Thursday, 31 August 2017

The joy that is Luton airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why am I telling you all this?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Lies, damned lies, and Tory pledges

The French have a saying, that the only person committed by a verbal contract is the one who believes it.

The same could be said of other apparent commitments. Brexit pledges for future prosperity, for instance. Or, indeed, Conservative election promises.

A glowing example of the latter is in Theresa May’s claim, in the Conservative election manifesto at the 2017 General Election in Britain, that she would deliver:

Fairer corporate governance, built on new rules for takeovers, executive pay and worker representation on company boards.

Top executives at play work
A steadily growing abuse of recent years is the shameless increase in corporate executive pay while others are on stagnant incomes at best. While there was a reduction in top pay in Britain between 2015 and 2016, that still left CEOs in the top companies on 129 times as much as the average for their workforce. Twenty years the ratio was 48 to 1. That was bad enough, but the ratio today is eye watering.

Anyone who believes the top CEOs are working nearly three times as hard as their counterparts twenty years should probably stop reading this piece now.

Equally, anyone who thinks they’re worth the same as 129 of their staff has an inflated assessment of the job of a CEO. Generally, it consists of making a lot of money whether or not the company is doing well and, when it gets into trouble, leaving with a colossal payoff before stepping into another only slightly less grossly overpaid job.

The employees on 1/129 of his income will find themselves paid a few weeks’, or if they’re lucky a few months’, salary and then battle to get another job. Homes and families may well be sacrificed in the process.

The actual proposals that have now been made by Theresa May’s government are somewhat less ambitious than her initial words suggest.

Companies will be urged to appoint employee directors or advisory groups advising their boards. They will not be mandated to do so.

As for the gaping disparities in pay, the 900 biggest companies will be required to publish the ratio of top incomes to the average of the employees. This presumably is intended to “name and shame” the worst offenders. Sadly, I rather expect it to have the opposite effect.

For some time, police used Anti-Social Behaviour Orders against young people who routinely behaved badly. These days, “ASBOs” have been replaced by injunctions. One of the problems with these measures, is that they’ve come to be regarded by their recipients as badges of honour: you haven’t made it as a full-blown hooligan unless you have your injunction.

Can you imagine the conversations between leading CEOs on golf courses after the May proposals are enacted?

“We’ve had to publish our salary ratios,” says Gunther, “mine’s 135:1”.

“Really?” says Paul, “mine’s 151:1.”

“Wow,” replies Gunther, “I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

“You can say that again. I plan to push on to 170:1 by next year,” says Paul as he drives his ball off the tee into the bushes on the right of the fairway, “you’d better get moving.”

Oh, well. Such is life. Just further proof of the principle I started off with:

If you’re disappointed over a Tory promise, you have only youself to blame – for having believed it in the first place.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Backing Brexit, because I know it makes sense. Or ought to, apparently

Ah, the pride and joy of Britain as a great power
Putting down the Kenya Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s
Normally I don’t get into debates on Twitter – or what passes as debate – but I’m on leave so I felt I could put in half an hour or so yesterday and today.

What was the issue? Well, the one that’s going to dominate British politics for years. As our local MP points out, if he’s lucky enough to be re-elected for the next ten years, his professional life is going to be dominated by Brexit.

So, as you can imagine, it was Brexiters who were – how shall I put this? – a little exasperated with me.

“What an infantile perspective he has.” That was one of the politer comments. Still, note that referring to me in the third person is delightfully dismissive. Seen as witty, too, I expect. In certain quarters.

Slightly less courteous were references such as “…hundreds of people … ripping the piss out of your preposterous assertion... Pompous ass!”

It’s never easy to come up with an effective response to an argument as well constructed and closely reasoned as that.

Some people decided to focus on another major shortcoming of mine.

“…well you are a fiction writer – a bad one at that.”

It had never struck me that my skill as a writer, or lack of it, was going to be an issue in the Brexit process. But, hey, that process has already amazed me repeatedly, so perhaps I should contain my capacity for surprise.

At the crux of the argument, aside from the gentle remarks on my personality, was the proposition that Britain would be better off out of the EU. I suggested that this view was based on the belief that Britain remains a global power which, I pointed out, struck me as illusory. At work, I felt, was nostalgia, a backward-looking sense of greatness, which has little or no contact with current reality.

