Friday, 30 September 2016

An old friend returns. Not necessarily to the warmest of welcomes

When my wife got home from work today, she announced with gusto that, “we’re going to have Kefir again! Remember? Like when we were first together, back in the eighties?”

Beyond a doubt I should have reacted with enthusiasm. An old friend. A great source of all sorts of things that do lots of good for us, or so I’m assured. A reminder of our early years.

Oh, joy
What’s not to celebrate?

Sadly, I couldn’t summon up much excitement. From what I remember, Kefir produces almost inexhaustible quantities of a rather thin, watery and sour yoghurt.

Perhaps it wasn’t sour. More tasteless, come to think of it. Sour might have been an improvement. You know, whether it actually does you good or not, it tastes as though it ought to.

But that’s not the worst of it.

I could never really handle the fact that it’s a product that people describe as a “germ” and say it with pride. Don’t we usually try to combat germs? Why would we want these ones?

As a germ, a living thing, it demands feeding. I came to regard it as a baleful presence in the fridge. In amongst all the good things in there, intended to feed me, it would sit there waiting for me to open the door so it could insist that I give it more milk. Every day. Like a dog, it required constant attention, but without being able to chase a ball or lick your face in an affectionate sort of way.

It began to feel like a kind of black hole, at the core of our home. “Gimme, gimme,” it seemed to say, sucking in all it could exert its sinister gravitation on. And if I ever forgot, I was racked by guilt. Why, when we finally got rid of the stuff, I felt terrible, as though I’d killed a pet. It took me a while to recover my equanimity, though I have to say it helped that I could open the fridge without feeling obligated any more.

That sense of relief helped me overcome the regret.

Well, no more. Kefir is back. I can’t help feeling it’s grinning at me, as though it’s scored a point. And, of course, any time now it’ll be demanding to be fed again.

Still, mustn’t be ungracious. It’ll be producing lots of wonderful yoghurt for us. Which I can eat with joy. And enthusiasm.

However thin, watery and tasteless it may be. Or possibly sour.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Fighting yesterday's battles

Generals, it’s said, tend to fight the last war. As do admirals. Why, politicians too, and even their supporters.

It’s true that admirals, in learning their craft, often have to follow successful examples from the past. However, that’s only useful if conditions have remained the same. Sadly, they seldom do.

That can even happen when people make a valiant effort to get ahead of the game. Take US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. He researched the subject extensively and concluded that control of the sea was vital in war. The best way of winning such control was through a decisive action between great fleets, in which one would comprehensively defeat the other (see Trafalgar, for instance).

Mahan was read around the world. British sailors devoured his work. The German Kaiser insisted his senior officers study him. Even distant Japan learned the lessons, and applied them in its comprehensive defeat of the Russian imperial fleet in 1905. 

The world’s then dominant naval power, Britain, decided to protect its position by equipping itself with huge battleships. They would be built of steel not wood and have massive guns mounted in turrets so they could be swung to fire in multiple directions. They would be called Dreadnoughts and the first, the original HMS Dreadnought, was launched in 1906. Other nations quickly followed suit, spending huge sums on their own giant battleships. They included the US, even though it had already been home to the event that would make these leviathans obsolete.

Dreadnoughts: already the past
And one plane: harbinger of the future
In 1903, the Wright Brothers gave the first demonstration of controlled, steered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. It wasn’t obvious at the time but the successors to that prototype, together with the submarine, would mark the catastrophic end of the time of the battleship – even though, at that stage, it hadn’t even begun.

The power of submarine warfare was shown in World War 1. Submarines were the unseen enemy that sank merchant as well as military ships, destroying a nation’s ability to defend its trade links, and therefore ultimately – especially for an island nation – its ability to survive at all.

Surface navies were sidelined. Britain and Germany fought only one major sea battle, at Jutland, and whatever Mahan may have thought, it proved indecisive. Instead, all the aspirants after Nelsonian glory in the Royal Navy had to resign themselves to a much less inspiring though far more necessary task: convoy protection. Keeping merchant ships afloat despite submarine depredations was the only way to keep vital supplies flowing.

Air power was dramatically demonstrated in World War 2. In just two waves of attack on 7 December 1941, Japanese carrier-borne aircraft destroyed the battleships of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Just three days later, Japanese planes sank the British battleship Prince of Wales and her accompanying battlecruiser Repulse. The US fleet had been caught by surprise and sunk at anchor but the British ships had been at sea and fully prepared. No clearer illustration could be provided that battleships weren’t the decisive force at sea so many had believed: planes were. The era of the aircraft carrier had dawned. Just five months after Pearl Harbor, the US repelled a Japanese invasion force, at the battle of the Coral Sea – the first naval engagement in which the opposing fleets never sighted each other, instead battling it out through their aircraft.

Meanwhile, two submarine wars were being fought. In the Atlantic, the German U-boat offensive came close to starving Britain, but was ultimately defeated and, just as at the Coral Sea, the key factor was airpower: long range planes based in Iceland attacked submarines on the surface and hit them before they could dive. Meanwhile, the long-suffering Royal Navy had to spend most of its energy in the inglorious chore of guarding convoys.

In the Pacific, on the other hand, US submarines emerged victorious. In the last few months of the war, not a single tanker reached Japan, denying industry and the military of the fuel oil vital to prosecute the war. Japan’s failure to foresee the importance of submarine warfare and lay on counter-measures cost it dear.

Not everyone was caught up in the past. Some, in the Japanese and US navies alike, realised that new conditions had created the need for new doctrines. But many clung on to the old notions, particularly in Japan, where hankering for the decisive naval engagement between great ships survived until the end of the War.

They were looking backwards. It didn’t work. It was the people who moved with the times who came out on top.

