Saturday, 29 July 2017

Sadiq Khan: what a real leader looks like

There’s “absolutely no way you can disrespect the way the people voted,” claims Shadow Education Secretary and leading Labour Party member Angela Rayner.

This is a curious statement, and by no means the only one of its kind floating around these days, because it’s both true and untrue. Certainly, you have to respect the outcome of a vote in the sense that it sets the framework of politics. But there would be no Opposition if we simply respected, fully, the result of a vote: we’d have to say, “the people have voted for the other side so we should back their policies”.

In reality, we say “this is the way people voted but we’re going to keep up the pressure all the same. We believe people can change their minds and we want to win at the next election as we lost at this one”.

The Guardian article from which I took the Rayner quote was concerned with the statements of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, that it would still be possible for Britain to remain in the European Union. This is coming to be known as an exit from Brexit. It would take another vote, he acknowledges, which is precisely what I would expect an Opposition to demand: beaten in one vote, it works for victory in the next.

Sadiq Khan, outside Westminster.
Is that where his future lies?
There’s a refreshing quality to Khan’s statement. The Labour Party position on Brexit is far from satisfactory. Or even clear. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, recently announced that Britain would have to leave the European Single Market because continued membership of it would be “dependent on membership of the EU”.

This is another of those curious statements, that’s both true and untrue. A small number of nations are members of the Single Market without being members of the EU. Norway is a notable example. But Corbyn is right in a wider sense: to retain its membership of the Single Market, Norway has in effect to behave like a member of the EU, accepting all its regulations and even paying contributions to its budget, but without having any say in setting them. One can imagine that opting for such an outcome for Britain might honour the strict letter of the Brexit vote, but entirely deny and undermine its spirit.

The problem is that it’s hard to be confident that Corbyn is taking this position merely to “respect the vote”. Given his past pronouncements, one has to suspect that he’s hiding behind the will of the people in order not to reveal that secretly he’s in sympathy with the Brexit camp – even though that’s contrary to the official position of the Labour Party he leads.

This would certainly be disingenuous at best. But far more serious, it means that on this crucial question for Britain, the government faces no Opposition. The biggest Party opposing the Tories will ultimately back the government – as has repeatedly happened on Brexit votes. Labour MPs put forward amendments, lose them and then line up under Leadership pressure to pass, docile and toothless, through the government lobbies on the substantial question.

As I said before, taken to extremes, “respecting the vote” means backing the government. On the EU, it feels as though that’s exactly what Labour is doing.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear Sadiq Khan speak out. At last, a leading member of the Party has spoken unequivocally in favour of Party policy. What a contrast with an official leadership which seems paralysed by its own ambivalence over it. Above all, Khan is speaking as a true Opposition leader: accepting that the people have delivered a verdict and that we are therefore heading in a direction we view as mistaken, but refusing to give up the right to work for a change in that decision even at the eleventh hour.

In other words, as an Opposition should, he holds out the hope of reversing a decision that went against us. That’s an approach I’d like to see the whole of the leadership embrace. My fear is that the present leadership may be unable to make such a change, and instead what we need is a change in leadership.

The Mayor of London, I feel, has given us a taste of what that might be.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The sequel to Frost/Nixon could be far more chilling

It’s been fun watching the film Frost/Nixon again. Not just because it’s a gripping film with fine actors, above all the extraordinary Michael Sheen as Frost, but also because it’s a valuable reminder of some significant if deeply unedifying events. A reminder that’s particularly timely today.

Frost (Michael Sheen) interviewing Nixon (Frank Langella)
The film tells the story of what remains one of the more significant interviews ever shown on TV. That was the interview of Richard Nixon by David Frost. At the time, Frost was a man who’d made a strong though not first-rate reputation first as a comedian, second as a talk show host. It was extraordinary that, with such a background, he should have decided to interview the former US President three years after he had been forced to resign from the White House. Nixon went as a result of the Watergate scandal, once it became clear that his denials of involvement in the attempted cover up of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee were simply mendacious.

The film shows how Nixon initially ran circles around Frost but, eventually, the interviewer was able to turn the tables on him and extract the only public admission of guilt that Nixon ever made and the closest he came to an apology.

The most telling line of the film comes at the end. Sam Rockwell, playing journalist James Reston, points out that thanks to Watergate, Nixon’s “most lasting legacy is that today, any political wrongdoing is immediately given the suffix… ‘gate’”.

There has, however, been a move in recent years to try to rehabilitate the memory of Nixon. Apologists for him point to his construction of better relations with the Soviet Union, to his opening up of China, and most powerfully to his working through the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War. These are, it is true, major achievements, but I can’t help wondering whether other Presidents might not have been able to pull them off too, given the changing atmosphere both domestically within the United States and across the world. More to the point, while ending the Vietnam War was certainly a huge success, it’s worth remembering that Nixon had earlier extended it into Cambodia, inflicting terrifying numbers of casualties and, more important still, precipitating the seizure of power there by the Khmer Rouge. These instituted the most violent regime the world has seen, wiping out more people, proportionately to their population, than even the Nazi Holocaust.

All this adds up to my watching the revision of Nixon’s reputation with considerable scepticism. He may have had some achievements but I feel that his contribution was only to see, and seize, opportunities he had little role in creating.

