Sunday, 31 December 2017

Best wishes for 2018

Happy New Year to you all!

Sadly, I’m finishing the Old Year in nothing like the way I’d hoped. I’m flattened by a dose of indigestion whose details I’ll spare you. Let me just say that it leaves me with only one desire, to sleep, in between runs to a rather smaller room.

What makes the experience less harsh is the company I’m enjoying. The little splash of orange is Toffee, our tiny dog, and it’s always good to have her around; the large grey and white lump is Misty, our enormous cat, who can be affectionate too, though he does have a way of biting me – hard – if he feels I’m not stroking him quite right.

Making my sickbed more cheerful:
Misty and Toffee
Between them, they’re making my goodbye to 2017 far better than it might have been. As was the fact that the sun went down appreciably later than it has been: there is a distinctive smell of improvement in the air.

That’s what I like this time of year. We ring in the New Year at just the time when we can feel that things are beginning to move back uphill again. At least, in this hemisphere – to my friends in the south, at least you know it’ll come back for you too in time.

Anyway, for now, let me just wish you a great 2018. With Toffee and Misty adding their wishes to mine.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Mountain trials and SMART objectives

The trouble with walking in mountains is that the tops take an excruciating time to get closer.

You look up and see a ridge line. The top, surely, you think to yourself. But when you get there you find it was another false hope. That behind one hill there generally stands another and higher one. Getting to the top always takes far longer than you’d hoped, and far more energy than you planned to burn.

My preferred solution is to adapt to this tricksy behaviour and only ever set myself close and easy targets. “I’ll just go to the top of this hill and then see whether to turn back or not.” Then I can take a decision once I’m there: go on to the next hill or call it off. The truth is that I always do go on, but it feels much more comfortable to persuade myself that I have the option.

This approach fits neatly with a methodology derived from the business world: the setting of objectives that have be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. It isn’t clear to me how “achievable” and “realistic” differ from each other but, hey, who wants to quibble when the price might be losing a fine acronym?

I lived out an instructive case study in the application of these principles just the other day, during our Christmas holiday – strictly a non-Christmas holiday, since the only Christmassy aspect was the dates – in Fuerteventura, one of the Canary Islands. I decided to walk to the top of the road to stretch my legs, a walk of five minutes or so. A specific objective, you see, and time-bound. It was obviously measurable. And it was realistic because it was achievable, or it may have been achievable because it was realistic.

Every box ticked.

At the end of the road was a path heading up a hill, behind which were the mountains. So I set out on the ten-minute walk up the hill. To a specific point in a set time. SMART again.

But this was the beginning of the mountains and mountain rules applied. Get to the top of one hill, and another appears, posing the next challenge. Or, putting it another way, fulfilling one SMART objective only led to the next.

Still, I could operate that way. From goal to goal up into the mountains. Each step small but the overall goal satisfying when I reached it.

Although, to be fair, it wasn’t that grand an achievement. I’d reached the highest point in a series of climbing hills, but beyond it, separated by a deep valley, far higher hills climbed one after the other to the tallest summit on the island – hardly massive on a global scale, at 807 metres, but nonetheless over twice the height I’d reached so far.

The question became, would we make the attempt to conquer the highest peak? The answer was purely academic when we realised that my youngest son hadn’t merely scaled it, he’d run up. What he could run, surely his brother and I could walk? It was a matter of simple self-respect to prove we could do that much.

Unfortunately, it was a project to which my carefully-honed methodology simply didn’t apply. The object was specific enough, for sure, and it was measurable (807 metres, 7 kilometres). But achievable or realistic? That remained to be seen. And it certainly wasn’t time-bound – it would take as long as it took.

In fact, when we reached the sign at the start of the path, we were told that it would take 3 hours 20 minutes, which at least set a time-objective of sorts. We debated whether to go for a 200-minute goal instead, but finally decided we really ought to be able to do better than that on a walk that amounted to 7 kilometres each way. Hardly Amundsen material.

I felt this was a major infringement of the method. “Ought to be possible” has nothing to do with being realistic. Aiming to achieve what we ought to be able to do, rather than what we are able to do, sounds seriously like setting oneself up for failure.

Still, 7 kilometres over the flat – surely we could do that in under three hours? Even if, as we admitted to each other, next to none of the walk would actually be over the flat.

Again, it was Nicky, the runner, who cut through all the hesitation.

“I’m going to run up again. I’ll turn at the top and run back down to meet you again.”

“Somewhere near the beginning,” I suggested, unambitiously.

“Don’t be silly.” He’s good at putting me in my place.

His words became a challenge. We just had to be closer to the summit than to the beginning before he got back to us. .

In the event, he reached us again 2.7 km from the top. So he managed to run rather over one and third times the full distance in the time it took us – well, me, really, as my other son Michael slowed his pace down to mine – to do a little under two-thirds.

