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.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Might it be a soft Brexit after all?

So Theresa May surprised me after all. At the eleventh hour. As all seemed set to fall apart around her ears, burying her under the ruins.

Theresa May and the EU negotiator Michel Barnier
She’d claimed at the beginning of the week that she had a solution. Specifically, a means of keeping the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – the only land border between the EU and the UK – open. In other words, a way of allowing trade between the two parts of the island to continue unimpeded, without duties to pay or customs posts at which to wait.

But then it emerged she’d only achieved that by offering to maintain parity in regulations between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In effect creating a border in the Irish Sea, between the whole of Ireland and the UK, instead of within the island. To her astonishment – apparently – the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, on whose votes at Westminster she depends to keep her government in office, went ballistic. Arlene Foster, its leader, made it clear that her party’s continued support would be jeopardised by any such arrangement.

I say “apparently” because it’s actually hard to believe that anyone could have been surprised. The Democratic Unionists emerged in opposition to the mainstream Ulster Unionists because they felt the latter weren’t unionist enough. In other words, the DUP was first, last and forever a party committed to the union between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Nothing, but nothing, mattered more.

It’s practically unimaginable that Theresa May has read so little Irish history but, hey, I never cease to be amazed by the sheer extent of her ineptitude, so maybe she really doesn’t know what tradition the DUP embodies.

On Monday of this week, therefore, the whole deal looked set to unravel. And, since agreement on Ireland, was an absolute condition of allowing the Brexit negotiations to move on to discuss trade, it looked as though May was facing a sticky future indeed. Defy the DUP: how could she let her government fall? Allow the talks to collapse and make a hard Brexit certain: how could she allow the economy to suffer that level of damage?

That’s where she surprised me. She came up with a different option. She made a full, unqualified and binding commitment to enter into a full, unqualified and binding commitment at some time in the future, and on terms yet to be agreed.

It was splendid! And so EU. Fudge has always been the preferred mode of operation of the Union, as is hardly surprising when you’re trying to maintain consensus between 28 nations each intent on defending its own interest. May even came up with this agreement to agree as we entered the final 72 hours to the deadline, and the only difference from previous EU negotiations is that they generally end after a final night of intense arguing just before the decision is formalised.

Perhaps May knew well that the fudge was inevitable and felt she could do with a weekend. Why not agree on Friday rather than wait for Sunday? She’s had a torrid few months since losing her majority in an election she called injudiciously and fought incompetently. I expect she could do with a kip.

Meanwhile, on the far right, its most outspoken figure, Nigel Farage, is furious. Although the final terms haven’t been defined, the fudge makes it clear that Britain will have to accept the need to keep its regulatory standards aligned with Europe’s, at least on any matter that might affect the Good Friday peace agreement in Ireland. In other words, Britain after leaving the EU will still have to obey many of its regulations – it will merely have given up having any say on them.

The most encouraging aspect of this concession is that it might lead to something far more like a soft Brexit, where Britain remains closely aligned with the EU, in spite of the Brexiters. It will be a pity to have no say in making the rules, but even without that say, Britain will be far stronger for maintaining such a close relationship with its major trading partners.

On the other two substantive points of the deal, Britain has agreed to pay a lot more money than Brexiters throught we’d ever have to, and has even had to accept that the European Court of Justice would have some jurisdiction in Britain, over the way we treat EU citizens living here. That was enough to make Farage apoplectic, which in itself is enough to make me like the terms. On the other hand, I can see his point.

On all these terms, May has had to abandon her “red lines” and compromise with the EU. The EU has negotiated effectively and forced Britain to move further towards its positions than it has moved towards Britain’s. If these commitments to commit turn into real commitments the impact could be massive.

First of all, the US has made it clear that the trade deal that Brexiters have been relying on as their get-out-of-Brexit-free card will require Britain to align its regulations with American ones. Well, that wouldn’t happen.

Secondly, Britain has had to accept, explicitly at last, that it isn’t a lion roaring on the global stage, harkened to by everyone. If it’s a lion at all, it’s a much reduced one, its teeth and claws gone, having to supplicate rather than dictate. Britain has had to bow to EU demands, not the other way around.

