Sunday, 31 July 2016

I have always depended on the insights of strangers

The worst bit of walking back from my Sunday morning badminton class is that most of the walk’s uphill. That’s painful after an hour’s drilling by an admittedly fine, but demanding, coach followed by a second hour’s play.

It’s particularly painful when I reach the station. Cutting through it is my most direct route home, but it means climbing a double flight of stairs. Tedious in the extreme when your legs are already stiffening up nicely.

Today I’d got to the top, with some relief, when I saw a little old lady about to struggle down with a suitcase she was having trouble managing.

My first thought was, “normally, I’d help. That’s the kind of person I see myself as. Who cares if I have to come back up the stairs again afterwards?”

My second thought was even more galling: “little old lady? She’s probably only a few years older than I am. What’s a little old man doing offering a little old lady help?”

That settled it for me.

“Can I help you with that?” I asked.

It took three times of asking but in the end she heard me.

“Oh, thanks,” she eventually said, “but it’s heavy, you know.”

Her case was about the size of the backpack I use to carry my kit to work. That’s a lot heavier than I like, since I insist on carrying two laptops, but it’s still perfectly bearable. Her suitcase was pretty much in a day’s work, literally, for me.

As we walked downstairs, she must have caught sight of my sweat-stained shirt and my racket bag, and asked, “are you a tennis player?”

“No,” I said, “badminton.”

“Oh,” she said, pleased, “so am I.”

She paused and thought again.

“Well, I used to be.” That gave me just a couple of seconds to feel superior before she went on, “I used to play for Yorkshire.”

She played for her county?

“Oh, well, you know…” I started mumbling, planning on telling her that I never came even remotely close to that level.

Great game!
See the player on this side of the net? That isn't me
The one on the other side isn't me either
“I’m from Sheffield,” she cut me off.

“Lovely city!” I said, and meant it. It also struck me as a better subject

“Yes,” she went on, twisting the knife, “my son played for England.”

We were at the bottom of the stairs by then. I showed her the way to the taxi rank, we smiled and said our goodbyes, and hurried back up and on my way.

People often ask me why I talk to strangers. I think it’s for the kind of experience I had this morning. It teaches you about yourself – like looking into a mirror, but one that gives you back an unvarnished, brutally true assessment of what you are and what you do. Like, not as young as you thought, nor as good at badminton.

Chastening. But I’m sure it’s good for the soul.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Clinton: showing how to beat reaction

They do say that, in politics, you shouldn’t build a campaign on nostalgia for the past, but on promise for the future.

It was the problem faced by John Major, British Tory Prime Minister after Maggie Thatcher, when he launched his “Back to Basics” campaign. Going “back” is never appealing. And there’s nothing particularly inspiring about “basics” either.

As a slogan, it had none of the spark of Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” The truth is that once he was in power, Blair concentrated on being tough on crime and much less determined in rooting out the causes, but as a slogan, it certainly had appeal, helping position him to take on the Tories and win.

Hillary: wrong on some things, right on many others, turning
into quite a campaigner. And hugely to be preferred to the alternative
That all came back to me when I saw Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Because, faced with Donald Trump’s slogan, ‘Make America great again’, so easy as to be simplistic, she answered with words suggesting that America is great still.

We have the most dynamic and diverse people in the world.

We have the most tolerant and generous young people we've ever had.

We have the most powerful military, the most innovative entrepreneurs, the most enduring values, freedom and equality, justice and opportunity, we should be so proud that those words are associated with us.

Now, you can agree or disagree with the sentiment. You can’t question the impact. Trump is looking backwards, to a supposed time when America was great, just as Major hankered after days when, allegedly, we were back with basics. Clinton proclaims the greatness of America today. And because she believes in today, she can paint an appealing picture of tomorrow.

Democrats, we are the party of working people.

But we haven't done a good enough job showing we get what you're going through, and we're going to do something to help. So tonight I want to tell you how we will empower Americans to live better lives.

My primary mission as president will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States.

From my first day in office to my last, especially in places that for too long have been left out and left behind, from our inner cities to our small towns, from Indian country to coal country from communities ravaged by addiction, to regions hollowed out by plant closures.

And here's what I believe. I believe America thrives when the middle class thrives. I believe our economy isn't working the way it should because our democracy isn't working the way it should.

Clinton’s not naïve though, or a newcomer to politics. While she wisely presented a positive, forward-looking programme, she also knew that it was no use being good and kind and decent in politics. To win supporters, you also have to beat the other guy. When that guy’s Trump, that’s all the more important than ever, but also a lot easier for the opportunities he gives you.

… don't believe anyone who says I alone can fix it.

Yes, those were actually Donald Trump's words in Cleveland. And they should set off alarm bells for all of us. Really? I alone can fix it? Isn't he forgetting troops on the front lines, police officers and firefighters who run toward danger, doctors and nurses who care for us, teachers who change lives, entrepreneurs who see possibilities in every problem, mothers who lost children to violence and are building a movement to keep other kids safe? He's forgetting every last one of us.

Americans don't say "I alone can fix it." We say "we'll fix it together!"

And I particularly liked:

He spoke for 70-odd minutes, and I do mean odd...

That got a furious Twitter reaction from Trump. Rather confirming something else Hillary said:

A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons!

She was feisty, she was positive, she was forward-looking. She’s well ahead in the polls. She may not say all the things you, or I, would like but she has a message worth listening to. And boy, she's preferable to the alternative by light years.

Let’s hope she’s stays in front, right through to polling day and beyond.

And for us, back here in Britain, let’s hope we too can find a campaigner as effective as she is.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The cost of Corbyn: how Labour's woes are Britain's woes

Every now and then you get a new batch of statistics which are actually interesting. Today we had two.

The first was the revelation, from a study by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). It showed that real wages had fallen in Britain by 10% since the start of the credit crunch in 2007, with only Greece among the advanced economies faring worse. By comparison, real wages grew by 14% in Germany and 11% in France. Indeed, they grew by 23% in Poland: any Brit whose main concern is with high numbers of Polish immigrants, rather than, say, how their own living standards are falling, then they can relax. Far fewer will be coming as the wage differential narrows. Indeed, my wife has met several Brits working in Poland during her own business visits to Kraków in recent months.

