staff. How you invest for the future. Whether it’s a privatised service or a public one is insignificant in comparison. Treat people decently and provide a good service and the rest doesn’t matter. Britain and France demonstrate that you can do just as badly on those truly important issues, whether you have a private or nationalised system.

Still, all that being said, the SNCF has the edge on the railways in Britain in one crucial area. I told our friendly ticket collector how much I pay for my season ticket into London. He whistled.

“That’s four times as much, per kilometre, as it would cost over here,” he told me, astonished.

Ah, yes. Now that is an area where Britain could try to compete a little more seriously with France. Fares closer to the French level? Why, yes please. That would do very nicely, thanks. In a privatised or nationalised service.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Trump blunders. But is his fall what we should wish for?

It seems the age of wonders is not past. Even Donald Trump has had to backtrack at last. He’s trying to wriggle out of what he told MSNBC about abortion. It’s left him looking just like any ordinary politician who has “misspoken.”

Initially, he said that abortion should be made illegal. Then he went one step further, arguing that women who nonetheless persisted in having an abortion – an illegal abortion – ought to be subject to “some form of punishment.” Finally, he nailed his colours to the pro-Life mast.

CNN reproduces Trump's unfortunate interview on MSNBC
It seems he may, finally, have made one gaffe too many. Across the Republican party, the statement was greeted with horror. The Guardian quoted Mallory Quigley, speaking for an anti-abortion Political Action Committee, who questioned Trump’s commitment to the ‘pro-Life’ cause and added, “If Donald Trump wants to be a leader, he has to demonstrate that he understands the pro-life position.”

Trump’s now trying to row back from his statement. It seems his approval rating among women is down at the 25% level, which could make it hard for him to win the Presidency, seeing as women are a pretty significant part of the electorate (53% of the turnout at the last election). More immediately, he’s not doing well in the next primary to be held, Wisconsin, where he’s trailing Ted Cruz in the polls.

It’s a fascinating development, isn’t it?

The first aspect that struck me was the language used. I’ve talked about this before. This notion of being ‘pro-Life’ really gets me. What are these characters saying? That the rest of us are in some sense anti-Life? That we like to see a bit of death around the place, just to brighten up our day?

The truth is that we’re neither pro-Death nor even pro-Abortion. It’s hard to imagine who would favour abortion, or why. Those of us in the other camp from Mallory Quigley’s aren’t pro-abortion, we’re simply for a woman’s right to choose. It doesn’t tend to be a light decision to take, and what we maintain is that a woman should be entitled to take it without the moral pressure of the ‘pro-Life’ movement and free of a legal prohibition against it (at least up to a reasonable point in gestation).

Pro-Life? The reality is that they’re opposed to freedom of choice. Which is curious, isn’t it, as they tend to flock around the libertarian right for whom freedom of choice, at least in other fields, is a cardinal principle?

The other aspect of this incident that caught my attention was the effect on the Trump campaign itself. It could very well derail it. Now, I never thought I’d say this, but it worries me if Trump is denied the nomination at this stage – because the damage he’s done to his own standing means that he’s unlikely to beat a Democratic opponent, whether Clinton or Sanders, in November.

What worries me is the thought that Cruz might sneak in and take the nomination, because he could prove harder for the Democrats to beat. He may be a quieter man, but underneath the surface he’s at least as dangerous as Trump, possibly more so. In particular, there’s no doubt of his ‘pro-Life’ credentials, in other words, his vehement opposition to freedom of choice for women.

It’s a lot of fun watching that buffoon Trump blunder and shoot himself in the foot. Just as long as we don’t end up with Cruz instead. Because then the last laugh might be a very bitter one indeed.