Monday, 29 May 2017

Luci's diary: human number 3 and the nice things she brings to play with

The humans went away! Both number 1 and number 2. For ages and ages. It got light and dark again lots of times while they were gone. More than my number of paws, anyway, and I’ve got lots of paws.

Still, it wasn’t all bad. Whenever they go away, we get human number 3 staying with us instead. She’s brilliant. She has all these things that she likes to do things with. Pencils – beautifully crunchy. Bits of knitting – beautifully chewy. Even purses – beautifully portable.

Playing with them is such fun. So I take them to my little house where I can keep them safe and come back to play with them a bit more later. Once theyre in that house, no one can see them. But I don’t know what it is about human number 3, because she finds them each time anyway. Maybe she can smell them, which is odd, because generally humans don’t seem to have any sense of smell to speak of at all.

I really like my little house
It’s a great place to keep things
Actually, she wasn’t that good when it came to the purse. 

It was all a bit odd. First she did all the things she does when she’s going out. Then she went and stood by the couch. Then she bent down and felt around on the surface a bit, even behind the cushions and down the cracks. As she kept looking, I could feel all these waves of disappointment coming from her. And then something else, something more like anxiety.

So I went over and stood by her. She seemed to need a bit of comfort, and I know I’m good at that. I wagged my tail and tried to look helpful.

“Oh, hello, Toffee,” she said, bending down to pat me absent-mindedly. “Do you know where I left my purse? I thought it was on the couch, but I can’t see it.”

I wagged my tail because of course I knew where she’d left it, but she didn’t get the message. Instead she wandered over to the dining table.

“No, not here. Did I leave it in the kitchen?”

It wasn’t there any more than it was in the bathroom, on the mantelpieces, on the bookshelves, or anywhere upstairs either. I was trailing around after her to see if I could help at all, and in the hope that she’d hand out some more stroking, but all I got was an occasional tap on the head and some running commentary.

“Oh, dear, what have I done? Where on earth could I have left it? Sometimes I can be so absent-minded.”

I’ll say. A little tap behind the ears? Call that stroking?

Luci had joined us by then and was following us looking as bemused as the human.

“What’s she doing?” Luci asked.

“Looking for her purse. She thinks she left in on the couch and when she went back, it wasn’t there any more.”

“Ah,” said Luci, “but it was once, wasn’t it?”

I felt my stomach sinking a bit. I mean, I’ve been in trouble before, and the way Luci’s voice sounded made me feel I might be again. Still, it wasn’t worth trying to deny it.

“Yes,” I said in a small voice.

“And has she looked in your little house yet?”

“No,” I said in an even smaller voice.

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the human, “I don’t understand it. Where can my purse be?”

She turned towards me, a bit distraught.

“Do you know, Toffee? Do you know where my purse is?” 

And then she went all quiet for a bit, giving me one of those serious looks that lasts too long. I could see how an idea was beginning to form in her mind. “Perhaps you do know,” she said eventually and shot downstairs to look in my house.

She stood up holding the purse and sounding strained.

“Oh, Toffee. You can be so naughty sometimes.”

“So bloody silly, if you ask me,” said Luci. “I mean, human number 3’s nice to us. Why would you do that to her?”

“Silly?” I said, “it seems a good place to keep things if you want to play with them later. Sensible, actually, not silly at all. I don’t know why she wasn’t sensible enough to think of looking there.”

Ah, well. It would have been fun playing with that purse a bit more. But I mustn’t begrudge human number 3 her little pleasures, and she did seem happy to find the purse again. After all, like Luci says, she is very nice to us.

We had a good time with her while she was here. And now the other humans are back from wherever they went, so life’s all good and normal again.

“Yes,” says Luci, “and you’re as silly and naughty as ever.”
I don’t really mind if Luci thinks I’m silly and naughty
She’s my friend

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Muslims: the Jews of today?

A lesson I never learn is not to go into Holocaust museums.

The most recent was in Budapest. I had an hour to kill before heading to the airport and, by pure chance, found myself right by the museum. So I wandered in.

The Synagogue at the Budapest Holocaust Museum
Things went the same way as on my previous visits to Holocaust monuments. At first I work my way around the display cases in a serious but quiet mood, but with some apprehension about the emotional onslaught to come. I read the descriptions of the long history of Jews in the country. Because this was Hungary, there was also material about the gypsies, victims too when the time came.