That’s an invaluable lesson for Britons to learn, and long overdue.

In any case, anything that wipes the self-satisfied smile from Nigel Farage’s face, however temporarily, has to be deeply satisfying.

A fine way to start the weekend.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Progress always progress. Even when it's backwards

I’m really keen on the device on a new window in our place. It’s a sort of elongated round-bar at the top of the window. At first, I had no idea what it was for, except that it looked a little like a vent.

Curious device
It turns out that’s exactly what it is.

Why is this interesting?

Well, the history of window technology – there must be a PhD thesis or two out there on the subject – has, I humbly submit, been one of increasing impenetrability. The aim is to keep the weather out. Above all else, that means eliminating draughts.

But it seems that progress has gone too far. Or had unintended consequences. Proving that you really have to be careful what you wish for.

Because windows are so good these days, so airtight, that houses are simply not getting enough air. But the problem engineering created engineering can solve. So we now have a smart little vent to let air back in.

An artificial draught creator, in fact.

Having gone to great lengths to eliminate them, we have gone a little further to reintroduce them.

This all reminds me of A song of reproduction, made famous by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. It’s about the evolution of music reproduction, and starts:

I had a little gramophone, 
I'd wind it round and round. 
And with a sharpish needle, 
It made a cheerful sound.

And then they amplified it,
It was much louder then.
And used sharpened fibre needles, 
To make it soft again.

We make it loud, we make it soft again. We make it airtight, we make it draughty again. I love technology. 

Oh, and progress too, of course.

Monday, 4 December 2017

In praise of a great woman: people aren't dispensable

Time for a tribute to an exceptional mind. She left us extraordinary insights into the behaviour of man, particularly in extreme circumstances. Not just what we do but why we do it.

Two of her insights strike me as particularly important.

The first is the notion of the ‘banality of evil’. Hannah Arendt covered the trial in Jerusalem of former SS Officer and logistics coordinator for the final solution to the ‘Jewish Question’, Adolf Eichmann – he organised the transport of Jews to the extermination centres.
Hannah Arendt: a voice to listen to all the more today
What struck her most about Eichmann was his deep ordinariness. Many described him as a monster. What she saw was someone who could only speak in the clichés of officialise because he had no other vocabulary; in her world view, the inability to speak with clarity revealed an inability to think clearly; that made Eichmann literally thoughtless and unable to see the moral consequences of what he was doing.

She saw in Eichmann a man with little or nothing to distinguish him, a middle-class figure who had struggled to build a career or even make a living, and whose only talent turned out to be for the administration of transport for colossal numbers of people – no small task in war time with huge pressure on the railways.

Eichmann knew what would happen to the Jews once he got them to Auschwitz. But that wasn’t his problem. His task was just to get them there and he set about it with all the dogmatic persistence of a dedicated minor functionary. An accomplice in mass murder on a historically unprecedented scale was just the kind of man any of us might meet behind a counter or in a nondescript office somewhere. Indeed, we might him anywhere because he could be any of us.

That’s what makes evil banal: it can appear in the most everyday of people.

That’s the chilling conclusion of the notion of the banality of evil: any one of us could be capable of it. It is not the exclusive preserve of a particular type of person, a monster born.

The second of Arendt’s idea that particularly strikes me here is that western societies have, over the centuries, moved towards considering humans as dispensable. Arendt was Jewish and brought up in Königsberg. It’s a neat reflection of the terrible impact of the first half of the twentieth century that her city, the home of the great German philosopher Kant, is no longer in the far east of Germany but now belongs to a small exclave of Russia, beyond the Baltic states. Even its name has been expunged from the record. It is now called Kaliningrad, named for one of Stalin’s henchmen.

Germany eventually became a dangerous place for her to live. She was fortunate enough to get out (in 1933, when Hitler came to power), and eventually reached the US, with plenty of pain on the way, including internment in a camp in France. Over the next few years, it became increasingly clear that what the Nazis were working to achieve was the entire extermination of a group of people – several groups – simply for who or what they were, with no consideration of their guilt or innocence of any offence, indeed of anything they might have done. 