“We are a global power,” I was told indignantly. “Despite the best attempts of some. Recognising that doesn't involve 'going backwards'.”

Another commentator put up a pair of tables, showing that Britain still accounts for 3.9% of global GDP, and that the country is fifth in spending on defence, making it a major military force too.

On the face of it, this sounds compelling. At least, if you see military might as an essential component of global importance, a proposition I might question if it weren’t a digression from the main point here

In any case, this writer failed to set his claims in historical perspective.

Comparative GDP
As far as GDP is concerned, Britain’s 3.9%, according to my correspondent’s own figures, represents US$2.9 trillion. That compares with the US’s GDP of $18 trillion – over six times more. When Britain was a genuine world power, its GDP was close behind the US’s: in 1890, British GDP was moving towards $250 billion dollars, when in the US it was nearly $350 billion.

Comparative military strength
It’s also telling that, according to my critic’s other table, Britain, still the fifth most powerful military nation, has a total of 205,330 serving in the three branches of the forces – army, navy and air force. Now, when Britain was still clinging on to its status as a leading power, in 1914, it was criticised for the weakness of its army. On the brink of World War 1, the army’s strength was only 733,514.

A weak force and it made for a difficult start in the fighting that engulfed Europe. And yet – it was slightly more than the three and half times more than the total in all three branches today.

Hence my suggestion that aspiring to be a global power is a backward-looking, vain aspiration for Britain. We simply don’t have the economic muscle or, if military strength really is a key factor, the firepower to play that role. Once, maybe, but not now. “We are a global power”? Wake up and smell the cordite.

And that is my quarrel with these people. They’re refusing to wake up to the reality of our real status. We remain a power, but an intermediate one. In the same league as Germany, France or Italy. To be taken seriously, but in no position to dictate terms to great powers.

Not that I regard the situations as anything to regret. I don’t want to go back to Britain as a world power. When it was, it chalked up a string of horrors: genocide of the aboriginal population of Australia, the cruel putting down of the Indian ‘mutiny’ (in reality, an uprising against a colonial presence that had no right to be installed there), the Amritsar massacre, the hunting of insurgents in Malaya or Kenya or Cameroon – the list goes on and on. Indeed, the British Empire provided the first trial of an innovation that marked the twentieth century: concentration camps used against its Boer adversaries – civilians and not just fighters – in South Africa. Torture, of course, was commonplace across the Empire.

No, I want those things behind us. I’d like us to recognise that they already are. I’d like us to come to the realisation, as Germany, France and Italy have, that we are now intermediate powers. Alone, we’ll be pushed around by the US, China, Russia, Japan and others who may well grant us free trade deals, but on terms we’re not going to like. Together, on the other hand, in the European Union, we, Germany, France, Italy and 24 other countries can truly influence the way the world travels.

That’s why I feel the Brexiters are missing the point. They’re grasping at a mirage. And missing the real opportunity in front of us.

But, hey, who am I to have a view? It seems that “the arrogance of [my] position is breathtaking. And hilariously stupid”. The hilariously stupid should, presumably, just shut up and let others do the talking.

Which is what I’m going to do now.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The transients' diary: week 2

The scaffolding’s up around our house!

Scaffolding up. Execution next
It was a joy to behold. The contractor had to give up on the firm he chose first, the one whose lorry proved unserviceable, and even on the firm he talked to next. But then the third firm he tried came through and they did the job. Just within his timetable for doing it: he’d assured us it had to be this week.

So he’s got no excuse for not hitting his schedule, right? He said the scaffolding had to go up this week. It is up this week.

On the other hand, once they dug up the old bathroom floor, they found all sorts of ghastly stuff underneath. Rotten, it seems. Unstable. All over the place. Happens so often, though, doesn’t it? You start to fix something and you find more things to fix.

Naturally, that rather kills things as far as sticking to budget’s concerned. I just hope we can still meet the timetable...

There’s no doubt in my mind that the success so far has all been down to the encouragement Danielle provides the contractor. It’s wonderful that our temporary accommodation is only ten minutes’ walk from the house. That means she can keep popping in and checking on progress. It must be wonderful for the contractor to know that she’s doing that, and he can count on his client’s constant vigilance.

He must be so pleased.

The other reason we go round at least once a day is to see Misty, our cat. We didn’t want to bring him here, where there’s no cat flap. He’s always enjoyed being able to go in or out at his pleasure.