Then there were photos of the time just before the seizure of power by the anti-Semites. Jewish families out for the day. Jewish pharmacies or groceries supplying Jews and gentiles alike. Gypsies travelling the country. But already there were bad signs: ghettoes reforming, arched gateways being bricked up, yellow stars.

And finally, what always happens happened again. I was reduced to tears by the shots of women being marched down the streets, their hands in the air, young Jews or gypsies breaking stones in forced labour teams, and at the end of the road, old people and children making their way along barbed wire fences towards the gas chambers. The tears come every time, forcing me to leave the exhibition and make for the open air.

Once outside, my thoughts turned to how people could justify meting out such treatment to others. The thinking hasn’t, after all, ever fully died out. Even within the British Labour Party, my own party, we have a leading member and former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who keeps insisting that Hitler supported Zionism. Here’s what Arno Schickedanz, a leading Nazi ideologue, had to say on the subject:

In the ideology of political Zionism, Palestine fulfilled the role of an indispensable part of prophecy, just as certain rules are the guarantee for success in the magical ceremonies of primitive peoples. Political Zionism never intended Palestine to be the destination of all Jews, but rather it merely wants to make Palestine the centre of Jewish world policy. That must naturally be protected by a strong Jewish population. 

Zionism to him was merely a part of a more far-reaching plan of the Jewish “race” (it was crucial, for the Nazis, not to confuse the so-called “race” with a mere religion).

Gentile observers and writers on Zionism, who see political Zionism only as an attempt at “national renewal” rather than an effort to establish a unified Jewish leadership as well as Jewish rule over the world, are therefore incorrect. The confusion of political Zionism with Palestine can be understood only through the Jewish prophecies in which Jewry is assured of control over all the goods of this world.

For the Nazis, the real aim of Jews was to control the entire world, and Zionism with its proposed emigration to Palestine, was merely a veil for it as well as a stepping stone towards it. Certainly some Nazis, at certain times, favoured shifting Jews to Palestine or somewhere else: “From a political standpoint, Schickedannz continues, it would be in the interests of the whole world, of all the host peoples, if the Jews now scattered throughout the whole world were to voluntarily emigrate to some habitable territory”. That, however, was to create a dumping ground for them, not to back the Zionist goal of creating a Jewish homeland.

You can support or oppose Zionism, but to suggest that Nazis had any sympathy for its aims is a strange distortion of history. It’s extraordinary that Livingstone hasn’t grasped that fact.

But it isn’t in fading grandees like Livingstone that the old mentality, the roots of the Holocaust, continues to live and strive to express itself. To a recent tweet in favour of the EU, I received a curious reply:

Well [sic] save you [sic] bacon yet - which come to think of it will probably be banned in EU soon

I was a little surprised by this news, which I hadn’t picked up. But it seems that it was a bit of a long-range forecast:

Ah there would only be a bann [sic] when the Muslims outbreed non-Muslims - how long do you think that would take?

Not long, apparently, since it seems that Muslims breed “6 kids a family...”

My correspondent was concerned with the Islamic drive to world domination. It operates from within. They come to our countries and outbreed us, so they can take over and ban (or possibly bann) our bacon.

It felt like a sentiment worthy of Arno Schickedanz. Only the target has changed. The Muslims, it seems, are the Jews of today, the new objects of a hatred of another human based only on who they are rather than on anything they do.

It’s painful to visit Holocaust memorials. But given that such views are still being expressed, perhaps we do need to keep reminding ourselves of where they can lead. Maybe I need to go on visiting them – after all, shedding a few tears is a small price to pay if it can help avoid shedding blood, again, instead.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

A sense of loss, a sense of incompetence

Oh, the sense of dread. The chill hand of loss gripping the heart. The sense of shame and regret at my own incompetence.

I’d discarded the comfortable clothes suitable for indoor use and for walking the dogs – the kind of clothes that can cope with being sat on by a small dog at home or spattered with mud by the same dog outside. Instead I’d climbed into the kind of stiff trousers that owe their looks to dry cleaning, not simple washing in a machine like real clothes. A shirt that fits the formal requirements of the term “business”. A proper jacket, the kind that lets in the wind and rain because it does up with three buttons instead of a zip.