A lesson we still need to learn. In Britain today, we have a Right that looks back nostalgically to a time when the country bestrode the world alone and didn’t need to depend on others. And we have a Left that longs to fight the battles of the forties and fifties again, where our salvation apparently lay with state control, forgetting that when we actually tried that out, the State proved more stifling than inspiring.

Ah, well. Yesterday’s battles. So much more fun to fight, even though they don’t prepare us particularly well for the far more complex ones we face today.

As the champions of the battleship discovered.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The seeds of racism in all our souls

Some decades ago, I was a lodger in a house owned by Jewish friends. They were perhaps slightly closer to the Jewish mainstream than I was, but otherwise had similar views to my own: they were secular, leaned to the left politically and were deeply English in character even though the grandmother had never lost her native Russian accent (she had attended meetings addressed by Trotsky, and spoke wonderingly about how he could generate a wave of collective enthusiasm uplifting an entire audience).

On one occasion I met one of their cousins, a man of quite extraordinary culture and who ultimately suffered, or perhaps enjoyed, a remarkable end. We had a mild but warmly defended disagreement on some aspect of human behaviour – I forget which – and at one point he said to me:

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”

I looked at him, completely blank, the sad – embarrassed, indeed – product of five futile years of studying Latin at school.

“So sad, so sad,” he said, “they teach you but they don’t educate you. We’re forgetting that our culture has roots steeped in Latin.”

He shook his head, overcome by sorrow at the pitiful state of our schools.

“It’s Terence,” he said, “the great Roman playwright. ‘I am a man and I hold nothing human alien to me’.”

Publius Terentius Afer
Smart man. Got his humanity right
Well, the words have never left me. Partly it was the context in which I learned them. Partly it was the idea itself. I am a human myself and therefore anything that can be found in a human, could be found in me too. I can’t say, “oh, no, that’s not me.” If it’s human, then admirable or repellent, it can be in any human.

It’s invaluable advice. It came to me just the other day, in the course of a conversation on Twitter. “Most people aren't racist,” I was told. Well, that’s a nice idea, but I don’t know. Racism strikes me as a fundamentally human response, and I find it hard to believe that it isn’t in all of us. Some combat it with more determination than others, some more successfully. But surely none of us is entirely free of it.

I know that I’ve found myself stared at, with my white skin, on night-time streets by gangs of young black men and felt distinctly uneasy. Would I have felt different if they’d been white? I’m not sure but have a nasty feeling I might have felt less alien, even though I might have been no safer. 

Then there was my visit to Mbabane, capital of Swaziland. We’d been told to avoid the city at night, but we had no local currency and couldn’t find an ATM in the country. So in the end we went into town well after nightfall, and drove around the streets looking for ATMs. We saw several, but each had a large black man, armed with a vicious looking stick, sitting next to it. We drove away quickly from three until, finally, we realised that the men weren’t there to rob us, but to protect us.

So at last I wen up to one of the machines. The man with the club couldn’t have been more helpful

Ah, no, he explained to me, your card won’t work here.

He gave us accurate directions that were easy to follow that took us directly to an ATM that provided us with the money we needed. 

Again, would I have felt less uneasy if the guards had been white? I simply don’t know. What I am sure about is that it would be no healthier for me to pretend that I don’t have those anxieties: we can’t overcome them if we deny them. So I don’t accept the notion that “most people aren’t racist.” I think the best we can say is that a number of people have controlled their racism better than others, but no one can say they’re wholly free of the contagion.

At least, not unless they merely want to live in denial.

In particular, what I’m sure of is that the racism boot is sadly on the other foot at the moment. Where, for decades, racism has been shameful and keep its head down, today it feels far more at liberty to express itself freely. In Britain, far too many Poles and citizens of other European nations have been asked, since the Brexit vote, when they’re going home. People argue that the vote was motivated by many considerations, but I would counter that a huge part of it was simple racism – or at best xenophobia, which is only racism’s little brother – and far too many seem to feel it’s permissible once more to spew its toxic messages.

That, as far as I’m concerned, makes it more dangerous than ever to deny the racism deeply within us. “Most people aren’t racist” sounds like a positive statement. It isn’t. It expresses a complacency that needs to be resisted.

Remember. If you’re human, then nothing human is alien to you. And that goes for the ugliest aspects of humanity as well as the most attractive.

Postscript What about my friends cousin’s end? I said it was remarkable.

He wasn’t particularly Zionist. He never showed any real desire to move to Israel. On the other hand, it was always a wish of his to visit the country, although it took him years to realise it. Eventually, however, he got there and spent three weeks touring around and seeing all the sights he’d longed to enjoy.

Then back at the airport, as he was walking across the tarmac towards the stairs to his flight home, he was struck by a massive heart attack and died on the spot.

It’s hard to imagine a better death. Quick and merciful. And having just realised his heart’s desire.

Of course, it was terrible for those he left behind. His family most of all. But even to me: I’d hoped to have another conversation with him and give him the opportunity to open my eyes to further aspects of our common culture I’d missed.

Now, sadly, it was not to be.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Bristol and reminders of colonialism

Bristol, in the West of England, has a distinctive accent with, as a particular characteristic, a tendency to add an ‘l’ to words that end with a vowel. “Africal,” they apparently say there, “is a malarial areal.”

It was fun to be there this weekend, partly because we saw friends I liked already but whom I shall miss even more after the wonderful time we’ve just spent with them. But the visit was also a success for allowing me at last to get to know the city well: I’ve been there at least a dozen times, but usually on fleeting visits, for work, turning up in the morning and clearing off again in the evening.