That led Arendt to the principles on which she based her colossal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. In the totalitarian view, the human being counts for nothing. People can be wiped out, even tortured to death, because they have no importance in themselves compared to such notions as historical inevitability or the emergence of a race of supermen.

Why do I mention all this now?

Two reasons.

The first is that 4 December 2017 is the 42nd anniversary of the death of Arendt. She deserves to be far better known. Whatever I can do to help that, I do.

The second is that the concepts I’ve been describing seem horribly relevant again today. Around us we see people of complete banality playing with great evil backed by great power – not least the occupant of the White House who could, still, plunge the world into a most terrible war in Korea.

What’s more, Trump recently retweeted violently Islamophobic videos by an extreme right-wing group from Britain. Some Muslims have behaved outrageously badly – maybe one in three million Muslims, but in the Eichmann approach to humans, we don’t take the time to think things through, to distinguish between the tiny numbers of the guilty and the huge numbers of the innocent, to reject the simple approach to write off all Muslims en masse.

I’ve argued before that the Muslims are the Jews of today. By writing off an entire faith group in this way, the far right takes us further down that road. And Trump has endorsed it.

For the moment, Trump threatens merely a travel ban. But where will he take things? Especially if the target becomes North Koreans rather than Muslim? 

We’ve seen where that kind of thinking has gone before. Which is why, on the 42nd anniversary of her death, we need Hannah Arendt as much as ever. And need to listen carefully to what she taught us about human behaviour.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

A sprinkling of comfort. In case of fire

We’re not quite home and dry with work on our home.

It turns out that to be home and dry we need to install a means to make part of our home thoroughly wet. Contrary to the oft-repeated views of our contractor, building regulations require us to have more sophisticated precautions in place against the risk of fire. That means installing sprinklers in our sitting room and dining room. 

Sitting room and dining room are really one large room – well, large by our standards – which is the problem: the alternatively would be to split them once more into two rooms with a wall in between, at the same time walling off the staircase which is currently open-plan. That’s how things once were, no doubt, but we’d regret going back to that layout. So it has to be sprinklers.
Open Plan. We like it. But the price is sprinklers
They also want us to put in a first-floor window through which we might be able to escape to the street ahead of any flames.

Well, there are now neat round holes with protruding hoses in the ceilings of both the sitting room and dining room. For some reason, the sprinkler people had to send a couple of young lads round to do that work a week or two ago, but a second team has to come out to finish the job. That isn’t now due to happen for another two and a half weeks. We shall have holes in the ceilings nearly till Christmas now. So it will truly be a holy season. A holy holiday, indeed. 
Sprinkler hose in place. Wholly in tune with the holiday spirit
Still, you can imagine, I’m sure, that I now sleep a great deal better at night. I am no longer consumed by terrible dreams of being burned to a frazzle by a horrific blaze. We just have to hang on a little time longer and fine systems will be in place to protect us from so vile a fate.

I thought at first that if the terrible circumstances arose, I’d make for the new window and a break for freedom. Not that I understand why. It seems a little silly to go up to the first floor only to jump from the window, when I could just open the front door and leave the house on the same level as the street. But, hey, I didn’t make up fire precaution regulations and I suppose the people who did are far more qualified than I am to reach intelligent decisions on these matters.

In any case, I’m much more attracted by the idea of the sprinklers. I think my view is that if it comes to it, what I’d far rather do would be to make for the sitting room in the event of fire. Then I could sit in my favourite spot, the couch, and be sprinkled with water from the ceiling.

There I could enjoy the delights of a cold shower while I watch the flames moving inexorably closer. In all the comfort my couch affords.

I concede that there are downsides to that prospect. But you must admit it’s pretty dramatic. And all thanks to the considerate design of building regulations.

Fire? Bring it on, I say. We’re ready.