My two laptops – yes, yes, two, don’t ask – were in my rucksack. My notebook (that’s an actual notebook, with pages made of paper and bound in hard covers). My iPad. My Kindle (got to do something on the train). My personal mobile phone, safely in my pocket. All I needed was my work phone – yes, yes, two phones, don’t ask.

And then – the dread.

It wasn’t where it should have been, charging quietly.

It wasn’t on the table where my work laptop had been a few minutes earlier.

It wasn’t on the dining table.

Hey, it wasn’t in the bedroom, the spare bedroom, the kitchen, the bathroom (yes, I even looked there).

I tried phoning it. No joy. Straight to voicemail. As if it were switched off or – ghastly thought – someone else were using it. How could that be?

I’d used it in the morning. When I went out earlier, I’d deliberately not taken it with me. Clearly, it had to be at home still.

And then a ghastly thought came to me. The lorry had called earlier to collect the recycling. And I had indeed thrown some papers in that bin. Could I absolutely swear that the phone hadn’t been mixed in with those papers? I tried to remember how they’d felt. There’d been some packaging. Could the phone have been with it?

But I’ve never done such a thing before. It’s not the kind of thing I do. Why would I have done it now?

I tried to phone the IT specialist at work. Surely he’d have a way of tracking an iPhone? If it wasn’t at home, then it might well be in the back of a recycling lorry. He, though, had taken the day off.

The clock was ticking. My appointment was approaching. I had to go if I was to have any chance of arriving on time.

I swallowed my anxiety and went. But a dim sense of loss, a mood of depression followed me the whole way there, during the meeting itself, and the whole way back. It’s so depressing to lose things. A favourite scarf left on a train luggage rack. A pullover under a cinema seat. A child’s toy on a beach.

When the object is relatively expensive and you have to account for it to someone else, the feeling’s all the worse.

Back at home, though, my wife came to my rescue.

“Use ‘Find my iPhone,” she said.

“But I haven’t set it up for the work phone,” I explained patiently.

“Oh, yes, you have,” she assured me.

And she was right. I logged on. And there was the trace. The phone was in the house. I sent out instruction to it to bleep and it started bleeping.

From where it was lying underneath the couch from which I’d used it in the morning.

Which left me feeling silly. But relieved. Which is a lot better than how I felt before.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Pounding the pavements before the poll

General Election time. 

When the notion of “foot soldier” truly comes into its own. It’s the time when we of the Labour Party infantry tramp from door to door around the Luton South constituency trying to persuade voters to re-elect our Labour Member in the last Parliament, Gavin Shuker. With, I’m glad to say, the presence and hard work of the candidate, not above being a foot soldier himself.

Preparing to go door-knocking in Luton South
with the candidate third from left
Far more conspicuously absent from these canvassing parties are the people who spent a small sum to join the party and elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader. It’s as if they felt that having achieved that aim, they need do no more, their work was done and they could now sit back and watch the triumphal entry of their man into 10 Downing Street. Their approach does have one benefit at least: they don’t have to suffer the ignominy of hearing what ordinary Labour voters – in many cases, former Labour voters – think of their choice.

One of the more colourful summaries was given me by the man who told me, “we need a Prime Minister with balls. Theresa May has them. Corbyn doesn’t.”

A more strictly political view was that of the man who said he couldn’t “begin to imagine putting Corbyn up against world leaders”. I could see his point: sending Corbyn to bat for us against Putin, say, seems a bit like calling on the boy scouts to defend the nation against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. What would he do? Suggest Vladimir join him to settle our differences over a cup of tea and a slice of cake, perhaps down at the allotment? He’d probably take the polonium Vladimir was pressing on him as a new kind of artificial sweetener.

But my problem was that I couldn’t see how we’d be any better off with the admittedly more forceful Theresa May fighting our corner out there. If all that force, all that drive, all that determination is only used to get us to the front of the queue to lick Donald Trump’s boots, I think I’d prefer the tea and cake approach.