Not this time. We walked around the place, we sat on the top floor of an open-top bus like any tourists, we even took a boat trip around the harbour. Boat tours are particularly striking because they give such a lovely view of a city, from below, but also in the case of Bristol, because they show the might of the city as a port. It was seagoing trade that made Bristol great, as it did those other fine cities, Liverpool in north west England, or Nantes in western France – and predominantly in the same kind of trade: slaves. So many suffered and died in the past to make some wonderful cities today.

Edward Colston commemorated in Bristol
as a humanitarian and philanthropist
Thanks for a fortune made by enslaving Africans
What struck me most, though, was the guide on the bus, who spoke with the unmistakeable local accent. Though what touched me about that accent wasn’t hearing it there, but the memory it evoked of a time I heard it once before.

For many years, I travelled regularly to Northern Ireland for work. It was the time of the troubles and, though I never witnessed an attack, the atmosphere was strongly moulded by the threat: police stations were fortified, police looked like soldiers, soldiers were out doing police work. I became friendly with a particular taxi driver who regularly picked me up from the airport and ran me back at the end of my trip, and he would show me around the place too, including some districts which he entered with some reluctance, and left with equivalent alacrity.

One night, as he was driving me back to Aldegrove, Belfast International airport, out in the country south of Belfast, we were stopped by an army patrol. At least, I assume it was a patrol, though we only saw one soldier.

It was dark and the road was deserted. As he came over to the driver’s window, the soldier, helmeted, flak-jacketed, with a machine gun on his hip, looked the model of the arrogant warrior. But then he crouched down and we could see his face. He must have been nineteen. And then he spoke.

It was that accent. Bristol. Pure and round and unmistakeable.

And all I could think was, “what on Earth are you doing here? Young, totally uninvolved in these troubles, from a place not that many miles away but in a different world, policing an emergency in which you have absolutely no interest. Out on a dark road, at night, a figure of oppression to the opponents of a power exercised by people you’ve never met, and a target yourself.”

I’ve never felt the tragedy of colonialism more strongly.

British soldiers at a Northern Irish roadblock in 1988
Doing a favour to few, least of all themselves

Friday, 23 September 2016

Brexit: trying to tame the monster

George Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer – the quaint British term for Finance Minister – who campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU and was unceremoniously dropped by his boss David Cameron’s successor as soon as she took over – has said that “Brexit won a majority. Hard Brexit did not.”

One of the other figures who disappeared in the wake of the vote was Michael Gove. He’s a real hard case. He betrayed his old friend David Cameron by campaigning for Brexit alongside his new friend Boris Johnson. He then betrayed Johnson by announcing he would stand against him for the Conservative Party leadership, in effect forcing him out of the contest. He then went on to be soundly trounced. By then he had become too toxic even for the Tories, which is pretty remarkable in that company. So he found himself relegated from any kind of office, cast so far into the outer darkness that he can’t even hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Even so, he’s managed to make his voice heard, and even he, unworthy he, has a point worth making:

George Osborne is absolutely right that a hard Brexit has no mandate and would be no answer to the problems Britain faces.

In fact, it would put jobs and livelihoods at risk by erecting new barriers to trade with Europe. As he said, being close to Europe despite the Brexit vote is vital for Britain’s future.

Our economic future depends on membership of the single market, while cooperation with Europe on security is crucial in the fight against terrorism and organised crime.

So even Gove, keen Brexiter though he was, is panicking now that he sees just what benefits Britain would be giving up. His solution is to stay in the single market.

Mike (top) wanted us out, George wanted us in
Now they have to try to stop the runaway train
I’m afraid that might cause some ructions. Because a great many of those who voted for Brexit did vote for a hard Brexit. They want out, and completely out. In particular, a great many of them want to get out of the EU to put an end to what they see as the sheer horror of immigration – they belong to the growing camp of xenophobes who are rounding on people they feel they can scapegoat, but don’t realise that it isn’t they who will gain from attaining their aims.

As I argued before.

Interestingly, even Theresa May, Cameron’s successor, who started off constantly repeating “Brexit means Brexit” (whatever that means) has been softening her tone on the single market recently. It really is possible that we shall see her government come up with an arrangement whereby Britain would remain in the single market despite leaving the EU.

That would be gloriously ironic. Because staying in the single market means accepting continued freedom of movement of people. Norway, which never joined the EU but is in the single market, has long had to accept that EU citizens can freely move there, live there, work there. It also means continuing to pay contributions to the EU budget. As Norway does. Finally, it means accepting EU regulations. As Norway does.

Leaving the EU in these conditions only means giving up any say in making regulations or setting budget levels. Amusingly, the Norwegians used to rely on Britain to speak up for them in EU deliberations. But who now will speak for us?

The Brexit backers who were voting for a hard Brexit won’t be at all happy about that state of affairs. Their dissatisfaction is more than likely to lead to tensions within the Brexit camp.

The statements by Osborne and Gove rather suggest that they’re trying to head them off. Gove and his mates let the Frankenstein monster out. Now they want to prevent his doing the damage they have at last learned to fear.

I don’t think they’ll succeed. Instead we shall simply see another phase in the debate, in which the Brexit camp itself splits, into the hard and soft trends. That only strengthens my conviction that we need another referendum. Not a second referendum on the EU, but a completely new referendum on what the alternative to the EU actually means.

You see, we know what the majority in the first referendum were against: they wanted no further part of the EU. But it didn’t make clear what they were for. And I suspect they won’t be able to agree on being for any one option.

In which case, given no satisfactory alternative to the EU – hey, why not decide to stay in after all?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Xenophobia: the comforting game everyone can play. Well, nearly everyone

The great thing about xenophobia is that it makes you feel so good.

All you have to do is belong to the majority. In England, say, you just need to be white and native-born. Though it helps if you’re not associated with any of those tedious minority religions – you know, Islam or Hinduism or even Judaism, I suppose, except that the Jews are pretty much part of us’ now.