Meanwhile, as the Watergate Scandal unfolded, we watched him retreating from position to position, admitting one offence when he could deny it no longer, while still denying others, throwing colleagues, often long-term friends, to the dogs rather than resign himself. Eventually, though, the options ran out. With the House of Representatives about to vote for impeachment, and the Senate almost certainly to convict him, he resigned. Soon after, his successor Gerald Ford pardoned him, ensuring that he was never brought to account for his misdeeds.

The damage has been long lasting. Nixon believed, as he claimed to Frost, that whatever a President did was, by that simple fact, not illegal. This is a claim worthy of a monarch, not the President of a republican form of government: a king by divine right might feel that nothing he does can be regarded as a crime or be sanctioned by law. But the nature of a republic is that it has at its core the notion of rule of law, making it impossible for any citizen, however powerful to be above it.

Nixon, like every President, had sworn to uphold the Constitution. By his behaviour, he had broken that oath. It was a fundamental betrayal, and it set a precedent.

That precedent is being cheerfully followed today. Trump’s Nixon, in spades. Charmless and dishonest just like the 37th president, he only lacks his predecessor’s competence and effectiveness. Sadly, we have to be grateful that he does. If he were to chalk up any achievements, they would be far more those of war than of peace – Nixon bombing Cambodia rather than Nixon talking peace in Paris.

They have in common their indifference to the law and their contempt for the Constitution they swore to uphold. But here too there is a major contrast. Nixon may have lied and cheated and obstructed, but he didn’t commit high treason by collaborating with a foreign power hostile to the United States.

It’s worth watching Frost/Nixon even if you’ve seen it before. It’s entertaining as well as insightful. Just remember that, relevant though it is, the President of that time was merely loathsome and criminal.

This one is profoundly toxic too.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Austerity: is it really a Tory blind spot?

A joke frequently told against Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour governments led by Tony Blair, that he was having an extramarital affair. The object of his affections was a mystery woman known as Prudence. He simply couldn’t stop himself mentioning her whenever he spoke, so that the catchword for everything he did in dealing with the country’s finances was that it was down, he claimed, to Prudence.

“Mock on, mock on”, he might be saying today. And “what side of your face are you laughing out of now?”

After David Cameron brought the Conservatives to power, Prudence was unceremoniously dumped for a much less attractive siren known as Austerity. Far from seducing the Chancellor alone, Austerity seems to have bedded most of the senior figures of the Tory Party. Which isn’t to say they weren’t warned. Anyone at all familiar with the ideas of Maynard Keynes pointed out that there was a paradox at the core of the notion Austerity: when a government puts the brakes on spending the result isn’t necessarily a saving, but often the exact contrary. Reduced spending leads to reduced economic activity, and therefore reduced taxation, and far from emerging from indebtedness, the government merely sinks further into debt.

UK Debt as % of GDP: steadily growing under austerity
Source: BBC
Seven years on, it’s clear that this is exactly what has happened. Back in 2010, Cameron made a great deal of the supposedly unbearable cost of debt Labour had amassed, a toxic burden being passed on to the future generations. It was approaching the trillion-pound level at that time. Seven years on, it is now projected to reach £1.8 trillion by next March, but curiously the Tories have stopped talking about it.

Despite years of austerity, with constant cuts to essential public services, even the government’s deficit – the amount by which spending exceeds income – is rising again. In June, it was nearly 50% higher than it was in the same month last year. Keynes’s paradox of thrift is being verified with a vengeance: thrift cuts revenue and not just cost, so it can make things worse rather than better.

Anyone reading this piece might feel there’s nothing new in my making this claim. I’ve said it all before, haven’t I? So why am I saying it again now?

Because now we learn that the Tories are not only persisting with their austerity policies in the face of evidence that they aren’t working, but even in the face of evidence that they’re costing them votes

Now that’s truly odd. Because if the Tories are anything, they’re an election-winning machine, hypersensitive to any chance to win a vote, or any risk of losing one. It’s quite extraordinary that they’re sticking – for now – to a policy they know might lose them power.

Which leads to a further question. If it isn’t working financially; if it’s costing them votes politically; then why on earth are the Tories continuing to pursue austerity?

Could it really be that they are, ultimately, entirely heartless? Do they truly believe that the poor need to be punished for the offence of being, simply, poor? And the best way of punishing them is to impoverish them further?

I find it hard to believe that any but a few of the Tory leaders are quite that ruthless. Sadly, though, that leaves only one explanation: that they simply can’t see what they’re doing. Which suggests that the Parliamentary Conservative Party has simply lost all contact with reality.

Surely we wouldn’t want to suggest that Tories might be that benighted, would we?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Luci's diary: how to play the puppy. In both senses.

Funny creature, the little one.

I say “little” partly because Toffee really is little, partly because she just goes on behaving like a puppy, which when you get to be nearly eleven months old, you really can’t pretend to be any more. Well, you can pretend, but it fools no one.

Toffee likes to keep playing the puppy
But I'm so mature it sometimes just leaves me yawning
Now me, I’ve put all that puppy-dog stuff behind me. Long since. But then it won’t be long before I’m three. The humans have come to think a bit better of me these days. I can’t go tearing around all over the place like I used to, and Toffee still does.

Not that I don’t miss it, just a little bit. It was fun. Human number 2’s always good for throwing things for a dog. You know, a ball or a soft toy or whatever. But human number 1 always likes to sit at the end of the sofa, near the long end of the room, you know, where the sitting room blends into the dining room. That means when number 2 throw something it has to go beyond her.