As it happens, I don’t imagine this voter would have backed us this time anyway. He wants a hard Brexit. He’s in the business of selling planes to European clients and is frustrated with all the bureaucracy the European Union puts in his way. I didn’t ask him how he thought the bureaucracy would be any less when he’s selling from outside to an EU nation still bound, from outside. It seemed unfair to point out so obvious a flaw to someone so fervently persuaded of his stance.

In any case, it’s our job to be invariably polite to the voters, and it seems discourteous to make people aware of the incoherence of their arguments.

I’ve yet to meet a voter who has decided to back us because Corbyn is leader. However, this morning we did meet a Corbyn fan whose admiration for our leader has convinced her to not back us. “Shuker’s too right wing,” she maintained, “and he opposed Corbyn, who I’m really keen on, so I can’t vote for him.”

Again, one doesn’t want to point out obvious inconsistencies, so we didn’t tell her that it would be hard for Corbyn to become Prime Minister if people didn’t elect MPs from his party.

As it happens, her position seemed of a piece with the left-leaning Americans who refused to back Hillary against Trump, and so got Trump, or the French supporters of Mélenchon who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Macron against Le Pen, boosting her chances. It’s a hard-left attitude which likes to sit on its hands if it can’t get exactly what it wants, and thereby helps the hard right in its unremitting pursuit of autocratic power.

Well, I shall be going out canvassing again in the remaining weeks of the campaign. To be honest, I position myself to the left of Gavin Shuker and don’t see eye to eye with him on all questions. But I want him re-elected because no disagreement on detail undermines our broad agreement on principles, and above all because I find him honest, hard-working and committed to serving the interests of his constituents.

If that’s not sufficient for some of our Corbynites, I can’t help feeling that says a lot more about them than it does about him.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Luci's diary: foul, unfair, cruel punishment

They locked me up! In the bedroom! On my own!

Me! The good one! The well-behaved one!

See what I mean? Could I be guilty of anything?
I mean, anything?

Even my humans admit it. I do what I’m told. I come when I’m called, even if there’s a bit of mouldy bread to eat in the park. I stop eating Toffee’s food when they tell me too, even if there’s some left. I don’t persecute Misty, even though he’s a cat.

But they put me in the bedroom and closed the door. And went downstairs. To chat with their friends. And Toffee was with them. They left me there even though I was whining for all I was worth, with a few barks thrown in for good measure.

It was all because their friends had brought their puppy-human with them. He’s terribly, terribly small. Well, for a human that is. Ruddy great hulking thing he is, compared to proper-sized creatures like us. But he’s always going after Toffee, trying to play with her. They say he likes her, but I have to say he has a very odd way of showing it. He squeals and waves his hands around.

Now I don’t mind squealing in itself. We squeal a good bit too, Toffee and me. But when we do it, I know what it means. Mostly it’s when we’re playing. Sometimes it’s when we’re hurt. Specially if it’s me, squealing. It means I’m badly hurt, because I’m a brave dog and only squeal when it’s serious. It’s only nastiness makes human number 2 says “oh, there’s nothing the matter with her, you know what she’s like, squealing at nothing.”

What does he know about how badly I hurt?

Anyway, that little human keeps squealing and I don’t know what it means. So when he goes rushing over at Toffee with his arms flailing like some offensive weapon and squealing, well, I get worried. So I get between them. And of course I growl.

But human number 1 didn’t like that. She grabbed me and pulled me off the couch.

“She was going to bite him!” she said.

Bite him? I didn’t bite him. I never touched him. I just growled a bit.

“Yes,” Misty told me later, “but you were going to, weren’t you?”

“Well, not exactly bite. Nip a little maybe. Just a warning.”

“What, sort of, ‘keep away from Toffee, she’s mine and I’m the only one allowed to beat her up’? That sort of thing?”

“Oh, you make it sound so nasty. It’s only a little bit like that. Im mainly just being protective against other people. And as for Toffee, I never really hurt . Or only a little bit.”

Misty shook his head.

“They don’t like, it the domestics. You’re not supposed to hurt their puppies. They get very upset if you do.”

He didn’t actually say “puppies”, he said “kittens”, but you know how it is with cats, they get confused with their words and sometimes you have to help out by translating for them. So normal people can understand what they mean.