Looking back the way we came
The patch of green was - inevitably - a golf course.
Taking scare water in an arid landscape...
Still, we ploughed on. As usual in the mountains, it felt as though the peak was crawling towards us at an appallingly slow rate, each climb only revealing a new climb beyond it, but gradually we moved upwards, ever upwards. The east coast of the island where we staying appeared further and further behind. And then, finally, with a sudden rush we made it to the top and looked out on the west and wilder coast, which we’d visited two days before.

In under two hours. So we crushed the 3 hour 20 minute time set by the signpost at the beginning – though later it did occur to me that this might have been for the full 14-km round trip. We beat that target too, but a lot less convincingly.

There was a bit of a “because it is there” element to our reaching the summit, since the sun went in just before we got there. Rather reducing the beauty of the view.

“You should have run up with me,” Nicky told us, “it was beautiful before.”

That naturally made us feel a lot better.

View from the top
Note the lowering cloud at the top of the picture.
And the rocky peninsula that had been the goal of a previous walk
Still, the view down the sheer west face of the mountains was spectacular. Especially as we could look down on the places we’d been to at sea level a on our earlier visit. We could see the café where we’d eaten. We could see the beach we’d walked along. We could see the rocky peninsula we’d reached, in the SMART objective for that occasion. .

As for the return, well that was downhill. A doddle. It took us less than half the time. Hardly worth setting an objective at all. Though it did have a prize associated with it: fish fresh from the bay with large beers to wash it down (except that I was the designated driver).

Still, that’s what I call a SMART-R objective. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound and – rewarded. .

The best kind for dealing with the exasperation of a mountain walk.

Odd sign in the mountains
Please close the door? To avoid a draught or what?

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Four great ways to spend some time in the holiday season

Since the holiday season is a time when many of us find ourselves with time on our hands, here are some suggestions for entertainment not involving either excessive eating or drinking.
Rachel Brosnahan superb as Mrs Maisel in standup
Series of the year for me has been Amazon’s The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, about which I’ve already written. I make no apology for mentioning it here again – it’s good enough to deserve more than one boost. Its sparkling writing creates a galaxy of distinctive and appealing characters, all sympathetic enough to watch but with enough faults to remain human, as well as extraordinary moments of standup comedy, to make the series an exceptional contribution to the best of TV.

The theme is a Jewish New York woman who finds herself moving into standup comedy. Surrounded by two deeply contrasting families, her own and her husband’s, both distinctly Jewish but in radically different ways, she has to negotiate a way through obstacles not all of which – by any means – are of her own creation. Many of the dramas of her personal life become the raw material for her comedy sets, of which there is at least one in every episode; in fact, however, much of the dialogue in the general story is worthy of standup – even the first episode includes a quarrel with her husband in which many of her replies to him are more than worthy of a comedian.

It’s hard to pick out any one actor in this pageant of outstanding performances. The main character, Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel is superbly played by Rachel Brosnahan, well supported by Alex Borstein in the extraordinary and highly original role of her eventual friend and manager Susie. Among the other characters, one of my favourites was Kevin Pollak as Midge’s father-in-law. But there are plenty of other excellent performances.

Two other good series, both from Netflix (the second originally by the Discovery Channel), both deal with forensic psychology, but from different standpoints.
Holt McCallany (left) and Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter
Mindhunter traces the origins of psychological profiling in the FBI. This is not a historical recreation, however, but a highly plausible though fictional representation of how profiling may have emerged as an essential tool in the FBI’s armoury. I particularly enjoyed the suggestion that the motivation of criminals has become too complex to fit old models: Dillinger was hungry for money, but what drove Charles Manson? Only an understanding of psychological forces can help us understand such criminals – and, even more importantly, to help identify potential suspects.

The relationship between the two agents central to the story, well played by Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, provides the action with a compelling and effective driving force.

The second of these series is Manhunt: Unabomber. This is based on historical events, in that it shows the real hunt for the real Unabomber – Ted Kaczynski whose trail of bombs between 1978 and 1995 left 3 dead and 23 injured. However, even here there is a high measure of fiction: the real person behind the central character, the FBI profiler whose approach enabled the perpetrator to be identified, Jim ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, played by Sam Worthington, has pointed out that the his role in the series has characteristics of several other people in what is, in effect, a composite.

I also found that the negative and obstructive attitude of Fitz’s bosses, while it effectively reinforces the drama, is probably exaggerated. Still, a series needs drama, and this one certainly has it. It also has, in Paul Bettany as Kaczynski, an extraordinary performance in a complex role.

