Tuesday, 17 October 2017

When the family shows up

“The family, that cage with living bars,” wrote the French novelist François Mauriac. There must be families like that, just as there are families which are pleasant holiday chalets with open doors to let the air in with the visitors, and the residents in or out as they want. Equally, I suppose many families mix their open rooms and their cages, often right next door to each other.

For my own part, I’m always pleased when my family comes to see us. This weekend, it was the turn of my youngest son Nicky and daughter-out-law Sheena to add considerably to the pleasure of the household. We did lots of things which might not otherwise have done, some highly successful (a walk in Ashridge Forest, for instance), some less so (a Motown concert which we left early, after raising my understanding, if only of the question why I had never attended one before).

Inevitably, we ate too much. Somehow, whenever we do anything for the sheer pleasure it seems to lead to a series of meals, many of them far too big.

In any case, it didn’t much matter what we actually did or how well it went, since what made it most fun was the fact that we were doing it together. I even took pleasure from going bowling, a game I usually delight in because I play it well, though on this occasion – when I notched up some historically abysmal scores – I could only enjoy the simple fact of participation. .

It was ironic playing such a quintessentially American game with my family. Not a week before, my American boss had been in town, and I enjoyed introducing her to that fundamentally English game, snooker. American games with an Englishman, English games with an American: the simple symmetry’s a joy in itself.

Nicky leading the way in the Wardown Park run
but the threat's on his shoulder...
A more successful sporting event took place on Sunday when Nicky decided to take part in a park run in one of Luton’s pleasanter places, Wardown Park. Some 300 people took part; he led for a short time and eventually came in second, behind a worthy winner (“perhaps I should have tried harder to catch him,” he however claimed). With several friends among the runners, it was good to be there, and the dogs enjoyed it too – they’re keen fans of Wardown Park, where there are ducks, squirrels, kids to play with and, if they’re quick and we’re not watching, occasionally the opportunity to gobble up some ghastly piece of food discarded by a careless eater (or possibly an eater more discerning than they are).

Watching those runners got me checking my phone for the records of the days when I used to go running regularly. It shocked me to discover that at the peak of my performance, I was achieving speeds that would have hardly have got me out of the bottom half of the field in the park run. My son achieved over twice that. No wonder I gave up running, switching instead to badminton: at least it’s a game that allows me to take out my frustration at my ineptitude by occasionally viciously punishing the shuttle and smashing it beyond my opponents’ reach (worth it, even though they do the same back to me even more frequently). .

As it happens, not only do I not have the energy these days to do any running (except over the narrow distances of a badminton court), I find it effort enough just to keep walking. I remain under the dominion of my fitbit, obsessively piling up the steps each day. That can be painful, but it does have one advantage.

Like a great many people – even another French writer, Proust – I’m neurotic about remembering to undertake routine tasks. He talks about having to turn off the gas very consciously, so that later on he can remember having done so. With me, it’s locking doors. “I’m locking the front door, now,” I have to think to myself, or “I’m locking the car,” so that when I get a sudden rush of anxiety I can remember clearly having done so.

Of course, that means having to remember to think consciously about those tasks, and I don’t always. Often I have to go back to check. With the car, that isn’t so easy: I can’t test the door handle because, with the clever new technology we now have, if I do that the car unlocks anyway. So instead I just look at the wing mirrors: has the car tucked them away? If it has, then it’s locked.

Still, just being obliged to go back to check is a pain. Except that – now it isn’t. Because it’s steps. I’ve actually found myself deliberately walking all the way around the car to lengthen the process. Because it’s all steps towards the target, all grist to the mill.

No good for my fitbit obsession. But maybe good for my body.

When it comes to my soul, it was the family visit itself that did me good – there was no cage there, no bars. Well, except the kind where one might celebrate over a drink. As is only appropriate when family shows up.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

None of the above, when October feels like November

October in England this year has had many days that felt like September at its best, but a few that resembled November at its gloomiest. That’s how today dawned. Grey, dull, wet, not exactly cold but far from inviting. The kind of day that makes you want to pull the covers back up and pretend the day’s not yet begun, or perhaps wallow in a bath till you outwrinkle a prune while you read the paper.

Except, unfortunately, the news in that paper only adds to the November feeling of such a day.

Honestly, the state of British politics is enough to make you want to turn to the sports pages instead. Personally, I find the underperformance of the grossly overpaid on the pitches of the English so-called premier league (more of a might-have-been league these days) more edifying than the political news these days, and Lord knows the self-styled premiership’s pretty dire.

We now have a glorious spectacle in the Tory Party entirely divided against itself. It continues to rule in this country, if only by its fingernails. The parliamentary party seems split between two groups.

On the one hand, stand the archi-Brexiters who’d like to see the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, sacked for pushing a ‘soft Brexit’ approach. This would involve trying to maintain the best possible relationship with the EU after Brexit, especially as concerns trade, even at the cost of accepting some continued EU influence on British affairs.

On the other hand, the ranks of Brexit-deplorers are calling for the sacking of the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, for an altogether too cavalier attitude towards Brexit. Convinced that the British lion can emit a roar to be heard around the world, he wants the country out of the EU at the earliest possible moment with no deal for the future if necessary.

Between these two groups stands the Prime Minister, Theresa May, herself. She must at least feel a certain relief that the talk of sacking is concentrated on her two most senior ministers instead of herself. Ever since the disastrous General Election she called in June when, instead of increasing her Party’s majority substantially, she lost it and found herself heading a minority administration, she’s been beset by calls for her to go. It must be a pleasant change to see others the target of such calls, for the time being.