Not a problem, of course. We can just jump over her. Or rather, because when you’re a right-sized dog instead of one of those silly giants that seem to inhabit the park these days, you need to have places you can jump to and then from again, once your legs are ready for another effort.

The thing about number 1 is that she has a really nice, comfortable front to land on and take off from again. So I’d land on her before taking the second leap to reach the floor and go skittering and skidding over to the toy, or ball, or whatever that number 2 had thrown.

She didn’t always appreciate that. She’d make a kind of “ouf” noise as though the wind had been knocked out of her, and then, once I’d done it half a dozen times or so, she’d say to number 2, “oh, I think that’s enough now. You don’t need to throw that for her any more. Do you?”

Of course he needed to keep throwing it. But when number 1 says something in that tone of voice, it’s better not to answer the question, but just obey the tone.

“Of course, of course,” he’d say and stop throwing the toy, pretending to concentrate on the telly instead.

Well, these days it’s Toffee that does the jumping. The “ouf” is a little less intense because Toffee is, after all, just a tad littler than I am. As for me, as becomes a near three-year old, I just sit on the back of the couch and watch. With a small trace of envy, I have to admit. It reminds me of carefree times, before I took on the responsibility of a young dog. It would be unbecoming, but there are times when I wish I could do that too.

Still, I think I’ve found a good solution. Now it’s Toffee that bounces on the belly and goes sliding over the slippery floor, her claws scrabbling away, to grab the toy (she particularly favours a little stuffed lion whose nose she’s chewed off). All I do is watch and wait. And when she’s nearly back at the sofa, toy in mouth, panting and expectant, ready to beg number 2 to throw it again, I go into action. Off the sofa I come and dart across the floor like a flash, on an intervention course. And Toffee fails to spot her impending doom every time. Seconds it takes me, sometime barely a second, to grab the toy from her nerveless jaws. Then up I get on the sofa again and refuse to hand if over to number 2 to throw again.

And I growl. How I growl. Toffee knows I don’t mean it but there’s just a little bit of her that isn’t quite sure. So she stays down on the floor looking a bit piteous, and yapping uncertainly from time.

“Grr, grr, grr,” I growl at her, and she lunges briefly forward before backing away again nervously.

Eventually, Human number 2 takes pity on her and takes the toy to throw again. But I don’t mind. Because it’s just a chance to start all over again.

Clever, isn’t it? I can get as much fun as ever, but without making anything like the effort. And without looking like a puppy again. Brilliant.

Having a littler dog around does have a bit of use, then. Sometimes.

Toffee with her silly lion toy.
They're even the same colour

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Medical Science: so hard to keep up with

It’s a lot of fun working for a company that has a product that actually does what it says. Sadly, rather a lot of people selling information technology to the National Health Service seem to regard it as a slightly dull but dependable, and above all uncritical, source of funding. You know, they’ll never make your fortune, but you can dump mediocre systems on them and they’ll buy them, not perhaps at the highest of prices but at a price that’s always paid, and with few questions asked.

Sadly, I’ve worked for a few of those companies. I remember being ambushed at one conference at which I was presenting, when a representative of a client hospital asked, in public, why on earth anyone should trust us, given how badly we’d let them down on another product?

Well, it’s a blessed relief to be away from all that unpleasantness. Today I’m working with an evidence-based medicine product that does exactly what it claims to do: provide rapid access to carefully evaluated, up-to-the-minute information reflecting the most recent understanding of medical knowledge.

To take them or not to take them?
The answer may depend on when you ask the question
It’s just as well it does so. One of my colleagues pointed out at a recent presentation that about 15% of all information affecting medical practice changes every year.

Fifteen per cent.

Every year.

That may seem extraordinary, but I have a personal anecdote which seems to confirm it.

A year or so ago, my general practitioner decided that it was time to have my blood tested and assess my level of risk of having a stroke or heart attack in the next ten years or so. You may well guess that at stake was whether or not I should be put on statins. I had wish to start taking those drugs but, then, I had even less wish of suffering a stroke or heart attack.

Well, the results were clear. My risk was above 10%. That was the threshold level. The doctor prescribed statins.

I didn’t take them for long. My digestion turned lousy, I started sleeping badly, I was getting headaches. Classic symptoms.

However, having looked into it a bit – well, to be honest, my wife did – I rather think the reaction was psychosomatic. I was, at the time, working for the worst of the purveyors of dire quality to the health service. My boss had cut me out from doing any actual work on the software, which was good for my conscience but lousy for my long-term employment prospects. It wasn’t a good time, which I think may have contributed to my poor reaction to the medication.

A year or so on, and in a satisfactory job at last, I felt I should take a look again at whether I ought to be taking statins after all. I made contact with the GP again. Once more, he had my blood tested. And, again, the risk of stroke or heart attack was above 10%.

But, lo and behold! Medical science had changed. As he explained to me.

“We used to think the threshold for statins was 20%. Then it was reduced to 10%. But now it’s back up to 20%. And your risk is under 20%.”

So? What did this mean? Could I still live statin-free?

“So,” he went on, “I’ll not be prescribing any medication for now.”

Wonderful! My conscience is clear. I did all that was necessary. And science made the decision for me.

Isn’t it great? But doesn’t it just underline the importance of keeping current? Because how serious your condition is doesn’t just depend on your health – it also, apparently, depends on when you ask the question.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tories: a party of integrity

There are moments when I fear I do the British Tory Party an injustice. 