The central theme particularly appealed to me, fascinated as I am by language: the use of forensic linguistics, the study of patterns in speech or writing to identify the perpetrator in this case.
Paul Bettany is outstanding as the Unabomber
Finally, you don’t have to be a royalist to enjoy The Crown, again from Netflix. The second season, which takes us from just after the end of Churchill’s post-war premiership up to 1963, is as enthralling as the first. Claire Foy and Matt Smith as the Queen and Prince Philip are as good as ever (for the last time: Olivia Colman is already slated to take over from Foy as an older Queen in season 3). So is Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret and Matthew Goode – an actor I never tire of seeing – as Tony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon).
Vanessa Kirby and Matthew Goode in season 2 of The Crown
In contrast to the first season, the second has more incidental themes, such as the brief liaison between Princess Margaret and Billy Wallace, about which I knew absolutely nothing. I was equally unaware that the wife of Conservative Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, had a thirty-year affair with one of his own MPs, Robert Boothby. MacMillan’s portrayal by one of the more sensitive actors I know, Anton Lessor, rekindled an interest in a PM I know too little about.

Funnily enough, although I never did much about it, I’ve been interested in MacMillan since the early eighties. My boss at the time had previously worked for the MacMillan publishing house. He told me that the old man, who always looked extremely frail, would occasionally drop by to visit staff. Their fear was that the former Prime Minister might keel over in their office, so they would pray for him to move on to someone else before they had the embarrassment of having him die at their feet.
Vicky (Victor Weisz) gave us SuperMace
I’m sure there’s more than that to the story of ‘SuperMac’ as he was christened by cartoonist Vicky (Viktor Weisz). And I’m grateful to The Crown for reawakening my curiosity about him.

Though I’m even more grateful to it for providing outstanding entertainment, along with Mindhunter, Manhunt: Unabomber and, above all the others, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Season's greetings. From somewhere else

Merry Christmas to you all! Christians, non-believers, believers of any faith or none – enjoy the Christmas break!

This is the time of year when I remember the wonderful experience my wife and I had in the predominantly ‘Indian’ part of Luton, the town where we live: one 24 December, we saw a queue that seemed to be made up of both Muslims and Hindus outside a (halal) butcher and Danielle, who talks to anyone, asked what the they were waiting for.

“Turkeys,” they replied, “naturally. People all around us are celebrating. Why wouldn’t you expect us to celebrate too?”

That’s the spirit in which I wish you a merry Christmas.

We’ve certainly been having a great time. For the first time, as far as I can remember – and I’ve had 64 Christmases – we went somewhere we could enjoy it on a beach. And that’s precisely what we did today, wandering along a glorious strip of golden sand as the Atlantic beat the shore next to us – and our feet: we didn’t swim but we certainly walked through the surf. What’s more, on the way back we were treated to sunset too, a most satisfactory way to wrap up Christmas Day.

A fine way to end Christmas Day
This was on Cofete Beach, on Fuerteventura in the Canaries. The name itself was part of the pleasure: it reminded us of one least harmful of Donald Trump's blunders, his tweet which read precisely Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” 

Alternatively, it sounds like a waiter offering a choice of hot drinks: Coffee? Tea?

Either way, the name's fun and the place is better.

Now I know that my friends from the Antipodes – or friends who spent time down there – have all had the experience of Christmas on a beach. But to us it was new and delightful.

We had the meal, as befits a Catholic country, yesterday: the tendency is to celebrate Christmas Eve rather than the day itself. We didn’t have turkey but that wasn’t as new to us as the setting: we haven’t had that particularly dull meat for a great many years. Instead, we drove to restaurant (selected from Trip Advisor, of course) in the heart of Fuerteventura's main nature reserve.

There, surrounded by desert scrubland, bathed in sunlight and warmth, we had a leisurely meal of local specialties, cooked in olive oil and flavoured delicately with herbs. I hate to sound so unpatriotic, but we really didn’t miss the turkey at all.

Substitute for turkey. And much to be preferred
But it isn’t just the sun, the sea and the flavours that make me pleased to be here. I’m also glad to get away from the depressing atmosphere of Brexit Britain for a few days. In particular, and I feel embarrassed to use such a clichéd, indeed Dickensian, term in connection with Christmas, but it’s wonderful to be away from the humbug of its being a Christian festival in a Christian country.

Britain is far from a Christian country in religious practice, with barely one in twenty of the population regularly attending a church service. Nor, and this is far more important, is it a Christian country in its values: just in the last week we’ve read of a young man dying of cold in a Birmingham street and the children of the poor having a far higher likelihood of being hospitalised for conditions which shouldn’t require hospitalisation at all, such as asthma.

Children of the poor. Those who we should be protecting above all others. Children!

Most recently, there’s been the news that landlords are beginning to evict people on benefits, as a result of the introduction of the new system of Universal credit, which is leading to many failing to keep up their rent payments. Homelessness will rise. As though there weren’t far more than enough already.

Until we address those issues, until in fact we wean ourselves from belief in austerity, I don’t see how Britain can claim to uphold anything resembling Christian values. Christmas is just an excuse for binge drinking, binge eating and binge spending. Its Christian content has long since been lost and a secular celebration seemed more appropriate, or at least more honest.

So it’s good to be away from that pretence without foundation. Though sun, lovely beaches and delicious food help too. We’ve enjoyed our Christmas.