For a great many of us, this is all a little ironic. Because the issue isn’t getting rid of Johnson, Hammond or May. The Brexit question needs solving and needs solving urgently. A hopelessly divided government can’t do it, so why don’t we just sack the lot of them? Someone has to come up with some kind of coherent negotiating stance to try to limit the damage to Britain after the country leaves the EU. Sadly, however, there’s a sense that the Opposition may well be as heavily, if more discreetly, riven on the issue.

Labour is, in principle, committed to remaining in the EU. If we absolutely must leave, Labour should therefore be seeking the softest of soft departures, perhaps even remaining in certain structures such as the Single Market or the Customs Union. However, it’s far from clear that the leadership, and in particular the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, entirely buys into that scenario. And he’s not saying.

The Don't Knows in the lead
Really feels like November in October
That may be why, for the first time since pollsters YouGov started asking, it has found that the most popular answer to the question “who would make the best Prime Minister” is “Don’t Know”. That feels a bit like “none of the above”.

A dismal state of affairs.

Enough to make you want to pull the covers up and snuggle down for another hour or so. Except that now it’s the evening and the last of the day – which has, unexpectedly, turned pleasantly September-like. I think I’ll take the dogs out.

That at least I can be sure of enjoying. As will they.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Transient's diary, weeks 6 and 7

At last, it’s really happening. Things are on the up. There’s beginning to be a glimmer of a hint of a chance of a hope of a prospect of our moving back into our house before long.

The new kitchen has tiles on the floor. It has some kitchen units in place. Why, it even has a new boiler. No water to the boiler (or taps or anything else). No electricity to light the boiler. No gas to light, indeed. But, hey, that can all come in time.
A kitchen taking shape
Note the boiler. Not that it’s working yet or anything
And it’s not just in the kitchen that we have tiles. There are even tiles on the walls of the shower room, and very fine they look too. Of course, no water, electricity or, indeed, water heated by the boiler thats not yet working either but, again, hey, we shouldn’t ask for too much too soon.

Besides, there’s no shower head.

The shower room has great tiles
Though no shower yet...
xThere’s been even more progress upstairs. The loft no longer looks like a loft at all. It’s beginning to look like a bedroom. As well as the window with its great view (well, OK, mostly of scaffolding for the moment but one can picture the view beyond it), we now have plastered walls and a proper floor.

New room emerging with a fine view of scaffolding
But – en suite doesn’t really mean a bath in a bedroom, does it?
There’s a bath too. I like to think it’s not in the right place – I don’t think ‘en suite’ means actually in the bedroom. Some time they’ll no doubt move it into the little kind of cubile they’ve fashioned next to bedroom – yes, it’s going to be more en-cubicle than en suite, but there’s no room for a real suite under our roof.

It’s all happening, though, isn’t it? The end of the vagrancy beckons. To be capped by a place I’m keener and keener to get back to…

The end is in sight.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Catalonia: an appeal for peace with simple words to say it

It was good to see Catalans, or at any rate a great many people both Catalan and non-Catalan, demonstrating on behalf of dialogue in Catalonia this weekend. Thats to get out of the crisis brought on by demands from the Catalan government for the independence of their region. The marchers wore white, the colour of no party but of peace, they carried no national flags, and they had only one demand: let’s talk. Hablamos in Spanish. Parlem in Catalan.

Marching for peace and dialogue in Barcelona
The absence of flags was a good move. Flags stand for nations and nations stand for far more than just the good. You can point with pride to a Dalí or a world-cup winning football team? Just remember that you also have to take on board the persecution of Jews and Muslims and nearly four decades of Fascism.

Instead they sought communication. “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war,” Winston Churchill said, and the words ring particularly true at a time when the Catalan leadership has pushed its case to the brink of conflict, and the Spanish government has stepped right over the line into violence which, if it wasn’t lethal in its police action against a referendum on independence deemed illegal, was nonetheless brutal.

So “let’s talk” sounds like an eminently sensible response. Watching people demanding it was heart-warming. It left me feeling hopeful for once, as few political developments do.

Though I have to admit it wasn’t just the sentiment that touched me. The words themselves struck me. They awoke memories from decades ago, memories of an amusing discovery during my student days.

It may seem odd that of the two great languages of antiquity in Europe, Greek and Latin, only the former is still spoken. There is apparently no “modern Latin” as there is a “modern Greek”. That is, however, only an appearance. The only reason there’s no modern Latin is that there are, in fact, multiple modern Latins.

Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, even French are all in fact the descendants of the language spoken across the Roman Empire at its height, altered by the successive waves of incomers that have affected some regions far more than others. French, for instance, has come a long way from the original language, heavily influenced by the Germanic speech of the invaders from across the Rhine – Burgundians, Goths, and of course the Franks, who gave the country its modern name.

The Latin from which those languages developed, however, wasn’t the elevated language spoken from the Senate. “Latin’s a dead language, as dead as dead can be,” goes the schoolboy doggerel, “it killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me.” Even those ancient Romans realised it was far too complex a language. Pliny the Elder admitted he spoke a different language in the market than in the Senate.

The language of the marketplace was, above all, far simpler. For instance, the word for ‘to talk’, loqui (think of ‘loquacious’ or ‘eloquent’), is particularly painful. Its form is called ‘deponent’ so it looks passive when it’s actually active (so a classical Latin scholar would say ‘I have been talked’ when what he meant was ‘I have talked’).

The more sensible kind of people who would sell you a water melon or repair a broken shoe don’t speak that way. So they looked around for different words to us.

Two are particularly simple. To tell a parable – ‘parabulare’ – and to tell a fable – ‘fabulare’ – are nice, easy, first conjugation verbs that are entirely regular and therefore behave predictably. The common people chose one or other of those two to mean “to speak’ in preference to loqui

The Italians, the French and the Catalans chose ‘parabulare’, shortened to ‘parlare’ (the word in Italian), giving the Catalan ‘parlem’.