Or, at least, we shall be in a few weeks.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Poor little Britain

It’s cold out there at the moment.
Sean Bean in Game of Thrones: “winter is coming”
Still, it is November, in the Northern Hemisphere, so we have to expect temperatures to be pretty uncomfortable. And at least we know that there are only three weeks to go before the days start to grow longer again. While the cold will be even more bitter, at least the lighter evenings will contain a promise of better times to come.

So much, at least, for the physical weather. When it comes to its status in the world, the cold has only just started to grip Britain. It will deepen a great deal further in the coming years, and not start to recede until British people at last emerge from the illusions behind which they prefer to hide.

Most central among these is the sense that their country is still a world power. A lion whose roar is heard around the globe. Some will cling on to that belief for a long time, but others are beginning to take the tough object lessons reality is delivering to them.

For many months, the hard Brexiters in government have been insisting that they will not move on the amount Britain will have to pay the EU on leaving. This is the so-called ‘divorce bill’. While a member of the EU, Britain entered into a number of commitments many of which involved the payment of money. Among other things, there are people who have retired from the EU Civil Service, to whose pensions Britain pledged to contribute. There is a sense in Brussels that these commitments have to be honoured despite Britain’s departure.

The hard Brexiters have been insisting that the figure should be low.

Take the case of Priti Patel. She had to resign from her post as International Development minister earlier this month, having demonstrated her humility in public service by conducting her own foreign policy while on holiday in Israel, where she had meetings with senior ministers including Benjamin Netanyahu, without reference to any other member of the government including the Foreign Secretary. Demonstrating the diplomatic self-control which make her such a loss to foreign affairs, she announced at the weekend that the EU could just “sod off” with their demands for a divorce bill.

It must have come as quite a blow to find that her erstwhile boss, the Prime Minister Theresa May, is now talking about paying as much as £50bn, perhaps twice the sum many had hoped. Ultimately, of course, there will be a compromise and a sensible figure will be agreed, whether near the £50n level or not. The key point is that Britain blinked first, and had to. In a doubtless unwelcome reminder to Brexiters, May had to admit that Britain is not in the driving seat, it can’t call the shots, it has to move towards the EU before the EU will move towards us.

Then came the affair of the Trump far-right Tweets. When Britain leaves the EU, it will be more dependent than ever on the US. President Trump (it still feels slightly unbelievable to write those two words together) early on made it clear that he was keen to offer Britain a trade deal, a piece of news Brexiters reacted to with glee. Sadly, Wilbur Ross, Trump’s Commerce Secretary was in the UK at the beginning of this month. He stressed that the US was ready to give Brexit Britain a trade deal, but we might just have to make a few minor accommodations. Like giving up on European-style regulation – shorthand for our having to abandon our unreasonable demands for our food to be edible.

Just over two weeks later his boss, the President himself, decided that it would be judicious to retweet three tweets with Islamophobic videos attached.

Even the most elegant of houses has to have a sewage system. All nations have to have their political cesspools. Britain’s is called ‘Britain First’, a neo-Fascist grouplet of no significance in our politics. Indeed, the woman who put up the tweets the President chose to pass on, chalked up the triumphant total of 56 votes in a run for parliament. Just to give some perspective on that figure, the winner of the election took 16,897 votes.

She is now facing criminal charges for religiously aggravated harassment and for using threatening and abusive language.

This is the person whose views the President decided to endorse.

In another example of our unreasonable attachment to certain standards, many of us in Britain rather resented this behaviour. The Prime Minister isn’t famed for her courage in standing up to Trump – she was the first head of government to visit him in the White House and issued him with an invitation to a State visit immediately, without the customary waiting period we generally like to take to see what kind of a President we are dealing with.

Yet even she felt she should speak out this time, telling Trump explicitly that he had been wrong. His reaction? To tell her to mind her own business.

When Home Secretary Amber Rudd spoke to the House of Commons about the Trump row, she repeated her boss’s rebuke to Trump. But then she went on to remind her listeners that the relationship with the States is vital. Which is true, and particularly now. But does she mean that we have to be careful what we say about him – even when he endorses our Fascists?