And it’s in that spirit too that I wish you as much fun this season as we’ve been enjoying.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Little Britain

At last! The Brexiteers have an achievement to their name. Not before time. Something real. Concrete. Tangible.

Britain is going back to old-style blue passports.
New old-style passport to the left
Old new-style passport to the right
Well, actually, not exactly. The blue isn’t quite so dark. A bit like the roar of the British lion, it’s going to be a tad more subdued.

That’s not where the parallel stops either. Unlike the old passport – indeed, unlike any British passport up until Brexit day in 2019 – it isn’t going to be quite as good for crossing borders. Currently, the passport allows us free passage to thirty or so states in Europe. But that, in the great foot-shooting exercise that we know as Brexit, the citizens of this sceptred isle have decided in their wisdom to give up.

So the new passport is both deep-hued and de-valued.

But then, that’s the way of Britain on the world stage these days. The US has already issued instructions to Britain as to what the country needs to do to get a trade deal (basically, lower standards). Bullying by the EU itself has only just started, as the brave government of Theresa May keeps finding as it tries to insist on the fulfilment of its demands.

To see the extent of the nation’s decline, we have only to look at the nature of our Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.

He’s a former member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, of wealthy young men at Oxford University who would inflict criminal damage on the places they visited. They did so in complete impunity, shielded by parents with the status to protect them and the means to cover any repairs required. It made them intensely indolent, as entitled men inevitably are: if everything comes to them because of what they are rather than for what they do, why would they make an effort to do anything much?

A fellow Bullingdonian, David Cameron, used to be probably the laziest Prime Minister the country has seen. He would go unbriefed into meetings, notably with the EU, relying, I suppose, on his charm and wit to carry him through. That led to his coming out with the most ridiculous inanities. A fine example was his veto on the nations of the Eurozone using EU premises to discuss closer ties. He soon discovered he had no authority to top them, leading to his being forced to back down with bad grace when they met anyway.

It’s no surprise, then, that Boris Johnson also likes winging things. His specialism is playing the buffoon. So when he showed up in Moscow for discussions with his Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov, he talked about the rapid rise in exports of Kettle Chips from Britain to Russia. Lavrov looked on unsmiling, allowing Johnson his attempt at humour, but unmoved by it.
Palmerston used guboats
BoJo has Kettle Chips as a key tool of his diplomacy
To show his commitment to democracy, Johnson also met some human rights activists. Their comment? He “could clearly benefit from learning more and following the situation more closely”. 

Uninformed? Well, of course he was uninformed. Being properly informed would have required him to read something. That takes time and, if you’re to learn anything from the process, effort as well.

Some of the things Foreign Secretaries have done in the past have been shameful or at least reprehensible. But many holders of the post have been giants. Palmerston using gunboat diplomacy to ensure that Britain’s voice was truly heard around the world. Anthony Eden resigning in disgust at Neville Chamberlain’s craven behaviour towards Hitler. Ernest Bevin swallowing his pride to negotiate a humiliating but vital loan from the US. David Miliband representing Britain at the adoption of the EU Lisbon Treaty.

Well, now we have a midget in the post. A diminished role for a diminishing country. With a diminished passport.

But at least it’s blue. Hardly a major assertion of sovereignty, but perhaps we shouldn’t begrudge the Brexiteers their celebration. They are going to find precious few opportunities for cheer when Breixt really begins to bite. 

Thursday, 21 December 2017

A little of what you like often comes at a price

A little of what you like does you good, they say. Sometimes, doing yourself a little good also seems to involve what you don’t like much.

Pilates is a case in point. Danielle has persuaded me to join her there twice now. Two weeks in a row. But it takes a while to get the hang of it. Take the scoring system. I mean, how do you know when you’ve won?

Well, I’ve discovered now and, let me tell you, it’s perverse. You win in Pilates when your muscles really ache. When it hurts, preferably intensely, you’re doing it well.

You read that right. It’s a sport where it’s supposed to hurt and you do it for pleasure. Talk about organised masochism. What’s more, the worse it hurts, the more good it’s doing you.

To take another example, there’s heading off on holiday. Leaving grey wet England for somewhere that ought to be warmer and brighter. Without appointments and deadlines. In pursuit of pure relaxation. But that comes at a price: the stress of making sure that everything that needs doing is done before one puts the out-of-office message up and shuts down the laptop. A painful rush. It means that once you finally get to go on holiday, you really need one.

The worst of it was that there weren’t only work tasks to complete before departure. I had a responsible domestic job too: putting a new clasp for a padlock on the gate to the garden. This was principally needed because of Toffee. She mostly behaves quite well but provoked, say by the passage of a cat, she could be tempted to rush straight through an open gate and into the road, whether a car was bearing down on her or not.

Toffee (on the right) with her friend Luci
The picture of innocence. Until she gets into trouble (again)

It was brought home to me just how carefully she needs protecting when I was on a walk with her in one of our local parks the other day. She slipped through the railings around the lake, because she’s still small enough. When I saw what she’d done, I called her over, thinking that she’d go back out by the way she’d got in, and come around to me. After all, between her and me was a tongue of lake water, with a drop of a metre or more down to it. 