The main branch of the language in the rest of Spain chose ‘fabulare’. The Spanish have a way of replacing the initial ‘f’ by an ‘h’ – smoke, for instance, which is ‘fumo’ in Italian is ‘humo’ in Spanish. The Spanish for ‘to speak’ morphed into ‘hablar’ and hence ‘hablamos’.

The marchers in white were therefore demanding that the two parties tell some fables or some parables to each other. What they meant was that they should speak. Any of those would be great.

Isn’t it great that they chose to say it with a particularly easy word – not a derivative of the ghastly Latin ‘loqui’?

In the end, chatting to each other instead of fighting isn’t all that difficult. It just takes a simple word. And a bit of goodwill.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Spoil the child - and get an adult you don't want at the top

When a young person commits a crime, we’re often told about the way he – it usually is a he – was moulded by his upbringing into the criminal he became. The parenting was too harsh, or too lenient, or too neglectful or simply too lacklustre. It was inevitable that a child brought up this way would turn into an adult who went off the rails.

Think of this upbringing.

You are born into a household of considerable wealth and a globalised lifestyle – indeed, though British and born of British parents, you enter the world in New York. You attend arguably the most prestigious school in Britain, Eton College. Attending the school costs £32,000 a year, a third more than the median earning level in Britain of under £24,000 – for a household of two people.

Let’s get this clear: half of parents in Britian are on less than a level of income which, if they paid no tax, and avoided spending on luxuries such as food, drink or a roof to shelter under, they’d still be £8000 short of the cost of a year at Eton.

I confess that I attended a down-market version of the same kind of school. The teachers keep telling the kids that they need to remember how privileged they are. The ostensible aim is to teach the kids some humility; the reality is that it just teaches them that they’re special, that they deserve colossal sums of money to be spent on them.

In other words, kids who go through this kind of education are taught to believe themselves entitled to special treatment.

Now let’s return to our hero. After Eton, he went to Oxford university, where he became a member of the Bullingdon Club. This is one of Britain’s fine traditional institutions. Its members are Oxford students from the richest families. Even the club uniform costs around £3500 – nearly a sixth of median income.

The most charming characteristic of the club is the way it entertains itself. The members like to book whole restaurants, spend an evening eating and drinking to excess, and then trashing the place. The next day, someone’s Daddy pops around with a chequebook and covers the cost of the damage.

Boys will be boys, won’t they? And who wants to spoil a good evening? Aren’t those of us who might regard this behaviour as anti-social and even criminal just puritan wet blankets?

The Bullingdon Club just underlines the message about entitlement. It says that such young sprigs can do what they like, with impunity. They’re taught that whatever they want, they can take, and no one will ever hold them responsible for the consequences of what they do to get there.

Our hero is, of course, Boris Johnson. Now not everything in his life went smoothly. He was fired from the Times newspaper for falsifying a quotation. That must have come as a terrible surprise: he had been held accountable for an action of his.

BoJo: trained to believe in his entitlement
And he likes to be seen as a lovable buffoon
It didn’t hold him back much, though. After all, he is now Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom. However, what he isn’t is Prime Minister, and he wants to be. What do you do when you’re denied something you want and have been told throughout your life that what you want, you can have?

Over the last few weeks, he’s infuriated members of his own, Conservative, party by constantly making statements pushing a line on Brexit different from his party leader’s. And that party leader, Theresa May, is the Prime Minister.

Clearly, he has been positioning himself for a potential leadership bid against her.

The effect has been to give publicity to Tory divisions, shake the authority of the party and weaken its chances against a resurgent Labour opposition. This has so irritated Johnson’s colleagues that it has even got through to him at last. He knows he needs his colleagues if he’s ever to achieve his ambition of winning the leadership, and if his constant manoeuvring to win the leadership puts them off, it’ll be counter-productive. So he’s gone so far as to appeal to Tory MPs to rally behind Theresa May and against Labour, even though no one was doing more to damage that position than he was himself.

None of that gives me any distress. The Tories divided? The Tory image undermined? The Tory grip on power shaken? Couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch, I say.

As for BoJo himself, I suppose one has to feel a little sympathy for a man so spoiled by his unfortunate childhood and young adulthood.

On the other hand, the idea that BoJo might get anywhere near Downing Street turns my blood cold. If we have to put up with a Tory government, that’s bad enough. But that champion of entitlement, of privilege, of belief in his own impunity heading it?

An appalling prospect...

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Catalonia: another simple solution sure to fail

In the early part of last century, the American commentator HL Mencken pointed out, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong”.

In Spain, elements in the troubled region of Catalonia have felt for a long time that they would be better off outside the Spanish state.

I say ‘elements’ because a great many Catalans are far from convinced that this is the right solution for their region – even if it is, in fact, a nation. Many on the left, for instance, are concerned by a separatist movement they see as xenophobic and conservative; many in the centre of the political spectrum see themselves as Spanish as well as Catalan, feel there’s no contradiction between the two and believe Catalonia would enjoy a more secure future linked with the other Spanish regions than on its own.

So which side commands a majority of Catalan opinion?

Opinion polls are only worth so much, as we have learned to our cost in numerous elections around the world. Even so, they’re about the only indication we have of where an electorate’s view stands, outside an actual election. The Centre d'Estudis d'Opinió (Centre of Opinion Studies) is a body that is run by the Catalan regional government, so one wouldn’t expect it to be biased against the views of that government, and yet even it has found a majority against independence in every poll bar one since late 2014, and in three of the last four, including both polls carried out in 2017.