Then, because you’re in the majority and we live in a democracy, which is about the rule of the majority, you’re basically doing all right. And you can blame all those other people for everything that’s going wrong. You know, their skin’s a bit too tanned, say, so they’re trouble makers. Maybe they speak some strange language you don’t like the sound of, so you ask them when they’re going back home, now we’ve voted for Brexit. Or worse still they say silly things like “Allahu Akbar” when they pray, which is a war cry, isn’t it? So they must be terrorists.

The trick is to keep those people out or, if they’re already here, keep them in their place, because they’re different. We can go round telling them to stop being different – demanding that they dress like us, for instance. After all, we want to see their faces, so that we can see the colour of their skin and feel superior.

Being white and ‘Christian’ – which basically means not one of those annoying minority religions – is good but it’s even better if you’re also male. And, to be honest, despite gay marriage and all that, it helps if you’re straight. It’s true that if you add those characteristics in, you’re not part of the majority any more, but hey, you can still behave as though you are and, oddly enough, the electorate seems to treat you as though you’re the majority which means you still have the whiphand, and that’s what matters.

And, if we’re going to be really honest, even within that slightly artificial – perhaps we could say ‘constructed’ – majority things aren’t completely the same for everyone. Some are from the north, and England being England, that means they don’t count for much. Actually, the Midlands and the South West don’t really have much weight within the constructed majority either. Basically, the majority is men who live or work in London.

Even there, though, there’s a bit of a difference. Some people, unbelievably, even in London, are only on median salaries or maybe just a small multiple of the median. What do they add up to? They can’t be said to matter as much as those who are on 40 or 50 or 100 times the median.

"And all those poor morons are focused on their Xenophobia?"
Laughing all the way to the bank
I suppose that’s the real majority. The ones who’ve bought themselves the power and can really call the shots. But of course they don’t add up to an awful lot of voters. So the key thing is to get a few more people to do the right kind of voting, so that the fake majority – the ones who are just white, native-born and not in a minority religion – hand the real majority – the handful on seven-figure salaries – the authority they want and know they deserve.

That’s the beauty of xenophobia. It keeps the numerical majority fixated with outsiders rather than the insiders who are living on their backs. It makes them feel good about themselves because they think that just by being ethnically and religiously with the mainstream, they’re part of the real majority, the constructed majority. That makes sure they do the things its authentic members need.

Wonderful arrangement, isn’t it? Xenophobia’s such fun for everyone.

Well, nearly everyone.

Well, at any rate, the tiny number of people who make the decisions for everyone.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Luci's diary: water – when it's fun and when it isn't

They left me behind again the other day. Went out for the whole evening. And the worst of it was that, when they got back, number 2 smelled of another dog. Another dog! All over his hands. Like hed been stroking the ghastly thing. I had to lick his fingers for ages just to get the smell off them. It was quite fun, actually, and by the end his hands smelled right again – that is, they smelled of me.

Talking about smell and getting clean, the humans decide every now and then that I need to smell of something else. So they wash me.

“What gets into them?” I ask Misty the cat, “why do they say I smell? I don’t smell.”

“You do smell,” he says, “you smell of dog.”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?” I ask, “what’s a dog supposed to smell of? You wouldn’t want me to smell of cat, would you?”

“I don’t know. Cats smell good. I wouldn’t mind if the whole world smelled of cat. Except for the bits I want to hunt and eat.”

“That’s just silly. You like my smell. That’s why you always want to lie on my blanket. Even when I want to.”

He looked a bit embarrassed then, like I’d caught him out in something he didn’t want to admit to. He just sort of mumbled back at me.

“I just like the feel of the blanket. It’s a good blanket. Nothing to do with you.”

“Anyway,” I went on, “even if I do smell a teensy weeny bit of dog, that’s no reason to clean me is it?”

“I keep telling you. They’re domestics. That’s what they do. Clean things. If you let them. I only let them serve food, but that’s because I’ve shown them who’s boss. You just let them push you around, so you get washed. Serves you right.”

It wasn’t very nice. Hot water and silly soap suds. And it lasted for ever. And left me all wet. So wet that I had to run around and roll everywhere just to get a bit drier. That left the couch quite wet which made it less comfortable to lie. Human number 2 wasn’t pleased.

Me. Wet. Miserable. Getting the couch damp
Why do they keep doing this to me?
“Why’ve you made the couch all wet, you silly dog?” he asked me, all annoyed.

He doesn’t like it when he can’t sit at his end of the couch and play with his dratted computer. It makes him quite irritable. Usually I just give him the sad-eye look and he stops, but this time I was fed up myself, what with being all bedraggled and all that.

“Don’t blame me,” I told him, “it was human number 1 who put me in the bath. Why don’t you get her to stop?”

But it didn’t do any good. He never understands when I talk to him. It’s so sad, isn’t it? They have such limited intelligence, humans.

Talking about water, though, we had a bit of fun when we went to see that other family we visit sometimes and who sometimes visit us. They have the granddaughter, apparently. I don’t understand why they keep her if she’s our granddaughter. We ought to take her home with us so she can play with me a bit more often.

Anyway, near where she lives, there’s this place with loads and loads of water. Believe it or not, it just goes on and on, so you can’t see the end of it. It’s OK, because you can wander in and paddle around a bit in it, and it’s fun: not hot, and it has no soap suds. Tastes odd, though – terribly salty, which makes me feel funny sometimes, but still you can play a lot of games in it – I played that silly game with the humans, where I bring them a stick so they can throw it into the water. They so enjoy that and I think it’s terribly fun to see them with their trouser legs rolled up over their knees…

Only thing I really don’t like about that water is that it’s a bit tricksy. It can be all quiet and flat like, and letting you wander around in it, and then it suddenly gathers itself together in a big lump and throws itself at you. Usually when you’re not watching, so it catches you from behind. Rotten trick. It meant I had to keep an eye on it and sometimes had to belt back to the line to stop it catching me.