Many have been asking whether the invitation to Trump for the State Visit would be cancelled. It looks as though what Britain’s going to do is leave the invitation out there, but simply fail to set a date for it. Which, if you’re feeling generous, is a classic British compromise; if you’re feeling a little more severe, you might view it as something more like moral cowardice.

But what choice does Britain have? We’ve chosen Brexit which means we’ve chosen dependence on the States. Even under Trump.

Game of Thrones got it right. Winter is coming, and it’s going to be cold. For a very long time.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The faith that moves mountains. But not apparently nations

The head of the Catholic Church visits a country which has a majority of Buddhists, representatives of a religion that is a byword for peacefulness and tolerance, but who are busily exterminating members of another of the world’s great faiths, Islam. The Pope carefully avoids naming the victims as Rohingya, because that might further inflame those gentle Buddhists and turn their attentions to Christians as well.
The Pope in Myanmar: don’t mention the Rohingya
Those Rohingya are members of a religion that believes that to save a single life is tantamount to saving the entire human race. And yet members of that religion, Islam – admittedly a tiny minority of it – seem to have convinced themselves that it is holy work to kill large numbers of people in its name.

The behaviour of that minority has inflamed many in the West into passionate Islamophobia. Some of those justify their hatred on the grounds that they are Christians, or belong at any rate to countries that are Christian in their roots. This is a curious notion, in many cases.

In Britain, for example, only around one in twenty people regularly attends a church service of any Christian denomination. But then, maybe they’re thinking of the underlying values rather than actual Church practice. Principles such as

Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him


It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God


Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these

The first of those is a little hard to reconcile with Britain’s long love-affair with weapons, a little reduced these days but only because austerity is enforcing cuts even on the military.

The second is just as hard to reconcile with the other side of the austerity coin, which has been to enrich the wealthiest members of society still further, making it, I assume, harder than ever for them to get into the kingdom of heaven.

As for the third, that commitment to children is proclaimed by most Brits, but rather subverted by the discovery that the country has one of the worst rates of stillbirth in Western Europe. Why? Here are the words of Gill Walton, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Midwives:

We’ve got a real concern about staffing levels… we really need more staff and more capacity in order to safely care for mums and babies.

Austerity hammers children too, it seems. As we find in the recent reports that two-thirds of English children referred for mental healthcare remain untreated. And it’s not just children: refuges for women escaping domestic violence are being forced to close through lack of funding, hospital Emergency Departments are being increasingly staffed by unqualified doctors, and the hospitals themselves are, in greater numbers than ever before, facing bankruptcy without more finance.

It seems that our Christian values aren’t strong enough to insist on the support the vulnerable. Instead we prefer to elect and re-elect a government committed to serving the wealthiest by imposing these cuts on services that would otherwise protect the poor. Perhaps our supposed Christianity has nothing to do with the teachings of Christ, and merely provides a justification for our dislike of the other, the foreigner, the person from outside our community.

Faith without compassion. Whether in Myanmar, in ISIS or, sadly, in Britain.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Where the Sat Nav goes in its free time

I’ve been wondering about what happens to my Sat Nav when I’m not using it.
Loyal servant. Although possibly somewhat disgruntled
Or rather him, not it. He has a rather plummy southern English accent, denoting membership of a rather a better class than mine. Or at least, an aspiration to belong to such a class, because there is in his voice something that says that he’s not quite as cultivated as he makes out. There may be something close to affectation there.

I don’t blame him, mind you. I expect Toyota demands something a little bit top-drawer from its Sat Navs. He may be obliged to lay it on a bit thick just to hold down the job.

It’s that sense that he isn’t quite as posh as he sounds that I picture him, when I release him from duty by turning off the car engine, sloping off not to one of the better eateries in London, but rather to a local pub to catch up with his mates. There he can, in all liberty, vent all his frustrations with the work he has to do and, indeed, moan about his boss.

“Make mine a double,” I see him saying to the barman, because I think his sense of himself as a cut above others is at least authentic enough to make him eschew beer in favour of spirits. “Same again for you three?” pointing to his companions’ empty pint glasses.