At times, it strikes me as profoundly dishonest, bordering on corrupt. However, this is merely a matter of point of view and that, viewed in a different light, the Tory Party does just what it’s committed to doing, in full and without reservation.

Conservative fundraising dinner.
Where the wealthy buy access to ministers, and get what the paid for
When a flight or a train I’m planning to catch is delayed or cancelled, I don’t just feel irritation at the inconvenience, I also have a sense of being cheated. It feels to me that when I handed over money for my ticket, the train company or airline entered into a contract with me to deliver me, on time, to the agreed destination. When it fails to do that, I feel they’ve broken their commitment to me.

There are, of course, circumstances beyond the control of the companies: they can’t be blamed for an icebound airport or, as happened on a recent train journey of mine, a fire at London’s Euston station. No, I’m talking about the kind of delay explained away as “due to the late arrival of the inbound aircraft”. What? “We’re late because we were late already”? We’re supposed to say, “oh, well, that’s OK then”?

It’s clearly an increasingly widespread belief that such behaviour isn’t acceptable. That’s why airlines and train companies are having to reimburse passengers for poor service. There is a general feeling that it is in the nature of a paid, commercial transaction that the provider of the service enters a commitment to its customers, and must honour it or compensate them.

The British Conservative and Unionist Party is nothing if it is not the embodiment of the commercial spirit. It is just what it’s paid for. Like a good company, it takes payments from its customers and delivers a service to them.

Some voters are na├»ve enough to think that this means it owes a service to everyone. We all pay, after all. But the reality is that we pay the government, through taxation, but even when the Tories are in power, that isn’t the same thing as the Tory Party. A great many of us pay nothing to the Tory Party; some, and I include myself in this number, are even benighted enough to make contributions to a different party. In my case, the one best placed to replace it in power.

How can we possibly expect the Tories to look after us?

Indeed, they don’t. The last ten years have seen the lowest rate of income growth in Britain for – wait for it – drum roll – 150 years. The ten years of weak growth have been covered by three years of financial crash followed by seven years – yes, you’ve got it – of Tory government.

As income growth across the board stalls and inflation rises, the Resolution Foundation – from whose report that figure came – finds that living standards are falling, and have been falling for three quarters now.

This is affecting the vast majority of the income distribution. Inequality is falling across 99% of the population. But that does leave a precious 1%.

It’s what’s happening to that 1% that changes the picture. That is, of course, the 1% at the top. Where I use the words top and bottom in terms of income, naturally, not worth. Their income is now growing fast enough to account, on its own, for growing inequality in Britain, despite the lowering inequality across the other 99%.

Indeed, with 8.5% of the all national income, the top 1% have now recovered to where they were before the crash. That’s just short of the all-time high, back in 2009-2010, of 8.7%.

So the Tories have delivered. Just not to everyone. All that guff about “all in it together” that we were given back in 2010 – well, it was just guff.

Now let’s see who pays for the Tory Party.

According to the Electoral Commission, as the recent general election campaign got under way, in the week of 3 to 9 May, the Conservatives received £4.1m as opposed to the £2.7m that went to Labour. Some of the contributions were particularly striking:

  • John Griffin, founder of the huge and growing taxi company Addision Lee, paid £900,000.
  • John Armitage, Britain's ninth-richest hedge fund manager, stumped up £500,000
  • Sir Henry and Lady Keswick gave £25,000 each. Sir Henry previously owned the right-wing magazine, The Spectator.
  • David Mayhew, who formerly chaired banking group JP Morgan Cazenove, gave £25,000
  • Property developer David Rowland gave £200,000.

So it goes on. The outstandingly wealthy paid for Tory success at the polls. I say ‘paid’ advisedly: these aren’t gifts, they are purchases. And as when I buy a rail or air ticket, the purchaser expects something in return.

The Tories are delivering. No “delayed because we were late” for them. They take the money, they send the wealth flowing back towards the wealthiest.

Which, when you think about, is a kind of integrity of its own. Isn’t it?

Friday, 14 July 2017

A craze driving me round the bend, that may not be so crazy

A girls’ school in England has decided to impose a ban on fitbits and mobile phones from next term.

While it’s generally to do with the damaging effect of social media on girls at an impressionable age, it is also more specifically concerned with how it drives anxiety over body image into bad behaviour. Some girls, it seems, have been counting steps and calories in the mornings and, if they have too few of the one or too many of the other, skipping lunch. Now, that’s a tyranny I understand from personal experience so I sympathise with the school authorities.

Not that I miss lunch or anything. I may be crazy but I’m not that crazy. Not, it’s the way the craze has taken over other aspects of my life that gets me worried.

Recently my colleagues have been taking part in a ‘fitbit challenge’. They record their steps, their flights, their anything else that seems to contribute to fitness, daily, with the hope of winning, at the end of a period – you guessed it – a fitbit. So they can keep on doing the same thing, I suppose. Just as well they’re not at a girls’ school in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

I’m not taking part in this challenge. Oh, no. But its mere existence has somehow influenced me, to no small harm to my quality of life.

I need something from upstairs? Why, I have to look for my phone before I go and fetch it. Can’t miss out on getting another set of stairs counted.

Phone fitness tyranny:
got to do more, got to do more
There was a time when I would blissfully drive to the station if I needed a train. Wow, the joy, the comfort. But – that’s 2500 steps. I can’t forfeit that number. Got to walk. I need my 10,000 steps.