“But how could she have known I was going to nip him, anyway? I mean, I didn’t, did I?”

“Oh, she knows. She knows. That number 1, she knows everything. She knows what we’re planning to do before we’ve made the plan to do it.”

I suppose he’s right. Maybe she was a jump ahead of me. She’s really smart that way. Perhaps I might have been just a teensie bit aggressive towards the puppy if she’d let me. And if he’d continued.

Still, shutting me in the bedroom, alone. For something I didn’t actually do. I reckon that’s just going far too far.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

A sneaking admiration for Trump

I never thought I’d write these words, but I feel a little wry admiration for Donald Trump right now.

Even more amazing, that admiration is about the level of intelligence – or at least cunning – he’s shown. That’s surprising because I’ve come to think of him as one of the dumbest politicians around. Isn’t it odd how the Republican Party has managed to outdo itself each time it’s won the White House recently, following an accelerating downward trajectory? 

It’s clear these days that Reagan was already suffering from the Alzheimer’s that fully declared itself after he stepped down. George H. W. Bush was staggeringly incoherent. Dubya needed documents summarised for himself, presumably using short words only. And now Trump’s smartest comment on the presidency was that it turns out to be harder than he thought (“I thought it would be easier”).

What a brilliant insight that is.

Against that setting, you just have to pause in at least a little wonder at the way he’s handled the firing of James Comey as Director of the FBI. 

Trump and Comey: a drama of craftiness. Nastiness too

Follow the steps carefully.

First Comey revealed, on 28 October 2016, that the FBI was investigating another batch of e-mails of Hillary Clinton’s to establish whether they were evidence of a criminal act. 28 October. The election took place on 8 November, just eleven days later. On 6 November, he announced that there were no grounds for a prosecution – but that was only two days before the election and the damage was done. 

The fault for losing was certainly Hillary’s, for a poorly run campaign, but there’s no doubt that Comey nailed her coffin lid shut: without his intervention, states like Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania which Trump won by excruciatingly tight margins, might have tipped into her camp and her victory in the popular vote would have been turned into a victory overall, giving her the White House.

But then Comey turned on the man he’d helped elect. He let it be known that the FBI was actively investigating links between the Trump campaign and the Russian secret services. However enthusiastic it was about the 28 October revelations, the Trump administration was unlikely to be quite as pleased about these ones. 

It’s hard to grasp what Comey could have been about. Was he trying to be even-handed? If so, it turned out to be misguided.

Next Comey appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on 3 May and gave blundering testimony which had to be “clarified” (i.e. corrected) later.

Now comes the final act. This is where Trump displayed his cunning. On 9 May, Trump fired Comey – but not for the Russia investigation. Oh, no. For his actions in the Clinton case.

Talk about win-win. Trump gets the bump eleven days out from the election that the revelations provided. Then he can use exactly those revelations to fire the man that made them, when he became embarrassing in turn.

Pretty cunning, isn’t it? Low cunning, maybe, but cunning all the same.

Except, of course, if I can see through it, so can most people. It’s a pretty crass manoeuvre obviously guided by pure self-interest. And whatever Trump does, the pressure on him isn’t going to let up. In fact, the pressure keeps growing precisely because of what Trump does.

Not cause for all that much admiration, then. But when you’re talking about Trump, you don’t wonder about how much admiration you can have for him. You wonder at feeling any admiration at all.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

How eating cheese helps puncture overbearing medicine

Doctors aren’t generally known for their modesty.

There are noble exceptions, of course, and they’re all the more impressive for being self-effacing. But in 34 years’ experience in healthcare informatics, I can tell you that they’re in the minority. For most, it’s a matter of where on the arrogance spectrum they fall, between barely tolerable and downright monstrous.

Now it has to say that they often have plenty to be arrogant about. They’re usually bright and well-informed. Unfortunately, however, a lot of them arent quite as bright or well-informed as they think.

It’s the quiet form of arrogance that amuses me most. This is where the doctor makes no claim to superiority but his – or her – quiet demeanour, the tilt of her head, the tone of his voice, simply floats that superiority out there as an unstated presumption of any conversation. None of us questions it, least of all her, because it’s simply beyond question.