A joy for Xenophobes: as they watch their living standards continuing to decline, they can at least take comfort from the falling numbers of Poles entering the country.

The more significant message of the drop is that it confirms what most of us no doubt guessed: it’s anybody who relies on wages, rather than income from capital, who’s footing the bill for the Tory obsessions with austerity.

Fortunately, we have a clear alternative to that policy. Labour is temporarily preoccupied with a leadership contest, but both candidates – the present leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the challenger, Owen Smith – are equally wedded to putting an end to austerity. We desperately need someone to do that. Despite Tory promises, austerity hasn’t dented the national debt and growth has remained at anaemic levels. The only impact has been to impoverish us all – first morally, as the most vulnerable members of society, the disabled, the long-term sick, the unemployed, the working poor – found all help being withdrawn; but now, we see, materially as well as our incomes are pared down.

So let’s get the Tories out and Labour back to fix the problem.

Sadly, that’s where we hit the other piece of news, and it’s far from good. The Tories, under their ‘new’ leader – the quotation marks are there because she’s been Home Secretary for the last six years, so she’s hardly new to government – are now 12 points ahead of Labour in the latest YouGov poll.

By way of contrast, at this stage in the 1979-1983 parliament, Labour had a high single-figure lead, but went on to be crushed in 1983. In the 1992-1997 parliament, which ended with the 1997 landslide for Labour, the lead at this point was in the high teens or low twenties.

It’s too early to make anything much of that. A new Tory leader, a new Prime Minister, was bound to get a boost in the polls. We have to wait and see how things go in the next few months to see where they settle. Even so, any lead when the Tories should be behind, is desperately bad news for Labour.

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn will point out that the attacks on him by his parliamentary colleagues, and the current leadership contest, will have undermined Labour’s position, adding to the Theresa May effect. Except that even before the rebellion against him, the Tories already had a six-point lead. Since the Brexit vote, in which Corbyn played a lamentably low-key role, the gap has merely increased.

To heap on further bad news, the YouGov poll found that only 18% of voters favoured Corbyn as Prime Minister, against 52% for May.

Amazing. Despite falling wages and collapsing public services,
voters still prefer her to him
Worst of all, 29% of people who voted Labour in 2015 say that they prefer May as Prime Minister to Corbyn. That’s a loss of over 2.5 million votes.

That, Labour members need to bear in mind, is the cost of insisting on retaining a Leader voters simply don’t see as a potential Prime Minister.

Corbyn’s followers keep telling me that what matters is that Corbyn has the right policies. I also keep hearing that we need to get away from an approach that’s too focused on winning elections at all costs.

There’s truth in that. But, as should be obvious, Labour’s great achievements only came with victory. Labour was down to 154 MPs after the 1935 election. After winning 393 seats in 1945, it created the NHS in 1948. A triumph now being undermined by austerity, and which can only be defended with power.

In opposition, policies may be wonderful, but they’re just wishful thinking. In government, they can change society.

In any case, as Corbyn shows, it isn’t policies that persuade voters. It’s perceptions. The YouGov poll shows how poorly Corbyn is perceived.

A couple of million votes down? If we had to face anything like that Corbyn price at the next General Election, we might see UKIP winning seats and Labour down again to its levels in 1935. Or worse.

It’s true Labour went on to win a landslide in 1945. But that meant waiting ten years.

With services like the NHS being ground out of existence and, as the TUC has now confirmed, real wages on a downward slope, do we really want to wait that long?

Monday, 25 July 2016

Outrages all around. And outrageous lack of thought in response

When it comes to making the world safer, the complete – but unsurprising – failure of Dubya and Bush has now been dramatically demonstrated. These days, it seems barely a day goes by without some new outrage, generally linked with the vile genie the invasion of Iraq let out of the bottle, the terrorist so-called Islamic State.

When it comes to size and spectacular impact, the French seem to be suffering the most, but just for now, at least, it’s the Germans who seem to be at the wrong end of a long, grinding, agonising repetition.

Another day, another outrage
Not, of course, that all those attacks are actually terrorism. It was almost with relief that I learned that a machete attack in Reutlingen was a ‘crime of passion’ and not terrorist-related. It seems awful to feel relief over what was, after all, a murder, but I suppose it’s a bit like the Northern Ireland police at the time of the troubles. They had the notion ‘Ordinary Decent Crime’: with so many crimes literally atrocious, it must have been comforting from time to time to come across a common-or-garden, civil crime unrelated to the sectarian conflict.

As it happens, it wasn’t only the machete attack that was unconnected to ISIS. That was also the case of Friday’s shootings in Munich, when 18-year old David Sonboly killed nine people.

Apart from the horror of the event itself, it was also interesting to see the reactions to it. A great many people, not least the British Foreign Secretary and semi-professional bungler, Boris Johnson, assumed immediately that it must have been an act of terrorism. Boris began pontificating about the need to tackle terrorism at its roots in the middle east, as well as in the many countries it affected, which at least had the merit of being true – it just wasn’t relevant. He would have discovered that for himself had he waited until he’d had a little more information before sounding off.

Boris is a wonderful illustration of the truth that no one can be quite as stupid as an intelligent person. He has the brains to work out an astute message on terrorism, just not the self-control to wait until he finds out whether terrorism played any part in the act he’s commenting on.

It was in any case interesting to see who else jumped the gun and started running their mouths off about terrorism, with a mere skip to immigrants as the causes of terrorism, before they knew what had actually happened. “Oh, Mrs Merkel, is it time for you to have second thoughts about letting all those people in last year?” they chanted, only too happy to be able to give their xenophobia free rein.

Let’s set to one side the fact that Merkel let in a million desperately wretched people. That a handful of them turn out to be pretty rotten is unfortunate but hardly shocking. Are we really to turn our backs on over 999,990 of them because of what the rest may do?

Let’s instead concentrate on David Sonboly himself. Of the nine he killed, seven were migrants: three Turks, three Kosovans and one from Greece. It seems his victims were disproportionately immigrants, while he was German born.