I don’t have to go to the office too often, which is just as well. It’s on the fifth floor. If it were on the eighth, I’d take the lift. But five floors? I can manage that. And if I pop out to lunch – I don’t do missed lunches – why, I have to climb five floors again. I couldn’t take it if I had to do that more than three or four times a month.

Recently, by one of those strange series of coincidences that sometimes happen, I’ve had to go down to the Docklands area of London. Way out to the east. It means changing trains at Stratford International station. Ever seen the steps up from the platform? Let me tell you, they’re impressive. And these days I feel obliged to use them to build my count of flights.

Appalling, isn’t it? Gone is all trace of comfort. Of my pleasant life where what mattered was the gentleness of the moment. Now I too am counting all these senseless measures. And like the authorities at the Stroud school, I’m far from convinced that it’s doing me much good.

Well, I wasn’t convinced. Until, that is, I read an article about Big Sur in California. This is a picturesque but isolated part of the state’s coast, more than usually cut off by the fact that storms have left it completely cut off by road. The result? Residents use a mile-and-a-half long path cut for them to get to schools or shops.

And what has been the effect? Why, a noticeable improvement in health. Including, it would seem, reductions in diabetes. Walking, it appears, really is good for you.

A galling conclusion. It make me feel that, for anyone other than adolescent girls at least, getting those steps taken, those flights climbed really is actually quite a good idea. Which means that the agony must continue.

Oh, Lord. Why don’t I nip upstairs for something? But where did I leave my phone?

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Italians: more in common than I thought

One of the many features that I like about the job I’ve been in since last November is that it takes me to Italy from time to time.

While my roots are unquestionably English, I was born in Italy – specifically in Rome – and spent my first thirteen years there. Each time I return therefore feels like a homecoming. That’s true even when, as on my latest trip, I travel to Milan.

The trouble with Milan is that it isn’t really in Italy. That’s a proposition vehemently denied by most of its inhabitants when I put it to them, but since it’s not unusual for them to assure me earnestly that “Africa starts at Rome” (one told me on this occasion, “a long way north of Rome”), I try to impress on them in turn that Milan is, essentially, in southern Austria. It’s far better organised than most of Italy, cleaner and wealthier, but also – in my experience – just a tad more standoffish and sure of its superiority.

The Milan Duomo: fabulous but just a touch Austrian?
Romans, by contrast, have more of a devil-may-care attitude about them. “Yep,” they seem to say whenever they do something egregiously inappropriate, whether it’s do a U-turn in heavy traffic or litter the streets, “in another, better life I might not do that, but I’m a mere mortal and have none of the purity or the remoteness of the angels.”

Still, as I begin to get to know the Milanese better, I’m beginning to enjoy being with them more. Not that I haven’t enjoyed Milanese company in the past, I hasten to add. My wife and I have a good friend from the city who first introduced herself to us as a ball-breaker, because at the time she was doing life sciences research which involved crushing mouse testicles (not usually while they were still attached to a living mouse, as I understand it). With such a beginning, how could the relationship be anything but a warm and close one? And these days I have an excellent Milanese colleague who always contrives to make visits rewarding and cordial.

What was new on this visit was that I also had some good contacts with complete strangers. One was in the taxi that took me to the airport, which was particularly gratifying as my first encounter with a Milanese taxi driver ended with badly because, as I explained that I needed to get to a hotel near the airport, he decided it was all too much a bore for him to deal with, made a gesture of impatience and drove away leaving me at an empty taxi stand in the middle of the night.

On the latest occasion, on the other hand, we had a perfectly cordial explanation. He explained to me that he wanted to catch up with a friend and colleague of his who was at the airport, but at the part that deals with private planes. I assured him that I was taking a scheduled flight.

“Oh, I knew that, from the start of the trip,” he assured me, and then broke off, clearly concerned that he might be offending me.

I decided that he didn’t mean his statement that way. That, if anything, his comparison between me and most private plane users was likely to be favourable towards me rather than the contrary.

“The private plane types tend to be a bit arrogant?” I asked.

“Exactly right,” he told me. “Why, I had to drive one to a meeting 70 kilometres away. He decided to stop on the way for a meal, and left me kicking my heels in the car park while he had his excellent lunch.”

I made some appropriately sympathetic response.

“The worst of it,” he went on, “is that he was from a bank which we’re baling out of trouble right now. My money. Flowing to a bank which is being rewarded with public funds for running itself into the ground. And the money I’m paying allows a man like him to keep eating fine meals while keeping people like me waiting for him the car park. It sometimes makes me wonder why IX bother to vote.”

A man after my own heart. I too feel upset at the privileged existence of people who see themselves as entitled, and are perfectly happy to have us finance their entitlement for them. It’s reassuring, though not surprising, that at the opposite ends of Europe, ordinary people face the same problems and react to them with the same resentments.

What saddens me is that though we should be making common cause against the arrogance that abuses its power this way, we in Britain have decided that we should cut our ties with those like my Milanese taxi driver. “Bring back control” our Brexiters say, but we’re simply reinforcing the control over our lives of the people who cause this injustice, in England as in Italy. United we might stand a better chance against them; by separating ourselves off, we make the task far harder.

Ah well. We all have our problems. In Italy, it’s to know where Austria ends and Africa begins. In Britain, it seems to be an inability to decide that we’re not a global power – and that illusion is far more dangerous.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Misty's Diary: the weirdness that is Toffee

Right. That’s it. Official.

The new little dog – well, she’s not that new after six months, but you know what I mean – is absolutely the weirdest thing the humans have inflicted on me.