This isn’t an attitude limited to medicine. It’s found at the rarefied top of many walks of life. Ever had a passport query abroad? Embassy and consulate staff make it clear that they’re doing you a favour by allowing you the privilege of being with them; why, they go so far as to be gently and ever so condescendingly polite to you. You see it too in the upper reaches of business in the leadership of political parties. These people are at the top because they deserve to be and, in a neatly circular demonstration, we know they deserve to be there because they are.

What I particularly enjoy about this attitude in medicine is that I know that, however authoritatively convinced they may seem today about, say, the dangerous effect of cholesterol, their predecessors spoke with exactly the same conviction two or three centuries ago about the benefits of leeches or bleeding. Aspirin was a panacea, then a dangerous toxin that wrecked your stomach lining, now a remarkable drug to be taken to avoid cardiovascular disease. Smoking was good for you until it was found to be lethal. Opium had a salutary effect on the system until it was deemed a dangerous drug.

Just as sure of themselves then as they are now
but marginally more likely to be wrong
There were doctors as patronisingly convinced of the good effects of a substance before it was found to be noxious as they were of its bad effects afterwards. Often, it was the same doctors.

That’s why I’d like to see them using phrases such as “I think” or “in the present state of our knowledge”. It’s not going to happen, though, and for two good reasons.

In the first place, a doctor taking a decision that might affect a patient’s life chances, or chances of quality of life, needs to feel confident that the decision is correctly based. Even if it isn’t.

Secondly, in most cases doctors are actually right, or as right as the state of science allows us to be. For instance, most of them know that childhood inoculation is vital both for the children inoculated and for the population as a whole: by maintaining general (“herd”) immunity, we prevent outbreaks of a disease, and therefore those who for one reason or another aren’t immunised (e.g. because they’re too young). Doctors’ defence of inoculation is strongly to be supported; populist refusal of it by prominent figures in some cases, including most recently the US president himself, is dangerous and needs to be resisted.

On the other hand, it is fun to see the arrogance punctured from time to time. I greatly enjoyed reading an article in the Guardian reporting on a study that shows that there is no evidence of increased risk of cardiovascular problems associated with consuming dairy products, including cheese.

All that skimmed milk? Forget it.

Low-fat yoghurt? You can have the stuff that actually tastes right.

Avoiding cheese? Get right in there and indulge. Well, in moderation…

This merely reinforces my long-held belief that, far though medicine has progressed in the last couple of centuries, it’s still in its prehistory. We’re constantly making new discoveries, but there’s still a lot more to discover than we already know. Besides, a lot of what we think we know is wrong.

It seems to me, for example, that if there are still people around a century or two from now, they’ll be looking back at our treatments for cancer as we look back on leeches. “What?” they’ll say, “they pumped patients full of toxins? As a curative measure? Didn’t it kill them?”

Having lost a friend to chemotherapy, I’d have to answer “yes” to that question.

This makes me pleased to be doing my present job. It’s based on a service aimed to put the latest, most reliable information at the disposal of physicians and nurses. The information may be superseded later – we update the system every single day – but at least it’s as good today as it can possibly be.

My job is to get clinicians to use it. I’d like to succeed, because I’d like them to admit, at least to themselves, that they don’t actually know everything. That it’s worth checking from time to time.

Meanwhile, when you’re next with a doctor and you find him arrogant, try to humour him. He may well be right. And even if he isn’t, he needs to think he is.

Still, it can’t do any harm to check your doctor’s opinion if you can. Her arrogance may be a defence mechanism that allows her to do her job. But don’t forget that one of the people she’s defending herself against may well be you...

Sunday, 7 May 2017

What links Soweto with Wembley; plus not letting evil prevail

What an iconic image the first multi-racial elections in South Africa left us. Do you remember the pictures of the queues snaking around the fields under the blazing sun for hours? Those who had been denied the right to vote turned out in millions to exercise it for the first time.

Voters queue to vote in the South African presidential election, 1994
Now I’ve lived a rather more restrained version of that experience myself.

There was a lot less sun. In fact, it was frankly cold, but this is an English May and you have to expect just about anything. It also didn’t take anything like as long: we waited an hour and a half, not the eight hours many South Africans had to hang around for back in 1994. But still, the queue was impressively long and gave a powerful sense of the commitment many feel to their rights.