She surely wouldn’t come straight towards me, ignoring the deep drop into a drop of deep water? I had barely time to think the thought and notice that she was looking straight at me and ignoring the hazard in front of her, before she came trotting in my direction, all innocent obedience, and went straight off the edge and, with a plop, into the freezing water.

Fortunately, Luton Council in its wisdom and kindness had set a steel ladder in the wall on my side of the water. I was over the fence in a second and down the bottom of the ladder calling to her as she swam round and round, looking far from comfortable with her impromptu dip. She was a little confused, swimming towards me and then away – well, who can blame her? She’d just tried coming to my call and look where that had got her – but eventually she came close enough for me to grab her collar and pull her out and on to dry land.

A wet cold poodle on cold dry land.

With a dog like that, who wouldn’t be afraid to leave her with a garden – accessible through her dog flap – not properly sealed from the road?

The clasp had to go up. But that involved doing things with screws and screwdrivers. On a wooden gate full of knots. This is not a skill in which I particularly shine. I had trouble getting more than half the screws more than half the way in.

Even with a power drill, the screwdriver bits just spun on the screw heads, driving them in not one jot. Since the failure of this exercise couldn’t possibly be attributed to the workman, I had to blame the tools. Naturally. So I ordered a new set of screw bits for the drill.

Just wonderful. They arrived the following day. And by that afternoon the clasp had been mounted, thus proving that I had no trouble getting the job done once the proper tools had arrived.
Having the right tools is crucial for a good job
Though having an actual building worker around's even better
Coincidentally, a building worker was in the house that morning, finishing off the last job outstanding on the work we started in the autumn (what a relief: finally done). It’s true that he happened to have his own power drill and screwdriver bits. It’s equally true that he has some skill with driving screws into ancient wood made hard by its knots. But that’s not the point: the job needed doing and by the afternoon it had been done.

Surely that was the extent of my responsibility, wasn’t it?

I now feel I can dedicate myself to holiday mood, with a clear conscience.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Winter: season of contrasts. Some of them traditional

One of the few advantages of the short days in winter is that it’s not that hard to see both sunrise and sunset.

Sunsets are often breathtaking, even in winter.

Winter sunset in Wardown Park, Luton
But sunrise too can be extraordinary.

The sun rises over winter trees in People's Park, Luton
Indeed, bare trees in low winter sunlight in the middle of the day can be starkly striking.

Low but strong winter sun in People's Park
The contrasts that mark winter aren’t limited, though, to the physical world but affect human society too. Take, for instance, the tale of King Wenceslas, sung so often at this time of year in allegedly Christian nations. It seems he was quite comfortable enough to be able to stand at a window, of his castle one assumes, and look out even though the frost was cruel (or cru-el).

Doing so, he was able to spot someone from altogether the other end of the social spectrum: a poor man struggling through the cold to collect some winter fuel (fu-el).

Wenceslas was well enough off to be able to spare a few of the pleasures of life. So he could require his page to bring him flesh and bring him wine, and even a few pine logs hither, so they could go and see the poor man dine, when they bore them thither (or thi-ith-ther).

Now we like to maintain our traditions. And so we’ve preserved that one, at least in part.

I read today about a charity in the Wirral, in North West England, which makes up packages to give to poor people at this season. It’s common, when making Christmas presents to give out luxuries – electronic games, perhaps, or toys guaranteed to hold the attention of even the most spoiled child for minutes and minutes. But the group in the Wirral makes up hampers that include toilet rolls, toothpaste and sanitary towels, as well as toys.

These are not gifts designed only to enhance pleasure but to relieve want. Four years ago, this organisation handed out 70; this year they are handing out 3000. In the world’s fifth biggest economy in the world.

It seems the poor seeking winter fuel are still with us.

Another story made it clear to me that we still have the successors of King Wenceslas with us. Take the case of Jeff Fairburn. He’s the chief executive of a housing company called Persimmon. He’s done a fantastic job building the company’s profitability of the company, even if admittedly he had help from a government that poured in subsidies to companies like his to encourage the building of houses that the relatively wealthy can rent to the poor.

With that generous gesture by us all – let’s at least admire our Christian charity in helping out of pockets such fine companies as Persimmon – Mr Fairburn has been able to take a bonus worth £110m.

Now that may sound like a lot. But Britain’s biggest hospital, Bart’s in London, has a deficit of nearly £140m. Mr Fairburn’s bonus wouldn’t even cover all of it.

We have the poor. We have the wealthy. All we’d need to complete the tradition is to see the Wenceslas figure set out across the snow to help.

Ah, unfortunately, that’s where things break down. Mr Fairburn won’t be contributing to help Bart’s, for instance. I mean, he needs that money. He has a lifestyle to maintain, and it’s unaffected by the fact that people are lying on hospital trolleys for want of hospital beds or being denied treatment.