So far, I hasten to add. I don’t want to tempt providence by ruling anything out in the future. I’m not sure there’s any weirdity that’s beyond my particular pair of domestics. You won’t catch me saying, “they’ll never introduce that into our household”. They’d probably go out and get one the next day.

“A poisonous snake?” they’d say, “wonderful! I bet Misty would like one of those.”

Anyway, that puppy Toffee – I guess she is still a puppy, judging by her behaviour, whatever the month count may be – really is bizarre.

Every morning the domestics serve her and Luci the best kibble I know. A bowl for Luci in the kitchen where she does the sensible thing, and just gobbles it down.

“I don’t gobble,” says Luci, “I’m ladylike.”

OK. There’s some kibble in her bowl one moment. There’s none the next. Somehow it’s got from where it was into her stomach (I assume ladies have stomachs, though they probably don’t like to admit it). I don’t know whether the process that gets it from one place to the other is too ladylike to be called gobbling. Let’s just say that it that’s damn fast, and impressively effective.

What about Toffee?

She gets her bowl put in a little bed for her to think about. Breakfast in bed. And that used to be my bed before she muscled in on it.

What? What? It’s my kibble and I'll eat it when I'm ready
Think about it is exactly what she does. She sniffs at it from one side. Walks around behind the bed to sniff at it from the other side. Climbs in and pushes the bits of kibble around with her nose a while.

It’s maddening. I’d like nothing better than to get at it myself. It’s so much nicer than what I get.

“It isn’t any nicer, you know,” Domestic number 2 tries to tell me, “it’s just because it’s somebody else’s that you want it. I know you better than you do.”

He knows me better than I know myself? I don’t think so. I think I’ll be the judge of what kind of kibble I like or don’t like. He’s never even tasked any of the stuff – far too high and mighty to enjoy mere dog or cat food – so how can he possibly tell?

What amazes me with Toffee’s way of nosing around her food for ages and ages is that there are other things she just goes for straight away. Toys, for instance. She gnaws and pulls at them until they fall apart. Domestic Number 1 has even bought a new thing she pushes around to pick up the little bits of toy from the carpet where Toffee leaves them. The dog we used to have here, Janka, the one who went away and never came back, used to rip up toys too but she was a proper size and at least the toy would be dismembered in no time. This one takes forever, like she wants to make their suffering last.

Abused toys, their insides, and the push-around-thing to pick them up
And bits of wood! She just loves them. Brings them in from the garden. If she sees the domestics around she hurries into her little house – what used to be my little house – and gnaws and gnaws and gnaws. If she can get away with it, she jumps up on the couch and gnaws and gnaws and gnaws there. Then she gets bits everywhere and Domestic Number 1 has to get into action with the funny little push-around-thing to pick up the bits.

“Oh, Toffee, what have you done?” she says.

I hope the question’s rhetorical. Because it’s bleeding obvious what she’s done: exactly the same thing she did yesterday.

“Oh, you really are the naughtiest dog weve ever had,” she goes on, which is about right, except I prefer the word weird. In the context. 

So some things she gnaws enthusiastically, but then she walks away from her bowl in the morning, tempting me to move in while she’s thinking about something else. But she comes rushing back to push me away if I make an attempt on whatever’s left of her Kibble. And if she doesn’t drive me off, Domestic Number 2 will try to. 

Still, sometimes they both get distracted.

Determined plunderer in action.
Focus too soft for you? Don’t blame me.
That’s Domestic no 2. Can't handle motion photos
“Especially under a table,” he adds.
I’m a pretty determined plunderer when I can pull it off, so sometimes, just sometimes, I get away with it.

Satisfaction. I got the bed back And the bowl to clear
All the same, I still say she’s weird, that Toffee. I try to keep her a bit sane by beating her up from time to time. But nothing seems to work, not even that.

Ah, well. I live among strange creatures. Including the domestics.

A little beating up helps correct weirdness in a puppy
Still, doesn’t seem to work with Toffee

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The poor get poorer. But a Jewish story lightens the tone

In one of its more insightful headlines, the Guardian proclaimed this morning:

Low income families ‘less able to achieve decent living standard’

Classic headline
That struck me as being roughly on a par with “poverty found to leave you poor”. No wonder the headline had changed in the on-line edition by this evening...

Still, behind the headline there was a serious story. Each year, in Britain, the the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity concerned with poverty, commissions a study from the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University. It establishes what various types of family need in income to maintain what is generally perceived as being a minimum decent living standard.

It seems that despite increases in the minimum wage, the assault on state benefits, including those paid to the working poor, have meant that the gap between low incomes and the sum required for a minimum living standard has widened still further this year.

None of this is terribly surprising. The independent think tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has estimated that British workers’ incomes will be no higher (in real terms) in 2022 than in 2007. We’ve had seven years of austerity politics from the Tories and the price is being paid by the poor, and it’s a real price even though it’s failed to generate any real benefit – far from achieving the aim of cutting debt, the level has doubled under the Tories.

By contrast, bosses of the major UK companies saw their earnings rise by 10% in 2015 alone. That put them on average incomes of £5.5m, which allows them to keep bankrolling the Tory Party, In turn, that helps focus minds in Tory governments on favouring the incomes of the wealthy over those of the poor.

Still, I didn’t start this post planning to make depressing points, and I seem on the brink of making some. So let me cheer you up with one of my favourite Jewish jokes.