The regional government is currently held by nationalists. They have decided that they wanted a referendum on independence in the hope that it would endorse their separatist views. In response, the central government in Madrid made it clear that it regarded such a referendum as illegal and ordered the Catalan government not to hold it.

Let’s pause a moment at this point.

Here’s one approach the Madrid government could have taken. It could have announced that it would not regard any referendum result from Catalonia as binding. That would have laid down that in no circumstances would a vote for independence have had any effect on the central government or lead to any change in the law concerning Catalonia.

The referendum could have gone ahead. If the opinion polls had proved accurate, the result would have been a rejection of independence, massively discrediting the separatist movement. The regional government might have fallen; the question of independence would have been off the table for many years to come.

Had the referendum delivered a vote for independence, the Spanish government would simply have confirmed that it was non-binding. They would have faced a reinvigorated separatist movement but, having made their own position powerfully clear beforehand, they would have had a strong, pre-declared position from which to build a new view of the Catalan situation resulting from the vote.

That’s a complicated solution to a difficult problem. It leaves many issues undecided, requiring the government to come up with solutions later, pragmatically, in the light of circumstances. Instead, Spain decided that it wanted a well-known, neat and plausible solution.

So it opted for repression. It sent in the police. On the day of the referendum, they were shown battling with protestors in the streets, inflicting some serious injuries. The optics, as marketing people call them, were terrible: here were Spanish police, acting on orders of the Spanish government, using often violent power to prevent people voting.

When you’re acting in the name of democracy, that’s a pretty lousy image.
Unarmed civilians in fear of the police
Not a great advert for democracy
Governments seem to like resorting to the use of force. It can be domestic, as in Catalonia, or foreign, as in Iraq, Libya or Syria. It’s always a simple solution, easy to reach for, close to hand. And it usually ends in tears, as it did in Iraq, Libya or Syria.

In Catalonia, the bloodshed on the streets will have only one effect. It will unify and galvanise the opposition to Madrid. Those who opposed Catalan independence before, will come under increased pressure to change their view. If they refuse, they will be accused of treachery, of betraying the sacrifice of the dozens who suffered injury from police violence, all in the name of Catalan freedom. Some at least who opposed separatism, will change sides and back it.

Blood shed in Catalonia:
shameful behaviour to would-be voters, a boon to the separatists
In other words, from the point of view of the Madrid government, the situation will be as would have followed a referendum result backing independence. Or, rather, far worse: whatever the result, the separatists will claim they have been cheated and will draw additional strength from the powerful emotional cohesion that the spilling of blood gives to a cause.

The Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy chose a solution, police repression, that was well-known, neat and plausible.

And, as Mencken could have told him, wrong.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

On exercise. And on exercising our rights

Sarah Boseley, a fine Guardian journalist, recently shared an invaluable insight on the subject of the best way to protect health through exercise:

Incorporating physical activity into our everyday lives, from taking the stairs to holding “walkaround” meetings in the office, is more likely to protect us from heart disease and an early death than buying a gym membership, according to the author of a major new global study.

A sentiment that needed voicing.

I’ve often been struck by the number of people who apparently feel that buying a gym membership was sufficient to guarantee them good health. Actually using the membership? Three or four times in the first month, maybe. A couple in the next. But in the long term? Life’s too short, even when prolonged by exercise. It’s like War and Peace, isn’t it? How many people have bought the book and how many fewer have read it? How many holders of gym memberships go so far as to use them?

A long Russian novel and a passport to strenuous exercise
More honoured in the purchase than the use?
Still, it was good to read that walking around and using stairs is helpful. It was a relief, to tell the truth. Following my purchase of a fitbit last month, I’m still living under its tyranny. When it tells me to get up and walk a bit, or to do a few more steps to reach my daily goal, I find it hard to tell it to get lost and remember it’s only a bracelet and not my master. Of course, it would only provoke a wry smile, in me and perhaps in it too, if I did say anything like that – somewhere deep in whatever passes for a soul in a purely electronic device, it knows it’s my master.

So it’s a comfort to have it confirmed that what it’s making me do might help improve my health.

On the other hand, it’s always intriguing to see the message it sends me, from time to time, announcing that it has decided to “sync” with my phone. That gives me something of a syncing feeling, but not for what it's doing to my phone so much as for what it's doing to my language. 

That’s a fine verb, sync. An alternative, I assume, to swym, which wouldn't be appropriate for so notoriously a non-waterproof device as a fitbit. But what, I wonder, does the verb use as a past form? I feel it ought to be “sunc”. But that might lead to confusion: “I’ve sunc my fitbit” sounds like a cruel way to treat a device that dislikes water. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what I should do. Sinking the odious thing might be a blow for freedom, an insurgent act against unbearable tyranny. Perhaps under the slogan “Couch potatoes of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your fitbits". 

Chuck it in a swimming pool and escape its thrall? It might not be a bad move.

I could always buy a gym membership instead.

Friday, 22 September 2017

The transient's diary, weeks 4 and 5

It seems like we hit the trough at the end of week 4.

It was already getting a bit tedious, this transient existence. Danielle and I were both feeling how pleasant it would be to be able to move home. Not Toffee and Luci, the dogs, of course. We brought our sofa with us, so with their favourite resting place, plenty to eat, and plenty of walks, they had nothing to complain about.

We, on the other hand, were running out of patience. There’s nothing wrong about our rented appointment. Well, nothing except that the pipes start moaning from time to time, for no good reason, when we’ve had the temerity to run some hot water. Nothing I can do seems to stop it – eventually it dies down like the moaning of a banished spirit – so I’ve been reduced to muttering, “oh, do shut up, you ghastly bit of plumbing”. 