Come to think of it, that was quite fun too. Outrunning it, you know. That water, it’s going to have to learn to be bit quicker if it’s going to catch me. At least, when I’m watching out for it.
Loads of water. Fun when it’s behaving itself, like here
When we got back home, Misty was on the couch. At my end. The bit that smells of me. And I couldn’t help noticing that he didn’t have the excuse of lying on my blanket because it wasn’t even there: I’d taken it with me.

It’s the blanket he likes, is it? For the feel, not the smell? Yeah, right. 

I reckon everyone likes my smell, even the humans, who keep rubbing their noses on me.

Which just leaves me wondering: why on earth do we have to keep going through that stupid bath business?

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Polish residents, Polish police, in Britain

It’s curious to read that two Polish police are being deployed in each of London and Harlow, the latter the scene of a recent fatal attack on a Polish resident which also injured another.

Polish police join an English colleague on patrol in Harlow
The Poles have become the biggest single group of foreign-born residents in Britain. In the atmosphere of heightened xenophobia, which I assume was present but pent-up before the Brexit vote but has been released by it, Poles have become the major target of the increased wave of hate violence.

On a couple of occasions recently I’ve been accused of displaying insufficient pride in my country. I’d have no difficulty pleading guilty to the offence if I thought it was one. I have a hard time, however, thinking of patriotism, notoriously described by Samuel Johnson as the last refuge of the scoundrel, as a virtue.

What, after all, am I supposed to feel proud about? I take pleasure in the great results won by British athletes at the Paralympics, feeling a bond with my compatriots. But pride? I didn’t contribute to their success except indirectly and at tiny scale through taxes. The achievement was theirs, not mine; to take pride in it feels terribly like claiming undeserved credit.

In any case, it’s not as though my country’s only achievements are matters of pleasure. Am I supposed also to feel pride over our forces’ involvement in Iraq? Our role in the badly-judged and ill-fated intervention in Libya? Or, looking at other areas, in Maggie Thatcher’s attempt to ban literature about homosexuality from our classrooms? David Cameron’s sustained assault on the miserly support we provide to the poor and ill? The aversion towards foreigners that inspired Brexit and the murder in Harlow?

Perhaps a small anecdote will explain why I don’t go along with these feelings.

For our first two years where we currently live, we were cursed with a neighbour from hell. She would hold all night parties five or six times a month, apparently drug-fuelled events which would run from midnight until midday, where festivities followed a constantly repeated pattern: raucous laughter and merry shouting, followed by karaoke singing at volume, followed by tearful recriminations and fighting interspersed with cursing and the noise of breaking crockery; after a brief pause, the cycle would start again with the laughter and shouting.

The police, starved of resources, would not assist. That’s in spite of one police employee telling me down the phone, one night at 2:00 am, “Oh, my God! I can hear her from here!”

It took two years to get her out of the place, but we and the neighbours on the other side eventually managed it by dint of constant complaints and phone calls to the landlord and the agent. In the meantime, she’d broken some of our belongings and stolen others, but we felt that was a small price to pay.

Since then, we’ve had a new family next door who never disturb us, for whom we accept packages and who accept packages for us, with whom we exchange friendly greetings when we meet. An extraordinary relief. A way of re-establishing our belief in the inherent decency of people.

The new neighbours are Polish. The old one was English.

Does that illustrate why I don’t go along with appeals to patriotism? And above all reject popular prejudice against Poles?

There may be a new hope for all of us in the arrival of Polish police in Britain. Just as it was a blessing to replace a foul English neighbour by likeable Polish ones, maybe we could benefit from more Polish policemen too – replacing the hopeless English ones who wouldn’t come out when we needed support against the ghastly Englishwoman next door.

In the meantime, anything that helps stop the kind of xenophobic violence that led to the Harlow murder has to be welcome.

Even if, as I suspect, the Polish police presence is just a gimmick for the moment.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Avoiding the avoidable: the problem of delayed discharges

So far I’ve mostly talked about avoiding the avoidable in hospital expense only at the start, the admission stage, of a hospital stay. But the problem arises at the other end too, when a patient has to stay on because the discharge process is delayed. 

There are two main reasons why this might happen.

OK, so why can’t I just go home?
The more obvious one is that the discharge has not been properly prepared. Tests need to be carried out to confirm that the patient is fit to go home, but the results haven’t been received – or perhaps the tests haven’t even been ordered. Possibly the patient needs to take medications home and the necessary prescription hasn’t been sent through to the hospital pharmacy. Or, even more simply, the discharge needs the approval of a doctor who simply isn’t available, called away to an urgent conference which perhaps, and entirely coincidentally, is taking place next door to a prestigious golf course.

This kind of problem occurs everywhere. Recently I read a 2014 study of two hospitals in Brazil. It found that in one of the hospitals, delayed discharged represented a 23% extra occupancy rate, a figure that climbed to 28% in the other. That means a massive proportion, around a quarter, of the beds in those hospitals were occupied at any one time by people who should already have left.

The other main reason for a delayed discharge is particularly familiar in a nation such as England. Patients can’t leave because there’s nowhere for them to go where they will receive the ongoing care they need. This is particularly acute for older people who may be living alone with no one available to act as carer. They can only be discharged once there is a social worker or community nurse available to help them, or perhaps a bed in a care home.

Delayed discharges generate two problems. First of all, it’s bad for the patients: people generally recover better in their own beds than in hospital and, in any case, simply by staying on patients are exposing themselves to unnecessary risk, if only of infection from other patients around them.