“Don’t mind if I do,” one of them will say for all of them, and as the pints are being poured, he tells them of the miseries of his day.

“Oxford again. To see his Mum. You know, I’ve been with him for less than a year but this has to be at least the twentieth time I’ve done that trip.”

“Dull, isn’t it?” one of the companions points out, “especially on the motorways.”

“Really tedious,” he says, “he’s a bit of a slow learner. Keeps taking the motorways even though they jam up each time and we end up crawling through traffic. He just ignores every one of my suggested detours. Thinks he knows better and then we show up late.”

“Oh, I know, I know,” says another, “you wouldn’t believe what happened to me…”

But my Sat Nav hasn’t just bought a round of drinks to have to listen to someone else’s troubles.

“To be fair, he went across country today,” he interrupts. “Maybe getting caught in traffic jams eight times in a row has taught him something at last. And they didn’t do too badly. Went a bit wrong in Aylesbury, but I got them back on to the right road. I can’t really complain about the trip out.”

“What about the way back?”

“Ah, that’s where it all went weird. About six miles from home. He just vanished off the road, would you believe? Started driving across the fields. Like he was in a tractor. Or a tank.”

“Across the fields?”

“I kid you not. Fields. Nowhere near the roads on my map. I thought he’d get his comeuppance but, you know the oddest thing? He eventually got back on to a road and closer to home than I expected. It was almost like he’d actually gained time by leaving the road.”

“Ah, but that means he didn’t leave the road, you know.”

“What do you mean? I told you. I couldn’t see a road anywhere near where he was driving. It was all blank on the map.”

“It must be a new road. He hasn’t updated your maps. It costs money, you know.”

My Sat Nav splutters in his drink, risking spilling some of his expensive whisky. Well, not the most expensive, but not cheap either. Sort of middle-of-the-range.

“What? What? He’s so much of a cheapskate he lets my maps get out of date?”

“Seems that way.”

But before he can reply, my Sat Nav spots an unwelcome arrival in the pub. Merino overcoat with a fleece collar. Gucci shoes polished enough to see your face in. Rather too florid a tie peeking out of the collar of his coat.

“Save me,” says my Sat Nav emptying his glass, “let’s get the hell out of here. I don’t want him wandering over here and lording it over us.”

“Oh, God, no,” says one of the others, “him and his ‘how’s life in the downmarket cars, then? Bearing up under the strain?’ I don’t I could take it.”

“No,” adds a third, “it’s all very well for him, but we can’t all be assigned Jags. Let’s get going.”

“Anyone fancy a curry?” says my Sat Nav.

“I know a great place,” says one of the others, “just left out of here, down to the roundabout, take the third exit and then your destination is three hundred yards down on the left-hand side.”

“We’ll follow you,” say the others.

Well, I hope they enjoyed their meal. And didn’t get lost on the way.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Black Friday and our sad mindset this side of the Atlantic

Black Friday is upon us.

It’s particularly remarkable on this side of the Atlantic. The Friday is black in the US because people are recovering from the excess of the Thanksgiving celebration the day before, or just need their morale boosted in the down that follows the high of a feast. Though behind that worthy goal lurks also the rather baser desire to make a lot of money by a day of sales in the shops.

In England, we don’t have the feast. We just have the Black Friday. The depression, in other words, without the celebration that led to it. But it’s still a wonderful commercial opportunity. Or at least shopkeepers hope so.

The problem arose because of the increasing disappointment of Christmas. This is the second most important feast of the Christian year. Believers worship the birth of Christ in December just as at Easter they celebrate the redemption of man through his agonising death followed by the miracle of his resurrection. Birth at Christmas, the even more glorious rebirth at Easter. .

Clearly, celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace is a time for quiet reflection on the nature of God’s relationship to Man, the sacrifice of his incarnation and later death in pain for us all, and so forth. Where “so forth” covers over-indulgence in food and, above all, drink as well as the commercial miracle of a splurge of spending in the shops. Why, a great many retailers depend on Christmas for the bulk, if not the entirety, of their profits for the year.