Ineffective, you think? No more than anything else we’ve tried.

Still, even without that, we’d want to get home. Home’s home, after all, the place where we feel we belong. Small and modest it may be but, hey, I’m small and modest myself. Well, small anyway.

However much we miss being away, Misty, our cat, is even more fed up. Each time we show up at the old place, where we’ve left him – it seemed more humane than imposing a cat flap-less existence on him – he rebukes us loudly. I mean, he’s happy to devour the food we give him, but he makes it clear he resents our failure to remain in our home. Which is also his home.

Scarcely inhabitable
Still, at the end of week 4, the place really wouldn’t have been possible to live there. Or, if possible, certainly not desirable. Hey, the kitchen gave straight onto the garden, without so much as a door between it and the elements. And, until blocked by a sheet of plywood at night, in a gesture to security, the sitting room-as-was gave straight on the kitchen, so had the sofa been in its accustomed place, it would have been for all practical purposes, in the garden. Or at least, in an annex to it.

That was the trough though.

By the end of week 5, the change was spectacular. Why, the wall-less hole at the end of the kitchen had turned into a real wall, with a real door, and a real cat flap (well, the hole for the cat flap was there. The flat itself will come later).

A new door to lock out the garden
A broom as a sign of optimism
A massive cat flap in preparation
And upstairs, in what will in time be our bedroom, we had – a window! With a view, what is more. Or at least, there was a view until they covered the whole thing (leaks, you know: a temporary measure until they’re fixed).

The beginnings of a view
Still, it’s a huge step in the right direction.

Even so, that was the end of week 5. We’re approaching the end of week 6 now. And we were already getting fed up in week 4.

There’s no joy in vagrancy.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The funny thing about Trump and Brexit

As a student, I had the pleasure of attending the legendary London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s at a time when Ronnie Scott himself was still around to do his act during an interval in the music. One of the lines that has stuck in my mind was his dead pan reassurance to us all that, while we might not be the best audience in the world, we were certainly the worst.

There’s something about the Trump presidency that brings that back to mind. Whatever else he’s done, and to be honest he’s done precious little, he’s assured himself a place in the history books. Or at least, he will if there are still history books being written, and Trump doesn’t contrive to end civilisation (such as it is) in a conflagration followed by a nuclear winter triggered by his inability to find a peaceful way out of his confrontation with North Korea.

What is particularly outstanding about his presidency so far is that he’s clearly uncertain which party he belongs to. The leadership of the Republican Party was never happy with his candidacy, and aren’t particularly enamoured of his performance since entering the White House either. But just recently he seems, in his confusion, to have started to think he was a Democrat. Certainly, twice in two weeks he’s come to something like a deal with the Democratic leadership in Congress – Chuck Schumer, minority leader of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, his opposite number in the House of Representatives.

Err... that's the Democratic leadership
You're supposed to be a Republican, Donald
Except that perhaps he hasn’t. That’s how exciting the Trump presidency’s proving. His tweets seemed to suggest at first that he hadn’t made a deal on steps concerning unauthorised immigrants who were brought to the US as children, later that he add. So who knows? Did he or didn’t he? We may discover in time.

The one thing certain is that he had Pelosi and Shumer around and not Paul Ryan from the House or Mitch McConnell from the Senate, the actual majority leaders, from the Republican party he ostensible represents. But does he really? See what I mean about exciting?

He may be suffering from a little confusion too. Making a deal with the minority party in Congress may sound like smart work, but that word “minority” isn’t without significance. To get things through Congress and into law requires a majority. For something to happen, it isn’t enough for Trump to decide that it should, even if he gets agreement from congenial company around honey sesame crispy beef.

The people you really have to sympathise with in all this chaos are the left-behind voters, mostly poor, who backed Trump as a way out of their desperate misfortune as well as a means of kicking the establishment that was letting them down. Whatever they were hoping for, Trump hasn’t provided it. If he’s now reaching out to the Democrats, then he’s working with the people who most excited their wrath.

Something similar is happening in Britain, where the government is in chaos over Brexit. As realisation grows of the damage likely to be inflicted on the economy by leaving the European Union, ministers are beginning to look for ways to soften the blow. Why, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (our Finance Minister) is even talking about a transitional period which would be indistinguishable from the status quo.

Now that’s not an approach likely to attract the many leave voters who chose Brexit, like Trump supporters, to give the establishment a kicking. They’ve found a spokesman in the form of Boris Johnson, a man whose main claim to celebrity has been principally based on an assiduously cultivated image as a buffoon. He is, however, currently moonlighting as Foreign Secretary. That’s an office to which he has brought the special gift of his buffoonery, to the amusement and sometimes anxiety of his opposite numbers in other countries.

To the surprise of his cabinet colleagues, he has chosen to sing the praises of Britain outside the EU, and the glorious future that awaits it. Why, he even repeated the claim, made during the referendum campaign, that Brexit would free up £350m a week that could be spent on the NHS. That particular piece of propaganda has been entirely discredited since, but that didn’t stop Johnson repeating it. Using it not just as part of his pro-Brexit campaign, but in support of the much important one that he hopes will take him to the Conservative leadership and number 10 in replacement of Theresa May. 

Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK statistics authority, denounced the claim as "a clear misuse of official statistics".

We, like the Americans, seem to be living in a looking-glass world in which principle, consistency and certainly the truth, count for little. Britain and American seem to have reached a similar state, in response to the same frustration of the left-behind. But if Trump and Brexit have much in common, there is one big difference.

Americans need only wait until 2020 to get rid of Trump.

Britain will need a generation to realise what a mess it has made by leaving the EU and applying to join again.