King Wenceslas we have still, it seems, but the latter day isn’t all that Good.

Still, at least we can enjoy the wonderful sights winter provides. As long as we’re not too ill to go wandering around our parks and streets. Or too busy trying to find a little food for our family – to say nothing of luxuries such as toilet rolls, toothpaste or sanitary towels.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Liberal Democrats: trying the same thing and hoping for a different outcome...

“My girlfriend,” the comedian we were watching told us, “is a Liberal Democrat. So she really is one in a million.”

We all laughed. In truth, though, it’s no laughing matter to see what’s become of the Liberal Democrat Party.

It was a while back now that the forerunner of that party, the Liberals, bestrode the British political scene. A while but hardly a time lost in the mists of history: my grandfather was two years into an apprenticeship as a lithographic artist and well into his teens – school leaving age was 14 at that time – when the Liberals won a landslide majority in parliament and opened ten years of apparently unassailable, and certainly unassailed, rule in the country.

That only ended in 1916 when the last Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was forced out of office for his supposed mishandling of the First World War. He was replaced by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, whose political guile clearly outweighed his loyalty. However, Lloyd George headed not  a Liberal government, but a coalition with the Conservatives.

David Lloyd George
Led the Liberals into coalition with the Tories
and sealed their fate
This was the national government, intended to rise to the challenges of the war, though it continued to 1922, well into the peace. Then the Conservatives won a majority on their own. The Liberals, split between the followers of Lloyd George and Asquith, never formed another government. The legacy of coalition with the Tories wiped them out for decades. Instead, they were replaced as the main opposition to the Conservatives by the Labour party, then barely a generation old.

From the time I first became aware of politics, I’ve watched the Liberals struggling to re-emerge onto the political scene. They would win occasional by-elections to loud fanfare in the press, much of it orchestrated by themselves. But when a general election came round, they would be reduced to a handful once more, often losing the very seats they had won in the by-elections.

In my youth, we used to talk about the “taxi Liberal Party”, since all its MPs could have fitted into a single London cab.

Then came the eighties. Labour decided to try its luck under a leader from the Left and a manifesto with a radical bent to it. In 1983, it went down its worst defeat since the 1930s.

Out of this brief flirtation with the far Left came a breakaway group, the Social Democratic Party. It won a few seats and made a few waves. But essentially it was battling for the same voters as the Liberals; the two parties at first collaborated and then eventually merged into the Liberal Democrats. And prospered.

At the 2005 General Election, they peaked at 62 parliamentary seats. Small compared with Labour’s 418 that year, or the Liberals 397 in 1906, but a huge improvement over the taxi cab days – in 1970, they had just six seats.

And then, in 2010, they went into coalition with the Tories.

You’d have thought they’d have learned, wouldn’t you? They apparently thought they could go back into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and come out with a different result from 1916.

Nick Clegg
Led the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Tories
and sealed their fate
Well, they were wrong. In 2015 they were reduced once more to just eight seats. At the election this year, they won a few back and reached 12. They’d need two cabs rather than just one, or three if they wanted to be a little more comfortable. But anywhere near power? Not a chance.

It’s a loss. Often, particularly on matters of human rights, the Liberal Democrats were out to the left of Labour and acted as a useful antidote to the occasional illiberal inclinations of some in my party.

I remember at the time of the coalition getting into lively debates with Lib Dems on Twitter. One assured me that having a Lib Dem influence on government was worth even a price as high as a generation of irrelevance.

Well, they had their chance between 2010 and 2015. It’s not clear they exercised much influence, and today what influence they had has left little trace. Now we’re well into the period of irrelevance; I wonder if my adversaries from back then still feel the price was worth paying.

It seems to me the political landscape has been impoverished by the fate of the Lib Dem party. Especially in so far as it has benefited the Tories. Even if it occasionally provides some good one-liners for standup comics.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Outstanding standup

If you’re anything like me, what you need after some particularly drudge-ful drudgery is entertainment that doesn’t just pass muster but pushes the bar higher. 

The kind that can combat the effects of tasks as tiresome as completing expense reports. Oh, boy. What a task. To be fair, it’s been made a tad easier for me because I’ve been issue with a fine piece of software to deal with it. I won’t name it here, however, as a matter of discretion with which I’m sure you’ll concur. 

Let’s just say that, like most fine software, it works well when it works and drives me mad when it doesn’t.

To raise my spirits takes something out of the ordinary. What better than fine standup comedy? Especially standup by women. And specifically Jewish women.

I have two fine examples, one fictional, one real.