Yet he was of immigrant stock: his parents were Iranian refugees. The son of immigrants rounding on immigrants isn’t that unusual, with one wave of immigration resenting the next, which it sees as destabilising its own situation, the way of life it has established with the native population. We’ve had some celebrated examples of this kind of behaviour in Britain. Leading Conservative politicians Michael Howard and Michael Portillo both backed measures to restrict asylum rights, even though the former was the son of a Jewish refugee from Nazism and the latter the son of a Republican refugee from Franco’s Fascist coup in Spain.

The people who used the Munich shooting to decry immigration were, it seems, lining up with the perpetrator against his victims. They didn’t mean to, of course, but it’s curious to see where you end up when you talk first and think later.

Either way, the incident was an outrage and a tragedy. Though it wasn’t itself linked to terrorism, it underlines a greater familiarity with violence in our societies which terrorism has probably fanned. We’re in for difficult times over the next few years or even decades.

Another case of reaping the bitter fruit of acting without thought or sufficient information, just as Dubya and Blair did. We’ll be consuming the toxic harvest of the Iraq invasion for a long time yet. The worst of is that the ill-judged reactions to Friday’s events, whether Boris’s or those of simple social media users, show that we’re still a long way from putting that kind of lazy, ill-informed and frankly bigoted thinking behind us.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Boris and the Donald, or you can fool some of the people all the time

“I humbly and gratefully accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States,” Donald Trump informed the Republican National Convention.

It wasn’t perhaps all that surprising that he accepted the nomination. To a seasoned observer of the US political scene like me, there had been tell-tale signs over the last few months suggesting that if he were offered it, he probably would accept. Still, I could have been wrong; I have been before.

What was more surprising was that he accepted humbly. Perhaps I haven’t been following Trump’s career closely enough, but I’d completely missed the humility factor in his personality. Still, he seemed to find it for his acceptance, and who am I to doubt his sincerity?

The humble Donald Trump
Even more striking was what Trump had to say about some of the major problems facing the US:

“We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities.”

That’s just wonderful, and not just because the aspiration is so lofty. It’s so in keeping with the political spirit of our times.

We recently had a spot of bother in Britain about the European Union. A riveting referendum campaign led to a decision to withdraw from the EU. As I understand it, the aim is to take back control of our lives from the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, so that it can be exercised instead by our fine and selfless politicians in Westminster, in whom we have such confidence and who have always shown themselves entirely dedicated to serving our best interests.

Among the excellent people leading the enlightened Leave campaign was Boris Johnson, who was rewarded for his outstanding efforts by being made Foreign Secretary. He was closely associated with a number of deeply attractive promises to be fulfilled by withdrawal from the European Union. Most notably, these included an extra £350m a week for the NHS, even though our contributions to the EU were under half that amount, and possibly as low as one third.

It didn’t matter that the promise was perhaps a tad overstated. Not, one might say, entirely plausible. Or likely to be kept. It served to give the impression that marvellous things would happen if we got out of the EU, and that helped ensure a victory for the Leave campaign.

Since then, the people who made those promises, including Boris, have pointed out that, well, no, they weren’t to be taken literally, that there might not in fact be quite that amount of money available for the NHS, and that a somewhat lower amount would actually be forthcoming. Or possibly no amount at all.

Still, the promise served its purpose. It delivered the result. That’s a lesson the Donald seems to have learned from Boris unless, perhaps, it was actually he who taught it to our distinguished Foreign Secretary.

A wall along the Mexican border? 2000 miles long? An impressive undertaking. Not sure it could be completed in, say, the first 100 days of a Trump presidency.

But again, that’s not the point. The aim isn’t to build the wall in 100 days or a 1000 days of a presidency. It’s to secure that presidency, and only that.

The same is true of the pledge to end gangs, violence and drugs. This is about on the same level as a beauty pageant winner’s heartfelt desire to secure world peace. It’s even there for the same reason: it will appeal to certain people.

Not everyone will be taken in. But you don’t need everyone. As Lincoln pointed out, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Boris fooled just enough of the British people just long enough to win his Brexit battle. It’s just possible the US electorate isn’t quite that easy to fool and a majority may avoid the Donald trap. But who knows?

Far be it from me to underestimate how many still believe in the Tooth Fairy.

Totally irrelevant picture entirely unrelated to anything above

Thursday, 21 July 2016

It never rains but it pours

It never rains but it pours, they say. Misfortunes don’t come singly.

First, it was the illness of our poodle Luci, which I mentioned in a previous post. It came back at the weekend with a vengeance. Which, as were talking digestive problems, is pretty vengeful. It meant a second emergency vet visit, near midnight on Saturday. Whatever the old music hall song meant when it talked of my delight on a Saturday night, I’m sure it wasn’t hanging around a 24-hour vet service.

The vet was good and, above all, encouraging so we went home reasonably relaxed, ready for a pleasant and restorative night’s sleep. Which, it turned out, we were to be denied. At 4:28, the burglar alarm bleeped plaintively at us. That didn’t mean an intruder had broken in, putting the system into a panic, it meant that its power supply had failed, merely making it depressed and upset.

So I went downstairs and removed things from the cupboard at the back of which our fuse box is conveniently located. The trip switch had indeed tripped. So I untripped it. Or do I mean reset it? Whichever, I did it. The alarm bleeped at me contentedly and I headed back upstairs to catch up on my interrupted sleep...

There’s something cruel about a half hour in bed. It’s enough time to fall deeply asleep but nothing like enough to get rested. And that’s how long it took before the alarm system took to start bleeping again.

This time I knew I had to do a more thorough job. I unplugged a whole load of appliances, reset the system and started to plug the appliances back in.

When I came to the fridge, bingo, it tripped the system. I tried again; with the fridge unplugged , the electrics worked like a dream; with it plugged back in, they tripped again leaving the poor old alarm as unhappy as ever.

We don’t do really hot in this country. This week, however, has seen the temperatures rise to the highest level we’ve seen them for ages. Not the best time for our fridge (and freezer) to go.

So we ordered another one. On a Sunday, mind – that’s the beauty of shopping on-line, you can get more or less anything, more or less anytime. The shop even gave us a delivery slot on Monday. So we could relax and focus instead on our still unwell Luci.