Though, of course, if Trump manages to handle matters with North Korea as badly as he has so far, none of that may matter very much.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Austerity in the GP surgery


We – my wife and I together – joined our current GP practice because the service was simply so much better than any other we’d known.

The practice is associated with a walk-in centre, which itself provided great support for patients: anyone needing care immediately but not urgently – in other words, patients who were sick or in pain but not obviously suffering from anything potentially life-threatening – could attend the centre and be seen, seven days a week, from early morning into the evening.

A generous service. But not one it pays to cut
That’s a relatively expensive service to provide. There is at large today, throughout the Western world, a view that such expense should be cut back wherever possible. I wrote the other day that it’s often in the little things that we see austerity economics at work, and our GP practice is no exception.

Today, Saturday, I tried to renew a prescription on-line. That didn’t work. I could log in to the system but the buttons thoughtfully provided to select a medication to renew simply didn’t react if I clicked on them (and, before I’m challenged as a computer illiterate, let me assure you that I tried on two machines, using tree different browsers between them).

I then phoned the surgery but was told that, while the walk-in centre was open, the surgery itself was not. Could I ring in again on Monday?

“Yes,” my wife told me, “we’ve had a couple of letters. Funding’s been reduced so that they can’t stay open at weekends any longer.”

Once more, I felt the glacial fingers of austerity gripping my innards.

If the GP practice is facing cutbacks, the walk-in centre won’t be far behind.

While the service it provides seems generous, it’s only those with the narrowest of account-book outlooks, entirely focused on the short term – in other words, Conservatives – who can persuade themselves that such a cutback makes sense. It’s true that shutting down a walk-in centre would save a lot more money than shutting any other kind of practice but, unfortunately, the patients who use it won’t go away. They still feel ill or in pain, so if they can’t find care from a GP, they’ll go to the emergency department of the local hospital instead.

An emergency department is far more expensively equipped than any GP surgery. I’m not just talking about physical equipment, much of which is indeed costly: for instance, devices to provide a view of what’s happening inside a human body, whether by ultrasound, radiology, or some of the more powerful and sophisticated techniques now available such as CT or MRI scanning. However, even that fades into insignificance compared to cost of staff: medical and nursing staff on a wide hierarchical range, professional support such as pharmacists and various types of therapists, and even administrative staff.

The result is that while it may cost £50 to see a GP, it can cost £124 on average to attend an emergency department.

Cutting back on GP care is, therefore, a false economy.

There’s nothing unusual in that consequence of Conservative healthcare policy. All over England, hospitals are spending a fortune on agency or bank staff (“bank” is in effect overtime: existing staff doing additional hours on a far more expensive, hourly-paid basis). Why are they spending so much? Because they’re being denied the funds to take on more permanent staff, though that would be cheaper.

Of course, the false economy of shutting the walk-in centre would turn into a real one, if the patients denied treatment were unable to attend an emergency department instead. But for that to happen, our local hospital would have to close, or be replaced by a private one which only treated patients who could pay the full, economic cost of the care it provided.

I suspect a lot of people at the top of the Conservative Party would be perfectly easy about that happening.

However, I wonder if all their voters, further down the income range, would agree with them…

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Reminders of the shame of austerity Britain

Often, it’s the little things that mark you…

There is, near where we live in Luton, a rather attractive open space known as Stopsley Common. In the middle are wide open spaces, including three cricket fields and a dozen or more football pitches, as well as areas simply left open for walking. Around the edge are hills and wooded areas crossed by well-maintained paths.

Luci and Toffee enjoying Stopsley Common
It’s a place frequented by cricketers, footballers, dog walkers, joggers or just people out for a quiet stroll. It is an invaluable resource to be enjoyed by all, a reminder that community matters too, and not just the capacity of small numbers of individuals to makes themselves rich.

Sadly, however, it’s also an area much favoured by joy-riding bikers, the kind that like to race their motorbikes or quads, without registration plates, across the grass, churning it up and endangering lives including their own – the obligation to wear helmets is one of many they ignore.

Many of these people seem to be what one might call sedentary travellers. In other words, they belong to that community of people we think of as travellers, in the sense that they wander around the country in caravans (often, it has to be said, drawn by large BMWs or Mercedes) and only stop for short periods in any one place.

However, a group seems to have set up permanent home in Stopsley. Occasionally, they alert their more peripatetic brethren of the fact that a gate has been left open, or blocks of cement designed to prevent access to certain places, are more mobile than their designers imagined, and we discover a few days later that a favourite place has been invaded once more.

I use the word “invaded” advisedly. When these travellers move into a place, they don’t simply inhabit it for a few days before moving on, which I would strongly favour tolerating. Although they use highly sophisticated caravans, they seem not to like the toilets most of them contain, or perhaps they don’t like dealing with the waste. So they tend to use the area around where they park as an open toilet, making it generally less attractive as a place to wander in.

At least that involves substances which are biodegradable. Far more unpleasant still is one of the ways they have chosen to earn a living. They contract with unscrupulous builders to collect waste from construction sites, which they then dump, at no doubt highly competitive prices, anywhere they choose – including those same places, that others value for their beauty and their amenities. Our Council is starved of cash, so it can take many weeks before these materials are cleared away.

No way through
Dumped construction site waste blocking a path on Stopsley Common
”But,” you will no doubt exclaim, “such behaviour is surely illegal!” And it is. But the law can only be enforced if there are people to enforce it. I’ve already said that the Council is strapped for cash; so is our police force. It has the resources to chase major crime, to track down murder or terrorism. But what merely lessens quality of life or inconveniences the public, is beyond their resources. So no action is taken over the dangerous quad bikes or the dumping of rubble in a public park.