First the fiction. We watch quite a few shows, but this year none, I feel, has been as good the recent Amazon series, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. At times, I come across writing that simply makes my jaw drop, and this series was full of such  moments. “How did she think of that?” I kept asking myself, bowled over by the talent of the series creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino.
Rachel Brosnahan as the marvellous Mrs Maisel
Set in 1958, the series tells the story of a wealthy New York Jewish wife and mother, Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, who finds herself increasingly drawn into making a career for herself in standup. The framing story is peopled with a range of highly distinctive but entirely Jewish characters each played by an excellent actor (Kevin Pollak is outstanding as the sweatshop-owning father-in-law), all of them endowed with their own skilfully comic lines.

Their story is chaotic, noisy and even subversive of its own genre (the severe paterfamilias, for instance, comes across as genuinely authoritarian until we discover he seldom gets his way). In powerful contrast, the standup sessions, and there is at least one per episode, while seeming even more anarchic than Midge’s life, are highly disciplined, tightly timed, and perfectly paced. Each is a jewel of the art.

The shows fairly bristled with great lines. Because it has no fear of being anachronistic, they frequently feel more like comedy from today than from 1958. I particularly liked “why don’t they serve drink here? I need a stiff drink. I need a drink so stiff I could blow it.”

How about the real comedian?

We saw her a few weeks ago at our local, council-run comedy venue, the Luton Comedy Bar. It charges a ridiculously low amount to get in, which means it must pay its artists a pittance. You wouldn’t tell from the quality, though, which was of the finest – the best value for money for entertainment I can think of.

The headline artist was Daphna Baram. She introduced herself by pointing out that we would all know from her accent (Israeli) that she wasn’t from around here.


She was from Walthamstow.

Daphne Baram: a remarkable background,
an irreverent approach and extremely funny
That was one of her least successful lines of the evening, not particularly appreciated by an audience of Lutonians who don’t sound that different from people from Walthamstow, only 35 miles away. But I enjoyed comparing the Walthamstow and Luton accents with hers, which was nothing like either.

Baram has an extraordinary background: a former human rights lawyer as well as a former soldier, she apparently took up standup when friends bought her a comedy course after she had a heart attack.

On the evening we saw her, she told the audience that she had just learned that she’d been successful in winning British citizenship (or is that subjecthood?) Taking the test meant learning a great deal more about Britain than most native Brits know. For instance, Jewish or not, she had to learn all about Christmas. And what gets her about that festival? Well, the serving of turkey, the dullest of meats.

“Where,” she asked us, “was Jesus born?”

Cautiously a few voices volunteered the answer “Bethlehem”.

It seems that Baram has been there several times, and not always with an Israeli Defence Force tank. And in that town she came to know an outstanding restaurant that served superb lamb dishes. Sadly, the restaurant has since been razed by the IDF, but its signature dish remains the main specialty of the town.

“Jesus would have been a lamb eater,” she assured us earnestly.


“Offer him turkey and he’d have climbed up the cross himself.”

A line as good as any of Maisel’s. And as good an antidote to hours of drudgery as any drink. However stiff it may be.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Doug Jones: a key victory. One to emulate in Britain

What a relief – an unexpected one, to me at least – to see Doug Jones beat the alleged sex abuser and paedophile Roy Moore for a Senate seat in Alabama.

A famous victory. We need more of them. Here too.
The state is solidly Republican, so for a Democrat to win is extraordinary in itself. But Doug Jones isn’t just any Democrat. He proclaimed on his campaign website that, “I will defend a woman’s right to choose and stand with Planned Parenthood”.

He adds, “I believe in science and will work to slow or reverse the impact of climate change” putting a gulf between himself and Donald Trump. And, again flying in the face of far right views including the President’s, he proclaims that, “discrimination cannot be tolerated or protected. America is best when it builds on diversity and is welcoming of the contributions of all.

These are bold statements of a liberal outlook. Just the kind of views that sink most candidates in the US, especially in the Bible Belt. But despite all that, Jones was elected.

Of course, he was helped by the fact that his opponent was mired in shocking, disgraceful scandal. But then, Trump had made claims to have engaged in much of the same behaviour in his past, and that didn’t stop him getting to the White House. It seems that the mood has changed in the United States, and when moral bankrupts like Moore run, it takes only courage and decency to beat them.

That’s great news. Congratulations to the US for a step back towards a more civilised polity. But also a comfort for the rest of us, who still have to strike out along that road.

Because in Britain we too face a government that is weak and indefensible. Not because it has been engaging in shameful sexual behaviour – some Members of Parliament have but most MPs seem not to have been caught up in that scandal, including the current Ministers, with one exception (Damian Green, deputy Prime Minister in all but name, is having a torrid time at the moment).

No, in Britain, the tribulations of the government are down to the ineptitude with which it’s handling the biggest question of our time for this country: Brexit. Again and again, Ministers and not least the Prime Minister, Theresa May, find themselves ill-prepared, inconsistent in their approach, incapable of presenting an argument effectively.

As a result, the other EU nations – the EU 27 – constantly out-negotiate the government and leave it having to make concessions.

I’m not particularly upset about that. The concessions seem to take us towards softening Brexit. They may in the end leave us able still to enjoy many of the benefits of EU membership (at the cost of having to comply with some of its obligations), making Brexit a somewhat less damaging prospect.