Poor, sad little creature
The trouble with a dog that small is that you have the feeling she has nothing with which to fight an illness. She lay there looking miserable and in pain, and it looked to me as though her frame simply wouldn’t take it. In fact, she seemed in such a bad way that Danielle took her in for another emergency vet visit that afternoon.

Monday came and at least the fridge turned up. That’s when we discovered the downside of shopping on-line. You really have to know what you’re ordering. We thought that an ‘integrated’ fridge-freezer was one that combined both things, which was what we wanted. Turns out it means itfor building in to a fitted kitchen.

We needed a free-standing model.

So the delivery men took it away again (they also took away the old one, so at least that was one headache the less). A phone conversation identified the right model to order, and the whole process went smoothly, but neither of us could be at home during the day again until Thursday.

That meant that we had to go the three hottest days of the year without a fridge. That’s been educative. We took having a fridge for granted. Believe me, spend a few hot days without one and you learn not to do that any more.

Still, at least Luci was gradually recovering. Indeed, there came a point when she had improved so far that we could hardly deny that she was out of the woods – why, she’d taken to walking on my keyboard again, if I wasn’t paying enough attention to her, and biting my nose if that didn’t work.

“She’s fine,” I assured Danielle, rubbing my nose, “fully back to her usual self.”

By then the men had turned up with the fridge too. We left it standing for a while like you should, and then turned it on. Worked a dream. Fortunate events don’t come singly either, it seems, just like misfortunes. We were so pleased, we even cooled a couple of good bottles to celebrate the event.

Civilised life returns
Except that now, of course, the clouds have come up again. It even looks like it might rain. Or possibly pour. Uninviting conditions, at any rate, for sitting outside with a glass of chilled white wine to recover from the strains of the last few days.

Fortunes and misfortunes don’t come singly. Seems they don’t come unmixed either.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Cockup or conspiracy, and Turkey in trouble

Given the choice of explaining events in terms of conspiracy or cock-up, I’m always far more inclined to go for the latter.

This is because, while I’d never underestimate the sheer devious malice of many powerful people, I’m not as impressed as they are by their intellectual capacity. Nor do I have confidence in the ability of people to keep their mouths shut for long enough to pull off a really comprehensive conspiracy, especially if there are a great many of them involved or it lasts long enough to give them multiple opportunities to boast about it to their twelve best friends.

So I’m prepared to believe that 9/11 happened as a result of a conspiracy between a relatively small number of people headed by Osama Bin Laden, though even then I’m astonished that they were able to be quite so ruthlessly effective in their planning and secrecy. I’m utterly unable to believe that it was all a conspiracy stage-managed by the Pentagon, since that would have required 10,000 people to work in coordination, with not a single one of them spilling the beans since.

Why am I talking about all this now?

Because last Friday a coup was attempted in Turkey, a nation that was already well on the way to autocracy under the leadership of its remarkable and charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In passing, let me saw it’s men like him that make charisma deeply suspect to me. 

He’s quick to defend democracy when it comes to defending his grip on power, which he indeed established by election. He’s much less so when it comes to protecting those other, less convenient if not downright irritating democratic values, such as the right to freedom of speech, to oppose to government or, even, to expose corruption.

Erdogan: smart operator who's been dealt a winning hand
But as briiliant as he believes? A champion plotter? I think not
Indeed, the Turkish experience is an excellent illustration of how holding elections, though a necessary condition for democracy, is far from a sufficient one.

The coup, as we all now know, fizzled out when the majority of the army failed to rally to it and Erdogan was able to call out large numbers of civilians to resist it. Now he’s in the wonderful position, for a man of his authoritarian inclination, to round up all his opponents – and he has some convenient little lists ready, of people who really wouldn’t be missed, at least by him or his followers. And he’s in the glorious position of being able to do it all in the name of democracy. To protect freedom from military intervention. To defend the core rights of the people to choose their government freely. Or at least, all those people, and it may be a majority, who vote for him.

Among the opponents he deals with over the next few weeks, you can be sure there will be quite a few who took no part in the putsch and were as opposed to it as he was. But they were opposed to him too and, sadly, by an unfortunate administrative error, they will be caught up in the post-coup oppression too.

Since only he seems to have benefited from the coup attempt, and it’s given him just the opportunity to move against the opponents he was targeting anyway, it is indeed easy to imagine that he was behind it in the first place. Who does it benefit, we ask? Him, obviously, so isn’t it possible that he or his agents ensured the attempt was made and crushed, to strengthen the strong man? 

It’s a tempting hypothesis. But not to my taste. I just can’t believe that Erdogan is quite that intelligent. He’s a highly effective bully, and perfectly smart enough to pull a faction together and use it to crush his adversaries. However, smart enough to get people who hate him to act in precisely the way he wants them? To go out on a limb and, as it now appears, put their lives on the line by doing something so completely half-baked, all because they’d fallen for Erdogan’s snake oil selling skills?

I don’t see it. On the other hand, my faith is deep and unshakeable in the capacity we all share to delude ourselves. It strikes me as far more likely that the men who led the putsch thought they’d get away with it. Just like the men in the dying days of the Soviet Union who thought they’d overthrow Gorbachev, and only got Yeltsin instead – with Putin not far behind.

In both cases, rebels got their tanks out without being sure of the backing they needed. They went into battle against men whose skill exceeded theirs only far enough to ensure they had more support than their opponents. These were not brilliant poker players turning the cards they were dealt into winning hands; these were one set of cheats outsmarted by the other.

In both cases, the ultimate victim was any hope of democratic development. Back then, the final price was paid by the Russian people, as now it will be by the Turkish. But it was down to cockup by putschists, not conspiracy by their opponents. Opponents and beneficiaries.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Make sure you see Happy Valley, Line of Duty, Better Call Saul. Plus a film as bonus.

It’s always a pleasure when a TV series improves from one season to the next. That’s been the case of three we’ve watched recently.

What makes Happy Valley so gripping is that the characters are believable. This is particularly true of the lead, Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire), someone it wouldn’t be at all surprising to meet in the aisle of a local supermarket. Or, more accurately, a local supermarket in a small Yorkshire town – Lancashire fits perfectly into the setting of the series, both by accent and by attitude.