In 2010, David Cameron assured the British electorate that “… we have a moral obligation to stop running up bills that will have to be paid by future generations.”

He won the election that year and he and his successor, Theresa May, have had the opportunity to honour that moral obligation. The result? National debt has grown from a trillion pounds to approaching two trillion.

What has been the result of their austerity programme? Nurses are 14% worse off than they would otherwise have been. It seems that the poorest people in society are to lose on average a further £50 a week of income by 2020 or around £2500 a year. To put that in context, median income in Britain is around £25,000 a year. By definition, half the population is below that level; the forthcoming cuts will disproportionately hit such people.

Belatedly, the government has realised that its approach is failing. It has decided to start moving away from its pay cap for public servants. As usual, however, it is doing so in too mean a way – police are to have an increase of 2% instead of 1%, in other words a rise that is  paltry as opposed to derisory – and as divisively as possible: most public sector workers, including nurses, will have to suffer at least another year of the 1% limit.

Austerity has caused pain, but there has been no gain on the debt front. On the contrary, things have got worse. And life has been impoverished in myriad ways.

For me, it’s the spoiling of Stopsley Common. That is a fitting tribute to seven and a half years of Conservative austerity rule. But I don’t deny it’s only the monument: the real thing is the terrible suffering being inflicted on people already poor enough.Still, at least the state of many part of Stopsley Common reminds me of the sheer ghastliness of Tory rule each time I take the dogs out there.

Reminders are what the British electorate apparently most needs.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

fitbit fatigue in Brexit Britain

It’s been a tiring week.

The principal reason is that I was training two new colleagues. In the long run, that’ll be great, because one of them will be taking over my old job, so I can focus on my new one. In the short term, it means that I’m still doing two jobs with training thrown in on top.

What made things worse was that a third colleague couldn’t join us because of problems with work permits and visas. They’ve been solved now, or nearly, but that’s too late. Trying to organise remote training as well as delivering training locally just added another dimension to the workload.

Still, I suppose that this kind of thing is good practice for me, at least for as long as I stay in Britain. Once the xenophobes have successfully raised the Brexit walls to cower behind, getting anyone into the country will become a new bureaucratic nightmare. The problems I had this week are just the template for things to come.

I began to realise just how tired I was getting when it dawned on me that for two days in succession, Id shaved with hand cream instead of shaving cream. The razor blade glides quite well through it, but I have to say, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to foaming.

The fatigue all came to a head on Friday evening, when I got home after walking up the hill from the station. Why did I walk? I’ve succumbed to fitbit tyranny. How many steps have I taken? How many now? How many in the week? It’s appalling. I can’t get away from it. The thing buzzes at me if I haven’t done 250 steps in an hour and I leap up, as though stung or scalded, and scamper up and down a corridor, if I can’t find the time to walk around the block.

Oddly, once I was home, I felt like taking the dogs out, despite my tiredness. That was when the fitbit madness took over once more. It had once sent me a message congratulating me on doing 20,000 steps. 

You may ask, why would anyone care? It’s an electronic device, for God’s sake. A bracelet. Can it possibly matter to me that to have its approbation?

Night falls as we wander through the park in the grip of the fitbit fit
It seems it does matter to me. I set out to achieve the same high goal. That meant that I ploughed on through gathering darkness (depressing how short the days are becoming) to say nothing of the ever heavier rainfall, until even the dogs were looking at me as though I were mad. Something in their eyes, when I could see them in the bleary light of the occasional street lamp, told me that they would feel nothing but pity for me if the cold and wet hadn’t made them use up all their compassion feeling sorry for themselves.

In my defence, there was a restorative aspect to my labours. When I’d climbed into my car to drive the dogs to the park, I’d noticed that some kind fellow – perhaps resenting my presence in his street (we’re in temporary accommodation as builders wreak havoc in our house)  had bent one of my wing mirrors back as far as it would go, apparently breaking it in the process.

This seemed rude. My car is one of those polite ones that tucks its wing mirrors in when you lock it, so there was no call for forcing the mirror back like that. Try as I might, I couldn’t adjust it to make it useful, prompting a sense of depression in me made all the deeper by the tiredness.

The first place I went to was our (real, permanent) house. Our cat, Misty, is the only member of the household still living there (we felt a flat without a cat flap was too much to inflict on him). But Danielle hadn’t seen him when she went around earlier.

Sadly, he didn’t come to my call either (usually the call of “Misty, Misty, Misty, pss, pss, pss” is immediately followed by the loud impact of paws on ground – he’s no small cat – a lot of mewing and a rush of fur to our side to be stroked).

That meant starting the walk with a wing mirror damaged and, far more worryingly, a member of the family missing.

Then, when the sun finally set, we ran into a large dog coming down the path. Luci, the nervous one – our black toy poodle – vanished at once. And, blow me down, as I was looking for her, Toffee – the orange toy poodle – who isn’t nervous at all, vanished in another direction, surely attracted by some interesting smell.

Imagine my state of despair.

My car had been vandalised.

My cat had vanished.

And now both dogs had gone.

Fortunately, this was the low point. Soon, both dogs reappeared, from different directions. Back at the car, I fiddled again with the wing mirror, until it suddenly gave a satisfying click and started to work again. And, back at the house, calling Misty in the sodden night, I was delighted to hear an answering patter of paws (that’s “patter” at something close to the stamp level) followed by plaintive mewing.

Relief: the wanderer returns
What’s more, I got my 20,000 steps done.

The only fly in the ointment: I haven’t yet had a message from fitbit congratulating me on the feat.

Or, since we’re talking about steps, should that be feet?

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The transients' diary: week 3

Every day, I assure myself that the destruction has gone as far as it needs in our house, and now the process of construction can go steadily forward with no more backtracking or regression.