In a sad accident, a Jew is knocked down by a car in a North London street.

A man rushes out of a nearby house and puts a pillow under the head of the injured Jew lying in the street.

“Are you comfortable?” he asks.

The Jew raises a hand and tips it from side to side in the classic gesture.

“Comfortable, I wouldn’t say,” he replies, “but I get by.”

Well, it feels to me as though the British poor have been knocked down. It certainly hasn’t left them comfortable. Though it’s far from sure they’re even getting by.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Palliative care and the power of mind over matter

It was a pleasure to have a chat with a Palliative Care Consultant the other day.

Noble mission
A Consultant, in this context, and for those more used to American terms, is the equivalent of an Attending Physician. Or, for those not too familiar with either system, a senior hospital doctor. As for Palliative Care, its the field served by physicians who are not trying to cure, because the patient has a condition beyond the capacity of medicine to cure in its present state, so care is focused on eliminating pain and giving a patient the best possible conditions of life. 

In the circumstances.

Strangely, such care, rather like the hospices where it is often dispensed, is generally joyful. Hospices, housing dying patients, are places where the one great question has been answered. The reply – “you’re dying” – may not be the one we most want to hear, but it has been given, it is definitive and there’s no further point in tormenting oneself over it. Instead, both patients and carers can focus on making the last few months as pleasurable as possible.

“Yes,” said the Consultant who was talking to me, “but I deliver my care in this hospital. As soon as a patient moves from the curable to the non-curable category, but before they move to a hospice. And you’d be amazed at how much we can do.”

I nodded.

“There’s even good research evidence that well-delivered palliative care extends patients’ lives. I’m treating patients expected to survive ten years.”

“Perhaps the fact that they’re happy and free of pain explains their survival.”

“I’m sure it does. But isn’t it extraordinary? How does mood overcome pathology?”

“Do we perhaps underestimate the power of the mind over the body? Take the placebo effect: it can have immense impact.”

“It can,” she told me, ”placebos have been used as anaesthetics. And, you know, during the Second World War, when morphine stocks ran out, they called on it. They’d tell soldiers who’d lost limbs or had them smashed up, horrible injuries, men in agony, that new stocks of morphine had been received. And then inject them with saline. ‘Aah,’ they’d go,” and she opened her arms in the gesture of a man relieved of terrible pain, “thank God! At last.”

We really don’t take enough account of the effect the mind can have on physical suffering. It’s probably the main source of the efficacy of alternative medicine, in particular of homeopathy: it works because you believe it works. But, even if its based on belief alone, it really works.

A chastening thought for an over-materialistic age. But also a wonderful tribute to the admirable, joyous specialty of palliative medicine. I’m pleased to have met and had a conversation with one of its expert exponents, however briefly.

Hers are vital skills. Any one of us may some day call on them.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Happy 4th of July, Amexit Day

It’s that time of year again, when we congratulate our transatlantic cousins on winning their freedom from the tyranny that a government in Westminster was inflicting on them.

Why, an American friend visiting London even found a poster celebrating the connection between that event and one much more recent: 

A fine sentiment. 
A delightful parallel, though perhaps not an entirely accurate one. Back then Americans were exiting Britain, rather than Britain exiting anywhere. It was really more of an Amexit. They did it to get away from control by Westminster. Today’s Englishmen, on the other hand, voted in their wisdom for Brexit, ostensibly to strengthen Westminster’s control. With growth halted and living standards falling, they may soon realise that such control is, in practice, as uncomfortable to them as it was to those American Englishmen 241 years ago.

For Englishmen they were. Champions of English rights. None more so than Thomas Jefferson, who drafted that Declaration of Independence for which we’re celebrating the anniversary today.

Earlier he had written A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Let’s stress that British. In the document he reminded British King George III that:

...our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe 

There they enjoyed rights derived from their “their Saxon ancestors”, which by transmission they continued to uphold in America. Here he showed scant regard to the sometimes contradictory rights of the people who already lived there, but then he spared scarcely a thought for the liberties of Native Americans: no one, on either side, ever did.

The rebels were also wonderfully English in the glorious ways they found to reconcile incompatible views. You’ll understand that I’m trying to avoid the word “hypocrisy” here. The Declaration of Independence is long on inalienable rights and equality of creation, assuring us of the belief that: 

...all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

The document is, however, strikingly short on the rights of black people.

To be fair, Jefferson did want to denounce slavery. Among many other charges, his first draft claimed of the King that:

...he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither

Jefferson’s colleagues thought that was perhaps too much of a good thing, as they founded a nation based on human rights including the right to own other humans. So they struck out this passage.

It’s also a tad ironic that Jefferson himself had slaves, fathering several children on one of them. And talking about people capable of bearing children, women were wholly absent from the process of declaring independence. Now that’s the kind of commitment to universal rights which would have struck a chord in England too.

Still, as far as it went, the Declaration of Independence was an extraordinary document. It lit a beacon that has stayed alight to this day. Indeed, many of its points are as topical now as they were back then. Take its charge against the King concerning judges:

...he has made our judges dependant on his will alone...

The Executive trying to impose its authority on the judiciary? That’s certainly the hallmark of tyranny. But isn’t that just what the Donald would like to do?

Sometimes I can’t help feeling that in George III the American people had a ruler as bad but no worse than the one they’ve elected now. July the fourth: is it slightly a celebration of leaping from the frying pan into the fire?