Catherine Cawood: a great invention in TV fiction
Not always bubbling over with joy
The first season was compelling and well-constructed but perhaps depended a little too much on the shock and spectacle of a series of scenes of violence (not gratuitous but nonetheless graphic). The second season does far better: the violence is much more sparing, if just as shocking, and far more is made of the interchanges between everyday characters dealing with difficult situations.

Prostitutes are being murdered and shamefully mutilated in a Yorkshire village. Meanwhile the son of a widowed sheep farmer is being picked on by local youths who are making his life a misery. Sadly, the police can do little about it, not even Sergeant Cawood. She is, in any case, increasingly drawn into the murder investigation, and into the related crime of people-trafficking for the purposes of prostitution – one of the most engaging themes of the series is her work to protect one of the trafficked women.

What’s particularly baffling is that one of the murders, though it involves the same kind of mutilation, doesn’t fit the pattern. We the viewers know why it’s different; the police, however, assume that it is just one more in the same series, and not just because of a failure on their part, but because they’re being deliberately misled.

What links all these threads is Cawood, who begins to pull them together (even the sheep farmers) – while at the same time having to deal with the latest vicious persecution by the man who drove her daughter to suicide after leaving her pregnant. Despite being in gaol, is able to exercise a terrible threatening pressure on Cawood, her family and friends through a woman who has fallen under his spell – played by one of the least sinister of actors, Shirley Henderson, who managers for the purposes of this role to be one of the most sinister of characters.

The third season of Line of Duty has proved to be by far the best so far. Again, there is less violence than in the earlier seasons, though it’s by no means violence-free: indeed, the season starts with a criminal fleeing from an armed police unit, whose leader is the first to catch up with him – and then executes him in deliberate cold blood. He orders his team to cover up for him, but the anti-corruption unit AC-12 smells a rat and starts an investigation. Another brutal murder, this time involving torture also occurs – and then, to our consternation, one of the AC-12 officers, Detective Inspector Matt Cottan (Craig Parkinson), the one we’d learned to suspect from the earlier seasons, destroys a piece of evidence.

Martin Compston and Vicky McClure
Excellent in Line of Duty, though also not a bundle of laughs
Meanwhile, Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes), the detective gaoled by the unit at the end of season 2, is appealing her conviction. That case is reopened, leaving poor Detective Sergeant Arnott (Martin Compston) under suspicion himself – at least of incompetence. Adrian Dunbar is once again brilliant as the tormented, deeply principle commander of AC-12, Superintendent Ted Hastings, and Arnott’s colleague, Detective Constable Kate Fleming, superbly played by Vicky McClure, steals the show in the last episode.

That episode is dominated by two great examples of the kind of scene the series does best –interrogations – and, more sadly, an unintentionally hilarious car chase. It ends up with McClure chasing the criminals’ SUV on foot. Fortunately, the SUV manages to travel round in circles for several minutes, giving her several cracks at shooting at it. It’s quite an amusing scene, and helps create a good ending, but it lacks – well, credibility.

Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk
Better Call Saul: plenty of dry humour
The second season of Better Call Saul was also a great improvement over the first, already impressive enough. This is a spinoff from Breaking Bad, but based around two of the secondary characters – principally Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill (later ‘Saul’), who went from a young man dabbling in crime, to postroom employee in his brother’s law firm, to lawyer in his own right. In this season, he’s getting going as a lawyer with his girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), against the wishes and devious resistance of his own brother. He’s already more than willing to bend or break the rules to advance the interests of people he cares for, or his own.

His life also repeatedly touches on that of ex-policeman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) constantly obliged to swim in the shark-infested waters of the local drug gangs, with their ruthless viciousness. But he proves himself repeatedly fully equipped with excellent teeth himself and more than prepared to use them himself – with great skill.

Three great series. If you haven’t see them, make a point of it.

PS – a fine film to go with the series: While you’re at it, see if you can get a look at The Wipers Times. Wipers is what the British Tommy called Ypres, in North West Belgium, scene of some of the more blood-drenched incidents of the blood-drenched First World War.

A Captain Frederick Roberts (played by Ben Chaplin) and Lieutenant John Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt), of the 12th Batallion of the Sherwood Foresters, came across an abandoned printing press. They decided to get a newspaper out for the troops. Since they were subject to transfers, what started as the Wipers Times later became the Somme Times and various other Times, even at the end of the war, Better Times. It was irreverent and magnificently funny. An example:

Realizing Men must laugh,
Some Wise Man devised the Staff :
Dressed them up in little dabs
Of rich variegated tabs :
Taught them how to win the War On A.F.Z. 354 :
Let them lead the Simple Life
Far from all our vulgar strife :
Nightly gave them downy beds
For their weary, aching heads :
Lest their relatives might grieve
Often, often gave them leave,
Decorations too, galore :
What on earth could man wish more?
Yet, alas, or so says Rumour,
He forgot a sense of Humour!

The film, a drama based on the real events, captures all of this rich mix and is well worth seeing.

The Wipers Times editorial staff

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Bush, Blair, Boris and Brexit. And my poodle Luci

It’s frightening when a pet falls ill.

It can be messy too, of course. I’ll spare you the details but you can probably imagine what the clearing up was like when I tell you that our toy poodle, Luci, had some acute digestive problems. In any case, the cleaning was the least of our concerns as she began to tremble uncontrollably while drooling from the mouth. Usually lively and playful, she collapsed and lay wherever she’d slumped, apathetic, shaking and miserable.

We had to make an emergency dash to the vet’s. Far from giving us any words of comfort, he looked as worried as we were. We had to start grappling with the notion that we might be about to lose her. Fortunately, however, his professional skill and her natural powers of recovery eventually won through, and after a night of anxiety, we found her in the morning already well on the way back to her normal self.

What had put her in that state? 

Despite her tiny size, she has quite an appetite. One that is entirely undiscriminating. If she comes across anything that seems eatable, she gives way to temptation and eats it without hesitation. We have to be quick to stop her and, if we’re not quick enough, that’s it, it’s gone, swallowed and into her belly. Where it may, as was the case this time, wreak havoc.