On the other hand, it leaves the government looking like damaged goods. Weak. Adrift. Inept. Bereft of leadership.

In other words, for different reasons, the British government looks like a target easy to strike. Ripe for an effective campaign from its adversaries. An open goal, virtually.

If that puts the government in the role of Roy Moore, who do we have to play Doug Jones? That, sadly, is where the analogy breaks down.

Up against the British government we have an excellent shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, putting up a powerful, coherent narrative and, frankly, running rings around the incumbent Brexit secretary, David Davis.

However, this is an issue of such importance that the Prime Minister, rightly, has taken a directing role in the negotiations. Her Brexit Secretary handles the detail, but the broad thrust is in her hands. What we need in front of her is a figure capable of running rings round her like Starmer does round Davis.

And what do we have? Jeremy Corbyn. Who seems to have taken a Trappist vow of silence on Brexit. He has nothing to say. Even when journalists pressure him to take a stance, he refuses to do so. Doug Jones proclaiming his commitment to a woman’s right to choose? Sadly, nothing that bold, radical or powerful is coming from Corbyn.

A friend and Corbyn supporter tells me he’s “keeping his powder dry”. The words “put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry” is often attributed to Oliver Cromwell, as an exhortation to his soldiers.

If they’d kept their powder dry by never using it, Cromwell would have died on the scaffold instead of Charles I.

Trust me. If the powder is ever going to help, you have to keep it dry, certainly. But then you actually have to open fire with it.

Doug Jones did. Look at the result. When will Jeremy?

Monday, 11 December 2017

A tale of four seasons

A few minutes’ walk from where we live is Luton’s People’s Park. The name’s a pleasant reminder of a time when popular ownership of certain assets was thought of as a good thing, as it will, I hope, some time again when the present craze with rampant individualism passes. In the meantime, it’s a place many go for simple pleasure, and among them various members of our household, human and canine.

At the top of a park is a tree-lined avenue. It is strikingly beautiful at any time of year. The fact that it is comes as a celebration of the cycle of the seasons, of the way that even when things are as cold and as dark as they can be, sunlight and warmth aren’t that far away.

It’s never short of charm, however. For instance, since its a snowy December now, here’s the walk in winter.

A little earlier, in autumn, it can look like this.

Does that feel too cold and dismal? Don’t worry, it too shall pass. Before long the trees will be racing again to clothe themselves for spring – on this occasion with the left hand side wildly outstripping the right.

Before long, the sides fall into line with each other. Then we get glorious summer. The walk goes quiet and warm and green.

We wander through in shirtsleeves or, in the dogs’ case, panting, soaking in the warmth. What they dont know, but we do, is that this too is transient and soon we’ll be back to something much more austere. But no less striking.

Who cares if it turns cold again? It’s still stunning. And – who knows? – we might get snow again. 

Followed, once more, by the leaves unfurling.

In People’s Park. Where beauty awaits the people. And, of course, any dogs that come along with them to enjoy it.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

A first glimmer of hope in the Brexit tunnel

Since the morning of 23 June 2016, when the British electorate demonstrated to the world that a referendum is a poor way of reaching good sense in politics, I’ve never felt so encouraged about Brexit as today.

A fine day in Winter. A good moment for a glint of hope on Brexit
Much can still go wrong. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove remain senior ministers in the British government. They were leading figures in an anti-EU campaign that took political mendacity to levels not often achieved in pre-Trump democratic nations. Leaving the EU would free £350m a week for the NHS, they claimed; the reality is that leaving the EU will cost huge sums and the NHS crisis worsens by the day.

Instead of being driven from power as such dishonesty deserves, they continue to exert great authority at the highest level of government. It would be unwise to write them off. They will counterattack and it would be sensible to expect them to be highly effective.

Nevertheless, we can still enjoy, at least for now, an outline agreement between the UK and the EU in which Theresa May in effect conceded that we might not actually leave. In order not to create a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, she accepted the principle that the whole of the UK might remain aligned on regulatory standards with the EU, at least for some aspects of trade.

That means that she has opened the door to the possibility of our staying in the EU Single Market in effect, if not in name. If we can hold off the wild men of Brexit, such as Gove and Johnson, and make sure this happens, we shall at least have limited the damage that Brexit could do to our economy. That’s both in maintaining easy reciprocal access with our major trading partners in Europe, but also in fending a threatened dependency on an arrangement with the US. Such dependency, it has already made clear, would mean our abandoning standards that matter to us.

We would, if all this happens, have limited the worst of the damage to us. We will have maintained values and standards that protect our way of life. What we will have given up is merely the right to have any say in defining those standards: we will no longer have a vote in the deliberations that decide the regulations we adopt.

In other words, we shall have cut off our noses to spite our faces, but at lest we won’t have completely shot our foot off.

For that small mercy, on this fine winter’s days, let’s at least be thankful.