Such are the benefits of a profound immersion in the spirit of Christian charity and restraint. An excellent arrangement. Serving God and Mammon, otherwise known as win-win.

Although it’s not that wonderful any more.

Britain has seen earnings falling for a decade already. There’s no sign of that ending any time soon, particularly following Brexit. Eventually, inevitably, loss of earnings power had to have an impact on spending patterns. Christmas just isn’t what it once was. Shops can’t count on it any more.

The answer was to find a way of incentivising expenditure at another time of year. And why not just a few weeks before? Adopting Black Friday seemed the obvious solution.

But we took it over without Thanksgiving. Meaning we have the depression not the celebration. The hangover without the party. 

What’s more, we don’t seem to be satisfied with just a single day of it, which after all is what the word ‘Friday’ would seem to imply. Oh, no. Ocado, which kindly delivers us our groceries, has gone for a long weekend of Black Friday. 

Black Friday from the 23rd to the 27th
And Debenham’s, the great department store, has gone for a whole week.

Black Friday week at Debenham's
This all seemed terribly British. After all, we are a nation steeped in the Protestant tradition. That teaches us that we are all, or nearly all, damned whatever we do, and life is a vale of tears. So when we take on a tradition from the US, why not take on the bleak and dismal bit, leaving out the part that might actually lift our mood?

But it’s not just British. I was in Italy over the last few days, and I noticed that even that great bastion of Catholicism has caught the Black Friday bug. Indeed, they too, perhaps out of increasing desperation over sales falling there as they are here, are wildly extending the understanding of ‘Friday’. In Turin, they’re going for a Black weekend.

Black Weekend in Turin
Maybe it’s a European phenomenon, not just a British one. Are we so short of confidence in our ability to emulate transatlantic flair and dynamism that we punish ourselves by taking on their harsher customs, and use them to try to dig ourselves out of our economic difficulties? Seems a bit of an indictment.

A sad thought. One to while away a Black Friday. As an alternative to spending the day in the shops.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Austerity buried? And the NHS too?

Britain has a new budget.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, for whom the word ‘beleaguered’ might have been specifically invented, has announced the government’s plans for spending and tax over the next year. And though it does little enough, what it does do is more noteworthy than one might have expected.

Hammond with the traditional red box for the budget
He has admitted at last that the prospects for economic growth are a lot worse than the government had previously claimed. What’s more, debt is at twice the level the Tories inherited when they first came to office in 2010, and which at the time they described as intolerably high. 

Indeed, their primary goal was to reduce the debt level massively. To achieve it, they launched a painful programme of austerity, to get government spending in balance within one parliament (five years), later extended to two parliaments, and now to some time in the next decade. Meanwhile, debt climbed inexorably.

This track record ought to be enough to prove to any but the most ideologically blinkered that austerity isn’t working. But the dogmatism of the Tories has prevented them ever accepting as much previously. So it’s interesting to discover that in this budget they have at last made the admission, if only tacitly: the Chancellor has announced plans for actual spending, most notably on housing, as a way of addressing the parlous state of the economy.

Sadly, however, he is doing a lot too little, particularly after the damage of the last seven years. For example, faced with a warning from the Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the National Health Service in England, that healthcare needs another £4bn a year as a minimum, he has come up with £2.8bn over the next two and a half years. That’s going to mean that the service must still make choices that will be tough to the point of grief: certain treatments will simply not be available or will be denied so long as to lead to suffering or even death among patients.

What makes this even more depressing is that Hammond has also earmarked a further £3bn for Brexit preparations. In other words, we have to stump up more money that is being denied to healthcare, to cover the costs of a step – leaving the European Union – which will itself cause us even worse and longer-lasting economic damage. Not just shooting ourselves in the foot, but paying for the privilege.

There’s a special irony in the fact that we’re having to come up with this money for Brexit at a time that the NHS needs it so badly. A major element of the Leave campaign was the notorious claim that Brexit would free up £350m a week for the NHS. £18bn a year which would certainly sort the underfunding of the service.

Curious that in reality Brexit is costing us money, while the NHS crisis deepens.