Secondly, the delayed discharge is bad news financially. Acute hospital care is the most expensive care and, even though costs will be lower towards the end of a stay by which time the patient requires less treatment, the mere fact of occupying a bed is expensive. That’s without taking account of the impact on other patients who might have benefited from being admitted to a bed blocked in this way.

A recent study (February 2016) for the NHS in England by a team headed by Lord Carter of Coles, Operational productivity and performance in English NHS acute hospitals: Unwarranted variations, put a figure on the impact of delaying discharges: “the cost of these delays to NHS providers could be around £900m per year.”

That’s close to 2% of the total expenditure on acute care.

How do we fix these problems?

Both require management action, naturally. For instance, my wife worked until two or three years ago in the Discharge Planning team of our local hospital. Here, nurses, social workers and hospital staff worked out of a single suite of offices, preparing the plan to discharge a patient from the moment he or she was admitted. That meant that the agencies involved in post-hospital care had the greatest possible notice that their services would be needed. They could, therefore, assign staff or find suitable accommodation, at least as far resources allowed, in the most favourable possible conditions, rather than in a rush at the end.

Equally, steps can be taken in plenty of time to ensure that all necessary processes are carried out, the appropriate tests or medications ordered, and the paperwork prepared for someone to sign who will be around at the right time.

Computer systems can help, of course. The kind of pathways management software I’ve been talking about in this series can be used by hospital staff as it can by people in primary care. It can issue alerts not just to physicians but to nurses and care assistants: “for this patient to be discharged tomorrow morning, you have to request this test today,” for instance.

When it comes to helping with groups like my wife’s former colleagues, what’s needed is ways to improve collaborative working between different systems. Social work management software needs to interwork with nurse management and general hospital systems. Fortunately, none of that is impossible and over the last few years, great strides have been taken towards making it happen.

What that means is that avoiding the avoidable can now be tackled at both ends of a hospital stay: discharge, with its own specific problems, as well as admission.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Brexit: some of the people apparently fooled all of the time. And happy with it

“No one in this world,” H L Mencken claimed, “so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

Mencken wasn’t particularly charitable and the judgement is harsh, but the Brexit vote and its consequences do seem to confirm his point. Or at least Lincoln’s view that you can fool some of the people, all of the time.

The pro-EU campaign was unfortunately led by a number of the weakest politicians we’ve had in Britain for decades: David Cameron and George Osborne for the Tories, Jeremy Corbyn for Labour. The first two came up with dire predictions of what would happen after a Brexit vote, which have naturally not been fulfilled – we’re still in the EU, for Pete’s sake, how could a disaster have happened already? And even when things start to slip, nothing happens that fast in economics. Even the crash of 2007-2008 took pretty much a year to develop fully.

As for Corbyn, he said practically nothing throughout the entire campaign, which at least has the merit of making him immune from being disproved by events.

On the other side of the fence, there were Labour figures such as Gisela Stuart MP, campaigning with the anti-immigrant lobby though she’s German-born herself, renegade Labourites like David Owen who split Labour in the eighties, the hard right like Nigel Farage of UKIP or nearly-as-hard right of the Conservative Party, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (the latter so disloyal, to rebels and loyalists alike, that not even the Tories can stomach him in government any longer).

As the devil has the best songs, so the Brexiters had the best campaign. They travelled up and down the country in a battle bus emblazoned with slogans pledging that Brexit would save “£350 million a week” that could be used for the NHS.

Economical with the truth, effective for the campaign
The battle bus with the £350m claim
The figure was a lie and plenty of people pointed it out. But the lie took hold and many voters believed it and passed it on. Fool me once, they say, shame on you. The Leave campaigners certainly fooled enough people once to feel that shame, but clearly don’t: in fact, lying served them so well that they’re using the tactic again.

The campaign has morphed into “Change Britain” but the usual suspects are back: Gove, Johnson, Stuart and Owen are heading the organisation once more. What are they saying about that £350 million pledge?

It’s brilliant! They’re saying absolutely nothing at all. Dead silence. To admit it was a con trick would be out of the question and I didn’t expect it. But simply to pretend it never happened is pure George Orwell.

Instead they’re now offering to fund agriculture, poorer regions of the UK, scientific research and the universities out of savings generated by Brexit. In other words, to replace the funding that the EU currently provides and which we’d continue to receive if we didn’t leave.

There can be only one judgement of that pledge: it’s worth exactly the same as the one they made before. There’s zero chance of its ever being honoured. That’s not a problem, though: these are promises not intended to be fulfilled. They’re only intended to suck in the gullible again. And just watch: the gullible will lap them up.

Fool me twice, they say, shame on me. Plenty should feel that shame but just like the con artists themselves, they’ll know no shame. Because they don’t even know they’re being fooled.

Some of the people, you see. All of the time.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Scotland: family, dogs, politics and art

It’s wonderful visiting family in Scotland.

In fact, there are only two things that worry me about being here. 

One is the fine piece of art by my granddaughter Aya in her younger days, enjoining me to save energy. The message is fine but, if I see it first thing in the morning before I’ve got up, all it does is encourage me to roll over and sleep a little more. 

Fine work by Aya.  But with an undesired effect
The other concern is the automatic kitchen bin: walk past it and the lid springs open, looking like nothing so much as the open maw of a famished predatory bird demanding, “feed me, feed me.” It’s worse than Luci, our poodle, and Luci may be small but I've never known a creature more enthusiastic about being fed at any time. Even she, though, doesn’t seem as ravenous as that accursed bin.

Luci’s with us, as it happens. I’m not sure how much she liked the train trip, but she took it reasonably well. At any rate, I’m proud of her for having found herself a seat, which is more than Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader, famously could on the same service a few weeks ago. He made a plaintive video about his experience; I’m glad to say Luci avoided any kind of whinge.