Plenty of charm, but not so strong on the self-control
Complete surrender to immediate gratification. Not a thought to the possible future consequences. Not the smallest trace of self-control.

The capacity to exercise such self-control is what separates us from the animals. We can defer gratification. It means we can walk past what seems appealing but might in reality be harmful.

Conversely, we often lose that capacity, and find ourselves behaving like Luci: acting first, thinking afterwards. So I suppose, just as the self-control separates us from the animals, its failure shows us how closely we linked we still are to them.

What does it take? Well, if you happen to have a particularly challenged US President – yes, you identified him correctly, I mean Dubya – who’s made up his mind that he needs to pick a fight in Iraq, and you’re a British Prime Minister particularly star-struck by wealth or power – yes, full marks, I mean Blair – you might be inclined to go blundering into battle with him. Without a thought to the consequences.

That’s what the Chilcot Report into the Iraq War showed. There’d been no planning. Nobody had thought about what would happen after the initial military phase, what problems we might face or what resources we might need to deal with them.

Chilcot was clear. A perfectly predictable consequence was an upsurge in fundamentalist terrorism, affecting the whole region and many countries beyond. Just like Luci, Dubya and Blair swallowed the tempting morsel of a quick and easy war, and discovered that it turned out to be a long and bitter struggle. After which, they left it to the rest of us to clear up the mess.

What happens with individuals can happen with whole countries too. Britain – or more specifically, England and Wales – decided on 23 June that the UK should leave the EU. Since then it’s turned out that no one had planned for what might happen next. There may be a terrible shock coming for Brexit supporters: the government seems highly tempted to leave the EU but stick with the European single market, which would mean Britain continuing to pay contributions to the EU, having to accept freedom of movement with EU countries, and having to accept EU rules while having given up any say in making them.

Like Luci, the consequences of the decision may turn out to be a lot less enjoyable than the initial act may have appeared.

Luci, of course, recovered quickly and fully. I’m sure a lot of people in Britain are hoping that recovery from Brexit will be just as easy. Sadly, when it comes to the other spectacularly ill-planned decision, war in Iraq, we’re still struggling with the consequences today. With no end in sight.

Still, whether Brexit turns out as easy as Luci’s illness, or as painful and drawn out as the Iraq conflict, one conclusion we can be sure of: it would make life a lot easier if we could learn to plan a little better.

And, perhaps, to exercise a tad more self-control.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Corbyn controversy, or have we learned anything from last time Labour put its Foot in it?

Let’s wind the clock back to 1981. Specifically, to 25 January. This is the day when four former Labour cabinet members, known as the Gang of Four, announced a long-feared move to split the party.

Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers set up the Council for Social Democracy because they felt that Labour had lurched too far to the left. It had adopted policies of unilateral nuclear disarmament and departure from the European Economic Community (forerunner of the European Union). It had also elected a left-wing leader, Michael Foot.

Insofar as one can like anyone without meeting him personally, I liked Foot. I agreed with most of his views, but I also felt a personal link to him: I was in the second year of doctoral studies on an eighteenth-century writer and thinker, and Foot was a respected authority on one of the greatest eighteenth-century writers and thinkers, Jonathan Swift. He even did his research in the North Library of the British Library, still in those days housed within the British Museum building, as I did.

The Gang of Four, getting ready to split the Labour Party
The Gang of Four was, however, more worried still by the veteran left winger Tony Been, seen as exercising a baleful influence on the Party.

There’s much to admire in Benn. However, I don’t go with the personality cult that’s developed around him. Unlike most Labour left wingers, he’d had experience in government, not always to his honour. As Secretary of State for Energy, he had ordered three new nuclear power stations, one of them – Sizewell B – using the US Westinghouse Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) technology.

Later he would write in the Guardian, “I am strongly opposed to nuclear weapons and civil nuclear power.” Earlier in the same article, he talked of, “Sir Jack Rampton, my permanent secretary, who seemed to be as keen as [Dr Walter] Marshall [of the Atomic Energy Authority and an adviser to Benn] on the adoption of the PWR.” This kind of rationalisation strikes me as self-serving – “I was pressurised into making a lousy decision by bad advice” – as well as feeble – “I may be a clarion voice of the left, but when I have to defend my position against pressure, I cave.” 

Hardly the stuff of which we want Labour politicians to be made. However, back then, the Gang of Four was deeply apprehensive of him.

In March 1981, they launched the Social Democratic Party. In the end, just 28 Labour MPs joined them, and one Tory, and they were badly hammered at the 1983 General Election: only six SDP MPs were returned. Indeed, even their alliance with the then Liberal Party only managed to win 23 seats overall. However, that poor result at parliamentary level belied a far better performance in the popular vote: the SDP-Liberal Alliance took 7,780,949 vote, just 675,985 behind Labour.

Labour fought that election on probably the most left-wing manifesto it had ever adopted. But the result saw it lose 9.3% of its popular support and 52 MPs. The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher, assisted by the split vote against them, won by a landslide, with a majority of 144 seats, despite a 700,000 drop in their vote.

Tony Benn came up with a glorious reaction to that catastrophic Labour defeat. He described the debacle as “a triumph for socialism.” I still can’t believe he said that. Two or three such triumphs and Labour would guarantee Tory government for a couple of generations.

Benn reckoned that 8,456,934 Labour voters had voted for a socialist manifesto. I suppose positive spin can be a good thing, but that struck me as a trifle over the top, given that the party had registered its worst performance since 1918. Labour MP Gerald Kaufmann seemed closer to the truth when he described the massive, turgid and indigestible manifesto, as “the longest suicide note in history.”

Benn’s mistake was no doubt down to a view, still held by many, that policies actually matter when it comes to winning elections. Aaron Banks, the leading Brexit and UKIP backer, reckoned the recent referendum win was down to the principle that “facts don’t matter”. Remain campaigners only put forward facts, but the Leave side appealed to emotions. The same is true when it comes to perception and policy in general elections. It doesn’t matter what policies you promise to pursue, if your leader isn’t seen as a potential Prime Minister. Far too few voters saw Foot as a PM, and the SDP-Liberal Alliance gave them another choice. The result was a catastrophic defeat of the Labour Party (or “triumph of socialism”, of course, if you like the Benn point of view.)