The setting was a French school, oddly called the ‘Lycée Winston Churchill’, in Wembley, an outer suburb of North London, most famous as the home of the English national football stadium. The occasion: the second round of the French presidential election, pitting Emmanuel Macron against Marine le Pen.

As I hold French citizenship as well as British (a bit of a bolthole, that, against Brexit), I was entitled to vote. I went with my wife (French from birth) and another French friend.

We were there because we believe in the principle, often and probably incorrectly attributed to Edmund Burke, that “for evil to prevail, it is sufficient that good men do nothing”. Sitting on your hands is to do nothing. And a victory for the hard-right Le Pen would have given us a nasty object lesson in what it means to see evil prevail.

This makes it a little surprising that many on the left were calling for their supporters to abstain. They didn’t particularly like Macron so they preferred not to vote at all. It’s quite a common view – many on the left refused to back Hillary Clinton in the US, for example, and many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain believe that Labour has to retain him as leader because he’s “right” (or rather left, therefore right), which makes him preferable to someone who might actually win.

Sadly, we’ve seen the consequences of that kind of view. In the US, you get Trump. In Britain, you get May – not as dire as Trump, but she’s going to inflict a great deal of pain nonetheless.

Well, we wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t happen in France. So we travelled three-quarters of an hour each way and queued for an hour and a half to make sure there would be at least three more Macron votes in the count.

We queue to vote in the French presidential election, 2017
We did that with pride. It was good to be in that crowd. In the first round, French voters in Britain gave Le Pen just 2.9% as opposed to the 21.3% she notched up across all voters. Those who live in other countries are perhaps less keen on narrow nationalism, more open to others and to the free mixing of peoples. It felt good to be among them.

But it also felt good to be backing someone who could win an election. As he now has. In Britain, I’m campaigning for my local MP who faces a tough re-election challenge. I very much hope he’ll get back in, as he’s likeable as well as being honest, hard-working and competent. And, though it’s going to be a hard fight, he has a chance.

The same, sadly, can’t be said for our party leader. He doesn’t stand a chance in hell. That means it’s damage limitation all the way.

Macron, France's youngest president, will do less good than many will have hoped. He’ll even do some harm. Overall, he will surely disappoint, as Tony Blair did. But at least he can do some good, again just like Blair. After all, you can do nothing at all if you lose, however good your intentions. Macron and Blair won and if their achievements belie our hopes, at least they got into a position to achieve something.

In any case, the three of us in that Wembley queue will know one thing at any rate: that we can be counted among the good men (and women) who, by doing something and not sitting on our hands, prevented a far worse evil prevailing.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Labour: read the writing on the wall!

It’s said that one of the worst problems with having your back to the wall is that you can’t see the writing on it.

Following the local elections in Britain, the writing is in letters a metre high for the Labour Party. The say, “you’ve been weighed and found wanting. You’re driving straight at a cliff edge”.

Labour no longer controls a single council in Scotland, once its bastion. In terms of councillors, it has fewer even than the Conservatives. Seven years ago, the Conservatives seemed to be a spent force in Scotland; today they are resurgent.

In Wales, which Labour has dominated for a century, it has lost over a fifth of its councillors and control of three councils out of the ten it had before.

It was beaten to the new mayoralties in Tees Valley and the West Midlands in England, both in areas that would once have been regarded as heartlands for the Party. Overall, the pollsters and academics were seriously wrong in their forecast for Labour in England: they predicted losses of as many as 75 council seats. In the event, the Party has lost 145.

Tories exultant as the victories keep flowing in
Reading the writing is no good if your back is firmly to the wall. But the problem is far worse than that. A majority of Party members, representing a tiny proportion of voters as these results show, is determined to cover its eyes with virtual reality goggles. Those goggles show them a sunlit upland where voters are charmed by the honesty and integrity of the present Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and impressed by his commitment to justice and decency, backing his policies in droves until they project him into Downing Street.

It’s a fairy tale that many of us might like to subscribe to. But it has nothing to do with the painful reality that the local election results reveal. Labour does not win power with its traditional bedrock so completely eroded.