Luci showing she can get more comfortable on a
Virgin East Coast train than the Labour leader can
Scotland continues to be the one part of the United Kingdom with political leadership. It was that way under Alec Salmond, its still that way under Nicola Sturgeon (nothing fishy about those two). One of the characteristics of the historically great leaders is to fight the battles one can win and leave others to one side until circumstances are more propitious. Immediately after the Brexit vote, Sturgeon was waving the banner of a new independence referendum – Scotland voted massively to stay in the EU and would not accept being driven out by England and Wales. Now, however, Sturgeon’s putting all that on the back burner, saying instead that, “Scotland should have a conversation about independence.” So where’s the new reticence from?

Sturgeon can read an opinion poll and has the sense not to write it off. The latest shows that only 37% of Scots want a new independence referendum right now, and a majority would vote No again if one were held. So she’s proposing to go on discussing it but backs off from forcing the question right now. If only other leaders displayed such practical wisdom.

But enough of all that. One of the advantages of being up here, in the village of East Linton, was to get away from ghastliness of politics for a few days. It helps that we turned up just in time for the opening of the Art Exhibition, for which this year’s Convenor (like last year’s) is my daughter-in-law Senada Borcilo. 

Senada welcomes us to the exhibition
East Linton is a small village which seemed to face near-terminal decline back in the sixties. Launching the annual Art Exhibition in 1968 (ah, the nostalgia: the Paris May-June events were still fresh in our minds, the hippies were yet young) was one of the initiatives intended to rejuvenate the place. Since then the village has been re-energised, with a lively centre boasting new shops and a pub or two serving good food, a thriving school (Aya’s school) and, of course, a growing, vibrant Art Exhibition now in its 48th year. It remains true to its founding principles, ploughing profits back into the community and continuing to accept art from both amateur and professional artists.

Pictures at an exhibition
Winter Sun was one – or rather three – I particularly liked
The show this year is the biggest it’s had, making it the largest art show in a single venue (as opposed to open-studio type events) in the whole of the county (East Lothian). It’s a great show, with some eye-catching pieces.

A great change from the dismal picture of England’s political landscape.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Trump, Corbyn and the power of faith

“Credo quia absurdum”, “I believe because it is absurd”, may sound like nonsense but it’s a powerful statement of faith.

Attributed to Tertullian, one of the earliest Christian authors, the phrase means that there’s no need for faith when it comes to the rational. I don’t need to believe that an unsupported weight will fall if I release it, because I can see it happen each time and have no reason to imagine that the next time the weight will hover or rise.

When it comes to the virgin birth, on the other hand, or the resurrection of the crucified Christ, I am dealing with events for which there is no rational explanation. Accepting them as true does require faith because I have no evidence for them. In terms day-to-day existence, they are absurd and therefore can only be believed or rejected, not proven or disproved.

That’s a perfectly legitimate stance, though it doesn’t happen to be mine. “I believe what can only be accepted by belief” sounds fine for anyone so inclined, but it works less well for those who prefer to know than to believe, and therefore seek evidence rather than faith. In any case, what I find essential is to limit belief to religious matters and not let it interfere with other domains where it can only be damaging. In particular, complete separation of faith from politics seems to me the only way to keep our forms of government sane.

That’s why I find it worrying that faith is entering our politics once more. That's the case in the US, for example. A huge minority – and I hope it remains a minority – seems convinced that Donald Trump is the way forward. They believe that it’s possible to build a 2000-mile wall and make it formidable enough to keep immigrants out; they even seem to believe that they can persuade the country just outside that wall, Mexico, to pay for it. They believe it, I presume, because it is absurd.

Essentially, at the back of Trump-mania is a specific form of belief: the worship of the messianic man, the providential figure without whom nothing can be achieved. Curiously, we have the same phenomenon in Britain, though not on the right of the political spectrum, but on the left. Here, the article of faith concerns Jeremy Corbyn, apparently believed by a great many Labour Party members – at least the new ones – to be the indispensable key to success. “If Jeremy can’t do it, no one can do it,” I saw on a poster at one of his rallies.

The venerable Corbyn
But is the veneration political or devout?
This is a belief based wholly on absurdity. There is simply no evidence at all that Corbyn is well-placed to realise any kind of Labour programme in office. In fact, all the evidence points the other way: he’s most unlikely ever to form a government.

His supporters regularly tell me about the by-elections Labour has won, with increased majorities, since he has been leader. They simply ignore that Ed Milliband, the previous leader, had exactly the same track record: actually, one more such by-election win (five rather than four), lulling the party into a false sense of confidence, shattered when we were badly defeated in the 2015 General Election. It is absurd to believe that with the same track record in opposition, the new leader will achieve anything more. Unless we simply believe because it is absurd.

The true believers claim is that Corbyn’s dire poll figures are not to be accepted. It’s true that polls are often misleading, but sadly the evidence (if evidence is what you like) is that their error is to overstate Labour support. But, I have been assured on Twitter that’s simply not the point:

“Polls don't reflect public opinion, they try to influence it. The sooner you eejits realise that, the Labour Party will do ok.”

What doesn’t fit the pattern of belief is rejected as untrue (and only believed by eejits). So, for instance, when Corbyn put out film of himself sitting on the floor of a “ram-packed” train because he couldn’t find a seat, that made an important point about the state of our (privatised) railways. When the railway company, Virgin, released film of him walking past empty seats, we were told that was a distortion of reality, that the true situation wasn’t as the film seemed to suggest.

For a while, I lived in what today is called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At one time, there was a rebellion by a movement that called itself Simba. Its priests assured the young men of the movement that if they simply ran at guns, looking neither right nor left, shouting “Mai! Mai!”, “Water! Water!”, any bullets fired at them would simply turn to water. Sadly, some of these young men were killed by bullets, but that didn’t invalidate the priests’ beliefs: clearly, the victims had looked right or left and brought death upon themselves.