Aldous Huxley once pointed out that the only lesson to learn from history is that no one learns any lessons from history.

Let’s run the clock forward again, to today. Have we learned any lessons?

Once more, the Bennite wing of the Labour Party is in the ascendancy, in the movement known as Momentum (momentum, by the way, is something that keeps you moving forward, but doesn’t unfortunately distinguish between whether you’re heading for sunlit uplands or straight over a cliff.)

Once more, we have a leader who is kind, decent, honest, principled and from the Left of the Party. He may not be an authority on Swift. But he is, just like Foot, not someone many see as a potential Prime Minister.

It’s been reported that there are once more moves afoot to launch a new grouping, bringing together the right of the Labour Party with more liberal Conservatives. And once more Shirley Williams has emerged to talk about cross-party collaboration. Even the issue she has chosen to highlight is a throwback to the controversy of the early eighties: Europe again, following the Brexit vote.

Despite that experience, we seem to be lining ourselves up to make all the same mistakes. As Einstein almost certainly didn’t say, to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, is the definition of insanity. We may be heading for another period of lunacy.

What were the results last time?

Fourteen more years of highly painful Tory rule. The first seven of them under Thatcher. To whom Theresa May is a worthy and effective successor.

We’ve been warned.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Kataryna and the sad tale of lost English opportunity

Kataryna left her home in central Poland to establish herself in Brussels because, she told us, she was “in love.”

The object of this love was a fellow Pole, and they married in Belgium. But it didn’t really take. Two or three years later she decided that it was time to call it a day: they had no kids, nothing that really tied them to each other, and there was no point in struggling on with a marriage that wasn’t going anywhere.

It was a hard decision for her to take. “I’d said for the rest of my life, and I meant for the rest of my life. It was difficult to change that.”

Her Catholic Polish upbringing was against it, but she went through with the divorce.

Her family clamoured for her to come back home. But she resisted.

“I had a life here. And I felt something was waiting to happen for me in Belgium, which wouldn’t back in Poland.”

Kataryna in her Polish bakery and café
So she stayed on. She works in a Polish bakery and café in the mornings – that’s where we met her – but, in term time, she teaches Polish to children in several schools in the Etterbeek district with its large population of Poles.

“And there really was something waiting to happen for me. I fell in love again, with a Belgian, and we’ve been married ten years. He’s 50, thirteen years older than me, and my friends all warned me that he would betray me and leave me. But he hasn’t, not yet. At least, I always feel he’s there behind me, supporting me, and I don’t feel he’s ever been unfaithful. Maybe I’m a fool, but that’s what I feel.”

It seems that she gets physically ill when he’s away, and then miraculously recovers when he returns. Apparently he also feels lonely and incomplete when he’s separated from Kataryna.

Her husband brought her a ready-made family of three. His first wife left him with all three soon after the birth of the last. Kataryna finds the youngest easy, since he has only known her. The other two were more problematic, especially the middle child, a girl now entering teenage.

“It isn’t simple,” she says.

We wished her well. I hope the marriage is as good, as solid as she believes it is. I hope life continues to treat her as well in Belgium as she feels it has so far.

Her café drew us to it on both days we were in the area. Our breakfast was all the more pleasant for listening to her story, although it was surprising that she should speak so openly to strangers. Surprising but also cordial and friendly.

Many more Poles will be able to follow in Kataryna’s footsteps if they wish. And Belgians will be able to go back in the other direction: as my wife and I know from several trips to Kraków, the flows are beginning to reverse, with other EU citizens seeking careers in Poland.

Sadly, in the future, neither Belgians nor Poles will find it as easy to choose to settle in England. Brexit will see to that. Equally, English people who might want to pursue a dream, or love, or just simply a job opportunity, elsewhere in Europe, will no longer find that an easy option.

In England, sadly, we’ve chosen to give up the right to free movement. A freedom, not an obligation. We gave it up so that we wouldn’t have to grant it to our neighbours. We have restricted ourselves in order not to be generous to others.

With her ready smile and open spirit, Kataryna was a living symbol of how valuable a liberty England has decided to abandon.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Angels and Demons, and the Labour leadership

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.

Sometimes it’s paved with sterling values. Like decency, gentleness and loyalty.

Labour Party members are mostly good people (there are, of course, exceptions). Loyalty is one of their admirable qualities. It was put to the test in the last Parliament when, despite all the evidence that he was failing to make a mark on his adversaries, we stuck by our leader Ed Milliband, right to the bitter end.

And bitter it was. After five years of lamentable government, a Tory party led by men principally driven by their sense of entitlement, not only beat Labour for the second time but went from having to rely on a coalition partner to having a working majority and governing alone.

A poor reward for all our loyalty. But a lesson from which we could learn.

We seem not to have. We’ve given ourselves a leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has even more desirable qualities than Milliband did. He voted against the Iraq War. He’s firmly against the austerity policies that are crucifying the whole of Europe. He even has the guts to oppose the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile programme, which only gives a sense of security by being so expensive the assumption is that it has to be useful.

Sadly, few voters see him as a potential Prime Minister. Just like Milliband, he leaves barely a scratch on Cameron when he takes him on. His performance in the European Referendum campaign is often described as lacklustre, but in reality it was practically invisible. The debate came to be seen as an internal Conservative spat, pitting Cameron against Boris Johnson. Corbyn barely impinged.

Things have got so bad that a vote of no confidence in him was passed by 80% of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Outside Parliament, however, the loudest in the Party continue to back him. “60% of members voted for him,” they proclaim. 

I was one of those members. I voted for him because the alternatives were so uninspiring and because I felt we ought perhaps to give somebody different a chance. Well, we have given him a chance. It seems to me that if our leader hasn’t managed, over nine months, to unite the Parliamentary Labour Party, his most immediate collaborators, and hasn’t persuaded a majority of voters to see him as a future Prime Minister, then he’s unlikely to do it in the next four years. The Milliband experience underlines how important it is to make such a change quickly.