Now this is not all down to Corbyn. The decline started under his two predecessors as leader, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. Both were poor leaders – Brown had been a fine Chancellor of the Exchequer, but he was far too gaffe-prone to lead the party; Miliband was simply gaffe-prone. Corbyn supporters keep pointing out to me how weak they’d been and how the rot had set in on their watch, and that’s true.

However, the implication behind these criticisms is that Corbyn would turn things around. Indeed, he was uniquely qualified to do so. His political persona made him the best choice to right the ship and get it back on course.

What the local election results have shown is how wrong this view was, how justified that of the people who tried to prise the leadership from Corbyn’s grip. Far from turning things around, he has made a bad situation far worse. Instead of bringing a breath of fresh air to the party, he has merely continued the decline from Brown to Miliband, making him the weakest of three weak leaders.

The sad truth is that the virtual reality goggles are still firmly in place. In only one way is Corbyn an innovator: he is the first Labour leader who takes no responsibility for the disasters that happen on his watch. The poor performance is all down to the Parliamentary Labour Party that rebelled against him – although the election results only show how legitimate their aims were – or the media, or even the vile behaviour of the Conservative Party (which seems unfairly committed to the notion of what is known, technically, as “winning”).

His supporters simply can’t read the writing on the wall. It will take a huge effort to get them to abandon the comfort of their nice goggles. But the attempt must be made, yet again.

Because it really, seriously, does say on that wall: “you’re heading straight for a precipice. Change driver!”

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Navigating crowds: a matter of nostalgia and bitter self-knowledge

As a general rule, I try not to get nostalgic about the way things were in my youth. As a general rule, I don’t think things were much better in my youth or anybody else’s. As a general rule, I think things tend to be much of a muchness, just more so, and older people always whinge about how much better they were.

Still, it was brought home to me this week, that in one little but annoying respect, things were indeed better back then. What made the discovery particularly galling was I that I learned that I was part of the overall decline in standards. That was an object lesson I was taught by the fine Spanish city of Valencia.

What I discovered there is that people have retained the ability to walk among others without causing them inconvenience. I remember it used happen in Britain too, when I was young. At busy London stations, for instance, people wove their routes around each other, no one ever walking in a dead-straight line, but constantly swerving so as to inconvenience each other as little as possible. The aim was always to avoid, if possible, making anyone else break their stride, far less have to stop to let you pass.

I once met a crowd coming out of a station in Hong Kong and was astonished to find that the human tide that seemed about to engulf me, in fact parted and let me through without so much as brushing against me. The individuals who created the crowd behaviour simply moved slightly aside, as did the people beyond them too, so that they could flow past me without my being troubled at all. They didn’t even seem to be conscious of what they were doing since no one made eye contact with me as they were taking their avoiding action.

Huge numbers, but extraordinarily well-behaved
On a smaller scale, the same was true in Britain. Not any more, though. This very day, a woman who’d been standing still contemplating who knows what – the chances of better weather? The way to find a happier path through life? The perils of the human condition? – suddenly took a decision to abandon meditation for action at the very moment I was walking past her, stepping straight into my path. As she was dragging not one but two wheeled suitcases behind her, it was only by good fortune that I avoided being brought down to the ground. I don’t know whether she would have apologised had she noticed what she’d done, because she never looked around or saw what had happened, leaving her entirely unaware that there was anything to apologise for.

In Valencia, on the other hand, it was clear that the old skills still survived. Three young men wandering down a pavement can seem threatening but, out there, one would inevitably slide behind the other two, opening enough space for someone coming the other way. People leaving shops somehow knew who was already on the pavement and avoided touching them or blocking their path, while they joined the flow without disrupting it. Even cyclists would stop to let you through on cycle lanes, a striking contrast to, say, Amsterdam where riding you down, or at least threatening to do so, seems to be a point of pride for them.

Just don't step into her cycling lane...
So good were the Valencians at navigating through crowds that they showed me up as completely inadequate to the task. Again and again I had to apologise for having stopped in someone else’s way, or walked across in front of them, or stepped out of a side street into their path. Bringing home to me the galling truth that it isn’t just other people who’ve lost the skill, I’ve somehow mislaid it too.

Ah, for the good old days. The days of my youth when we knew how to walk considerately. If only people could learn that ability again.

Starting, I must shamefacedly admit, with me.