Then I find that something else has gone down. Or been torn up. Or ripped off.
What? What? Where's my roof? Or even my floor?
That’s not to say that there’s been no progress. There has. Things have been built in amongst the continuing demolition. It’s just that the demolition still, for the moment, seems to be outpacing the building.

Ah well, that’ll change. I know that can’t be wrong. 

Can it?

Three weeks gone now. It can’t be more than five to go – as we’ve said before, these projects complete to schedule. 

Don’t they?

In making progress, it’s curious how simple some decisions, how complex others. Not, generally, the way you might expect them to be. I’m reminded of one of the more colourful characters in Shaw’s play, You Never Can Tell, the barrister Bohun:

”… there will be no difficulty about the important questions,” he assures the other characters. “There never is. It is the trifles that will wreck you at the harbour mouth.”

So it proved this very day. A decision about putting in a new water main, ripping up more of the floor to do it? No problem. Investing more money in making sure the water gets to the different places we need it, at sufficient pressure? A few minutes discussion led to a decision to go ahead. Changing our intentions over accessories and units to make the most of that water? Easy.

No, what took the time – an hour and a half of it – was selecting a new cat flap to go in the kitchen. I pick my words with care because he gets terribly upset at any hint that he might be a little larger than he should be, so let me just say that no one would suspect him of anorexia ever. At one point, he managed to rip a cat flap right out of a door.

Well, that door’s going in the new arrangements. So, we need a new cat flap – actually, a small dog flap, as Luci and Toffee have to use it too. This one will not be in a door at all (why cut a hole in a brand new, double-glazed door?) but in the wall next to the far better door with which we’re replacing the old one. Though the construction work is going to increase the room available to us in the house a bit, space will still be at a premium. It isn’t easy to pick a cat flap that will take up a sufficiently small proportion of the wall space we can play with, but still be – again I pick my words judiciously – large enough to accommodate a cat of respectable girth.

It took me an hour and a half to solve that conundrum. To be honest, I’m still not sure the solution will work. We won’t know until the new cat flap turns up and the contractor can compare it with the space available.

As for Misty himself, he seems to be doing reasonably well. We still pop round to see him at least once a day. He’s always pleased to see us, trotting over to be stroked and mewing in loud appreciation as we go over to his shed with a packet of food to refill his bowl.

What most pleased me, though, was to find him inside the house the other day, among the building workers. We thought he was keeping well away from these strangers. But one of them explained to me that he’s taken to stroking Misty when he shows up and making sure he has access to his dry food.

So Misty has a friend and the purgatory that the project implies may have been lightened a little for him.

Good for Misty. I’m looking forward to moving back in and seeing him settle once more into his home. And, of course, use his new cat flap, making all my effort and heart ache entirely worthwhile – as I’m sure he will.

Won’t he?

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The joy that is Luton airport

Have you ever flown into or out of “London Luton” airport?

Ah, the joy of travelling through “London Luton” airport
The quotation marks are there because no one who lives in Luton, as I do, or even just knows it, would see it as in any way part of London. The airport is about 54 km from the centre of the capital, which is just over twice the distance of, say, Heathrow. I suppose turning Luton airport into London Luton is slightly less fraudulent than the name of Frankfurt Hahn, which is some 120 km from Frankfurt, but only marginally.

As with its name, so with Luton airport’s character. When we first moved to the town, in 2010, the drop-off area at the airport was free to use – as it is in many far bigger airports. Then a 50p charge was introduced. Today it’s £3, a 600% increase. That covers you for ten minutes, and you may not leave your car even if you’re back within the time – as I discovered when I saw a wheelchair user into the terminal only to find the car about to be towed when I got back.

Naturally, you can leave your car, after parking it at the airport, but only in a different area and at a minimum charge of £7, for up to 40 minutes.

Still, at least this experience sets the tone appropriately for the experience one enjoys once into the terminal.

You can enjoy peace and comfort inside the departure zone, in a pleasant area with comfortable seating, free snacks and drinks. That, however, is only if you’ve coughed up £29 to get into the executive lounge. You’re not prepared to pay that? Then jostle with the throngs outside – the place is never calm – and queue while you wait for someone to leave their seat. Cafes seem to make a dismal habit of closing and one of the few that has opened recently started out badly: when we tried to have breakfast there, we found they had no milk and several items missing from their breakfast menu. I’m sure that was a teething problem, but it certainly rather shook my confidence and I haven’t been back.

Poor service and rip-off prices? Yep. London Luton airport wins all the prizes.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because it seems that consumer magazine Which? has officially declared Luton the hellhole of British airports, the veritable pits, the worst of the lot. It has completed a survey of users which gave Luton the lowest marks of all UK airports, with an overall rating of just 29%. Thats the lowest ever score since Which? started doing the survey. It’s also the fifth year in a row the airport has come last.

At least it’s a relief to know that others share my view: Luton airport really is a particularly ghastly place to have to use for travel.

Still, passengers keep coming. As another Guardian article points out, despite the terrible customer responses, numbers are up, with 1.6 million users in July, a 6.2% increase on the same month last year. Even I find it hard to avoid completely: it’s on my doorstep, whereas Gatwick or Heathrow mean adding an hour and a half to the trip and paying scheduled airline fares. However, whenever I can, I use one of those airports or, even better, travel by train: that is the luxury form of travel these days.

It’s true that Luton is struggling with a development programme that still isn’t complete. Maybe things will be better once it is. Although, perhaps only for an additional charge, with anyone not prepared to pay extra stuck with the old service.

After all, what can you expect of an organisation which names itself after a city it takes the best part of an hour to drive to?