So why do the other members stick with him? They seem again to be driven by excessive loyalty. They also have their own sense of entitlement: “we are the members, we elected him.” Unfortunately, though members may elect a leader, it’s voters who elect a government. Maybe we’d do better to listen to them.

Naturally, dumping Corbyn now is unfair. But Labour doesn’t exist to be fair to its leaders. It exists to make life fairer for the vulnerable, the voiceless, the people who are paying the price of the current government’s policies. They and only they deserve our loyalty. Their cause needs a real fighter on its side. Corbyn is honest, decent, earnest, but if the European referendum campaign’s anything to go by, he’s no fighter. 

That puts me in mind of the words of one of the finest trial lawyers of all time, Clarence Darrow. He repeatedly emerged as the American champion of the left, of the underdog, of the trade unionist. He knew a thing or two about what it took to be a good labour leader.

Back in 1907, “Big Bill” Haywood, of the Western Federation of Miners, was put on trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Darrow won his acquittal, much to the establishment’s shock and anger. In the course of his summing up, he outlined what it took to be a leader of a working class movement:

I don’t claim that this man is an angel. The Western Federation of Miners could not afford to put an angel at their head. Do you want to hire an angel to fight the Mine Owners’ Association and the Pinkerton detectives, and the power of wealth? Oh, no, gentlemen; you better get a first-class fighting man who has physical courage, who has mental courage, who has strong devotion, who loves the poor, who loves the weak, who hates iniquity and hates it more when it is with the powerful and the great; and you cannot win without it, and I believe that down in your hearts there is not one of you would wish him to be an angel. You know an angel would not be fitted for that place, and I make no claim of that; but he is not a demon.

Big Bill Haywood. No angel, but certainly a fighter.
And he even had a way with words, wouldn’t you say?
Ah, yes. That’s what we need at the head of the British Labour Party: a leader who hates iniquity and loves the poor, but who is also a first-class fighting man (or woman). Not a demon who might take us into an illegal war inflaming decades of terrorism. But we don’t want an angel, either, without the killer instinct to knock out the other side.

Sadly, it looks like we’ve saddled ourselves with an angel for now.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Cycling: once learned, never forgotten. Except for the tactical nuances

They say that you never forget how to ride a bicycle. It’s true up to a point: when we went for a cycle ride, up along the Dutch coast one way, back through the Dutch countryside on the return, the simple matter of pedalling and guiding the bike were, as ever, simplicity itself despite a year or two since Id cycled anywhere.

From the length of that gap, you can reasonably infer that I’m not generally an enthusiastic cyclist. There are just too many hills. But since Holland solves that particular problem by basically having none, I was happy to get back into the saddle on this occasion.

By “having none” I mean that the clever app I used to map our route suggests that we started at an elevation of 11 metres and reached a maximum elevation of 19 metres. That’s a level of hilliness that I think of as acceptable.

No problem with the basic process, then. What I’d forgotten about was a key principle of cycling tactics. But I discovered it again, the hard way.

Not the Med or the Caribbean, but the North Sea has its charms too
We moved along the coast cycle path at a stimulating pace. Most of the way was in among impressive dunes, with occasional glimpses of the sea through pathways down to the beach. We even popped down one of them, to our considerable satisfaction We made such good time – I couldn’t believe how much better the hired bikes were than last time we used some – that I proposed cracking on up the coast trail right to pretty much the outer suburbs of Amsterdam. Then we could travel inland and down past water meadows and even see a windmill or two.

Sadly, what I’d failed to take into account – the cycling principle I’d forgotten – was the difference the wind makes. On the way up, it was at our back, and what joy it was to cycle in that direction!

Nothing to do with bike quality. Nothing to do with our mastery of the techniques. We were being pushed along.

On the way back, on the other hand, you can readily deduce, everything was reversed. The wind – and in a land of windmills, the wind’s more or less ever-present – that had made our progress so light and easy was now making it feel like a ride through treacle.

That was also when I discovered the downside of the lack of hills: there’s no shelter. The wind would drop while we were behind a run of trees and then, when we re-emerged, there it would be again, cruel, baleful, malicious and waiting for us so it could come howling across the wide expanse of flat, open land, with its canals and flower fields, lovely to see but painful to suffer, straight into our faces, unimpeded by so much as the slightest rise in the ground.

A good moment. Before the rain started
Cycling can be a joy. It can also be grim. And it was grim then. On the way out, I barely got below fourth gear out of seven; on the way back, I never went up above third and, to my shame, found myself repeatedly in first.

The weather saved a sting in its tail for us, too. Just as we got back to the village where we were staying, it unleashed a regular storm on us, accompanied by rain for our amusement. The last kilometre or so was all uphill. Not uphill by much, I grant you, but in those conditions, it felt like the Alpe d’Huez.

It was getting late. We didn’t know at what time the hire shop shut, but we could see ourselves stuck with the bikes overnight and, to add injury to insult, having to pay extra the next day for the privilege. Indeed, as we came around the final corner, we saw all the bikes and motorbikes had been cleared away from the front of the shop.

Still, I decided to take a closer look. To my joy, as I approached the front, I found a door open. They’d cleared away the display bikes, but two men were still waiting for the hired ones to come back. I headed towards them in some trepidation, expecting a ticking off for being back so late. It was with great relief that I heard their greeting as I pushed the bike over the threshold.

“Hello. You look wet. Would you like a beer?”

Wet outside, I was parched inside and the offer was immensely welcome.

A good touch, a touch full of the warmth we met from most Dutch people, and a satisfactory way to wrap up what had gone from a quiet day out to something more like an epic.

I told them about the tactical error I’d made. They laughed.

“Always go upwind first, so the return trips easy.

Yes. That was a nuance that had escaped me before but I hope it won’t again.

“You could always take one of our electric bikes, you know.

Excellent advice, if just a tad tardy. Still, I was enjoying my beer and I wasn’t going to complain. Instead I’d just try to remember another useful lesson.

We never did see those windmills. Still, they may have been there. When you’ve got your head down to avoid the gale and the rain, enjoying the view’s not a top priority.