Similarly, if Corbyn tries to make a valid point about privatised rail companies, but does it in a cack-handed way, stage-managing the setting for his statement so poorly that he’s quickly exposed, that isn’t evidence of his ineptitude, it’s evidence of how biased the media are against him. Just as when the parliamentary Labour party loses confidence in him, by a 4:1 majority, that doesn’t prove he can’t win his colleagues’ support, it only proves their base, treacherous plotting.

If Corbyn is re-elected leader, as seems likely, and goes on to take the party to a historically catastrophic defeat, which seems just as probable, the fault won’t be his. It will be down to the traitors in the parliamentary party or the jackals of the right-wing media. The fact that previous Labour leaders have faced the same obstacles but managed to overcome them will not be a consideration.

Because what we’re up against isn’t reason. It’s faith. It doesn’t matter how irrational it is, we believe it precisely because it is absurd.

Credo quia absurdum.

Postscript H L Mencken once wrote, “Tertullian is credited with the motto ‘Credo quia absurdum’ – ‘I believe because it is impossible’. Needless to say, he began life as a lawyer.”

Mencken’s remark isnt really relevant to my argument, but I just like it.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The bureau: outstanding. And a tribute to a master

In the Acknowledgements to his novel The Tailor of Panama, Le Carré included a charming nod to the masterpiece among tales about peddlers of false intelligence:

Without Graham Greene this book would never have come about. After Greene’s Our Man in Havana, the notion of an intelligence fabricator would not leave me alone.

This kind of link between one fine work and another is always a pleasure to meet. Intertextuality, we used to call it, in the days when I was a student of literary criticism, and hours of amusement it gave us to track it down.

That makes it all the more gratifying to see a TV series that in turn takes a bow to Le Carré. Especially so when it is imbued with the spirit of Le Carré’s spy novels at their best, by which I mean the ones about the Cold War or, to include The Little Drummer Girl, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What’s perhaps unusual about this Le Carré spirit, and indeed the tribute itself, is that the series is French. Indeed, it’s probably the best TV produced by the country for many years.

Le Carré is a French name, but the author behind it – David Cornwell – is as English as they come. On the other hand, The Bureau as the series is called in its English-subtitled release on Amazon, really is French – Le Bureau des Légendes in the original. It tackles the central themes of Le Carré’s best spy stories: deception, betrayal, even backfiring loyalty – and above all and at length, the labyrinth of conflicting imperatives and spiralling tension into which the double agent blunders.

The Bureau: remarkable filming, a fine story, great performances
In place of the Cold War, the series focuses on the Syrian Civil War and the battle against ISIS, keeping it right up to date.

It handles all its themes skillfully. Occasionally, it seems to drift into implausibility – “how could she have known that?” I found myself sometimes wondering, or “why would he have done that?” – only to present a perfectly rational explanation a few scenes later, when you learn a new piece of information about what lay behind the character’s behaviour.

Nor is there any lack of humour, even, on occasions, of the laugh-out-loud kind. I enjoyed the moment when a character described the immediate future in terms of an extended metaphor: a bumpy ride, turbulence ahead, hoping for a safe landing, but with the potential for a crash. Just as I was beginning to feel a little airsick, the woman he was talking to, looking slightly nauseous herself, asked whether they could perhaps continue the conversation without the aviation references.

Excellent performances from a star-studded cast only enhance the experience. Mathieu Kassovitz gives a mesmerising portrayal of the poker-faced spy who never shows the emotions that deeply affect him. It’s worth watching Sara Giraudeau going through her exhausting training as a spy, coping with the difficulties of living outside anything like a normal human existence, and above all, on the run and mastering the terror of being hunted. Jean-Pierre Darroussin is outstanding as the ageing spy chief who’s never been in the field himself and suspects his colleagues think less of him for it; he doubts his own qualities but realises that he’s right in suspecting the presence of a mole and has to track it down. But these are only the most remarkable performances by a cast none of whose members turns in a bad one.

At all times, The Bureau is gripping, tense, compelling viewing. Ideal for a series binge if you have the time and energy. With a storyline that holds your attention, makes you beg for more and never lets you down. 

And what’s particularly surprising is that it achieves all this with minimal violence. What little there is fits the plot perfectly and carries the story forward. It’s never gratuitous or out of place.

What about the tribute to Le Carré?

That, or rather they, come in season 2. The first takes the form of the spy chief coming to terms with his growing suspicion that there is a double agent at work in his organisation. He retreats into his office, relying on the assistance of only a small number of collaborators, sworn to secrecy. He has a list of names, one of whom must be the double. Feverishly, in isolation, and suspected by others, he sets to work to narrow down the list and find the rotten apple. Anyone who knows and loves Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will recognise the parallel with Control working against the clock and wrecking his health as he tries to unmask a mole.

The second tribute to Le Carré is even clearer. Both seasons of the series use a curious but effective device: from time to time, we hear a voiceover from the protagonist, explaining what he has done and why he did it. A diary or a confession? There comes a moment when we see how he started on this narration and, in both seasons, there is enough time left to show us why. That takes us to a semi-conclusion, semi-cliffhanger for the next season. It’s a neat ploy and highly effective.

In season 2, the narration is in a letter to the protagonists daughter. Just as in A Perfect Spy the story is told through the letters Magnus Pym writes to his controller, his wife and to his son. Another attractive resonance between masterpieces.

Above all it underlies the way The Bureau itself fully lives up to its predecessor. Eric Rochant has given us an outstanding spy tale. And more than that, hes given us TV series creation at its best.

Well worth watching if you haven’t already seen it.