Or to put it another way, misquoting that excellent film Brassed Off, if Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

A small act in a large cause

It’s not often you get the chance to make a gesture of refusal, however small, to the Trumpists, Brexiters and other xenophobes. 

A recent business trip took me to Imperia in North West Italy. The most convenient way to get there was to fly to Nice in Southern France and then take a train for the short trip across the border and down the coast.

On the way back, I had to change at Ventimiglia, in Italy but just a few minutes by rail from Menton in France. Really. It feels as though if you ignored the rules by wandering off the end of the platform and along the track a bit, you’d have inadvertently crossed the border.

I haven’t entirely mastered the train system between Imperia and Nice. There are Italian trains, there are French trains, there are regional trains that could belong to either country without my having the faintest idea which. Delays on the way back only deepened my confusion. At 11:22, was the train at platform 2 the delayed 11:14 or would that be the one drawing in to platform 6? One way or another, I managed to miss the regional train I was booked on for Nice.

In the meantime, I’d started a conversation with a young man as lost as I was. He addressed me in broken English.

“I am Younis. I from Libya,” he assured me earnestly. I nodded. “You see? Black?” he added, pointing to his arm. 

There was no doubt about it. Not just his arm but all parts of his skin exposed to view were dark enough to qualify for what we call black.

Younis at Ventimiglia
I hope he gets to Paris safely
“Libya not good now,” he continued, perhaps with a view to furthering my education. I told him I’d heard reports to that effect.

“I have brother in Paris. At one o’clock from Paris.”

Did he mean an hour from Paris? I didn’t pursue it as it hardly seemed useful to debate expressions of time in English. He was, after all, heading for France where they were unlikely to be helpful

“I go to Nice. I get to Nice from here?”

I told him yes, I thought so, that we were on the right platform as far as I could tell. I didn’t add that I’d been wrong before. I felt we both needed our optimism kept up.

Eventually a train pulled in. Judging by the name of the company on the side and the direction it was travelling, I felt emboldened to go out on a bit of a limb.

“I think this is the Nice train.”

“Nice?” he said. He had a fetching smile and turned it on me at full beam. Then he leaped through the nearest door onto the train.

I was more cautious and walked up the platform to check with a guard first.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “this is the Nice train. But you can’t use your regional ticket on it. You’ll need a new one.”

I got on and found a seat.

A few minutes later we pulled into Menton.

“This is a service stop only,” the loudspeakers announced, “do not leave the train here. The stop is only to allow the police to carry out security checks. Please have your documents ready if asked for them.”

It occurred to me that things might not go well for Younis, who had assured me that he had “no papier”, that “in Italian they just…” and he made the pantomime of taking a photo, “and they…” with a pantomime of taking prints of all his fingers.

Just then he reappeared and I waved at him. He gave me another beaming smile and walked down the carriage to sit opposite me.

“Where we are?”

“Menton,” I said, “France.”

“France? We in France?”

I didn’t think the beam could be increased in intensity but it was.

“Why we stop?”

“The police are checking papers,” I said, and the beam switched off.

“I no papier…” he repeated, “Italian just…” and he did the finger-printing thing again.

“I know,” I said, “we just have to hope.”

“I no trouble with police,” he assured me, by which I think he meant that he had committed no crimes.

“I’m sure,” I replied, disinclined to explain that to police forces around Europe just being black and undocumented was more than crime enough. He would probably discover that quite soon – I only hoped it wouldn’t be in the next few minutes.

I looked up the carriage. There were no police in sight though there was someone almost as baleful: a ticket collector. He reached us.

“I think I have to buy a new ticket,” I told him, showing him the one I had.

“I’m afraid so,” he said, “that’ll be €12.50.”

A corporate card backed by a company that is tolerant of its staff, even when they get things wrong, put me in a position of some privilege. But then the collector turned to my travelling companion.

“Your ticket, please?”

“What he want?” he asked me.

“A ticket for this train. It’s twelve euros fifty.” I looked at him expectantly.

“I don’t have it,” he said, apparently as distraught as I was unsurprised. 

He’d got into France, a big step towards realising his dream of joining his brother. He’d avoided the police. And now he was going to be plunged into trouble with them, for want of the cost of two coffees in a station cafe.

“I’ll buy his ticket,” I told the collector, pulling out my personal card.

Once the transaction was complete, the collector told me I was very kind, without any obvious trace of sarcasm.

That surprised me. Most officials, in my experience, disapprove of helping people in what was obviously Younis’s position. But, in any case, I didn’t feel I’d been kind at all. Real generosity would have been to make a long-term commitment to help Younis, and I was doing nothing of the kind. I doubt our paths will cross again. Besides, the sum I’d parted with wouldn’t get me from Nice station to the airport. It wouldn’t cover the price of the meal I had there. I’m not sure it would feed my dogs for more than a day (and they’re little dogs).

Instead, for a small price, I was enabled to do three things that mattered to me:

  • Distance myself from Brexiters who, for all their rationalisations, are merely offering cover to xenophobes if they’re not xenophobes themselves
  • Reject the Trumps, Farages, le Pens and others who feel they can loudly proclaim their defence of Christian values, despite having had their sense of human compassion surgically excised
  • Provide a little assistance to a man who had struggled across the Mediterranean and was now attempting to travel several hundred miles on no money, to make a better life for himself in a nation which, along with my own, had militarily meddled the heck out of his.

Cheap at ten times the price. Now I only wish I’d thought of buying him a ticket all the way to Paris. A missed opportunity.