Catch a mouse outside? He can have a pleasant and invigorating snack.

Fail to catch a mouse outside? He can pop back in through the flap and tank up on dry food instead.

We didn’t feel we could deprive him of that so we left him at home. But it must be a bit of a dismal experience being alone so much of the time. So we go and see him, and also make sure he’s got all the food he needs.

He’s a proud and independent creature. But you can see it’s hurting him to be left alone for so long. And he's living in the shed, with his food bowls in there. Which he must feel is a bit of an indignity.

I don’t know what your problem was, but I was 
happy in the house. Look where I'm living now
The moment we show up he comes trotting over, mewing the whole time – very vocal, he’s become – and rubs himself up against us. Why, he even rubs himself up against the dogs, if we bring them around: in the good old days when we were all under one roof, he’d often get fed up with Toffee and Luci, but these days he’s pitifully happy to see them again.

All very sad.

Hang on in there, Misty! We’re working on it. Why do you think we keep the contractor under pressure? It’s only so we can get back as soon as possible, with our couch, so that all five of us can crowd onto it together to watch some gripping TV series or other.

That’s what transience is all about. Getting it over fast. Returning to normal.

“So why the heck did you move out in the first place?” I can practically hear him saying. Bitterly.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Born to rule over us. And we want them to do it again...

“Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves…”

A gem of a description. Through the voice of one of his most colourful characters, Connie Sachs in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carré elegantly sums up the tragedy of the men of privilege who grew up in thirties Britain. Their generation provided some of the most swashbuckling of our spies – and of our traitors.

Kim Philby. "One of us" and not to be touched
even though he was working for them
They were educated at the finest schools and universities. Their background, their families and their training guaranteed them entry to any clubs, ministry or intelligence agency they chose. According to Ben Macintyre’s excellent book, A Spy among Friends, the most infamous of our traitors, Kim Philby, was interviewed for recruitment into counter-espionage agency MI6by a Miss Marjorie Maxse. She was:

…chief organisation officer for the Conservative Party, a role that apparently equipped her to identify people who would be good at spreading propaganda and blowing things up.

Valentine Vivian, then Deputy Head of MI6, explained his decision to clear Philby for recruitment, in what MacIntyre describes as the “quintessential definition of Britain’s Old Boys network”:

I was asked about him, and said I knew his people.

Macintyre provides invaluable insight into the workings of the British establishment. Philby drifted through that world with untroubled ease. Even after he was exposed as a double agent. In an Afterword, John Le Carré reproduces extracts from his notes of an interview he conducted with Nick Elliott, the last MI6 agent to interrogate Philby before he defected to Russia. At the time, PHilby was in Beirut. Elliott explained that nobody wanted him back in London, where a trial would only have been deeply embarrassing. But, Le Carré suggested, more extreme, even terminal, measures, could have been taken:

”… could you have him killed, liquidated?”

“My dear chap. One of us.”

One of us. Indeed. A commoner like George Blake, who passed British secrets to the Russians, could be condemned to 42 years in gaol, but not a Phlby. Allowing him to flee to Moscow was the only thing for a gentleman.

Micintyre doesn’t try to count the number of agents who were killed as a result of Philby’s spying. For a wonderful object lesson of his betrayals and British establishment ineptitude, we need only turn to Western action against Albania. The US and British decided that it would make sense to select young men from among Albanian refugees, train them, arm them and send them back into their country to foment revolution against its Communist government.

One might question the wisdom of this policy. Think Vietnam. Cuba. Cambodia. Iraq. Syria. Libya. The cause of democracy hasn’t been particularly advanced by Western interventions. But then, experience does rather show that the establishment of our great nations isn’t distinguished by good judgement or principle, even when it isn’t actively engaged in treason. I don’t approve of what the infiltrators into Albania were planning to do, and they may well have been thoroughly unpleasant people.

Even so, it’s painful to think of those young men taking their training, their weapons and their lives into their hands, to back Western plans ostensibly designed to promote their freedom, only to find that the secret police knew the time and place of their landing in the country and were waiting for them. Few got out. Most were tortured, imprisoned or killed, as were their families, their friends and even people who had the misfortune to share a surname with one of the infiltrators. Two agents were tied to the back of a jeep and dragged around until they were reduced to bloody pulp.

Their fates were sealed by Philiby. And yet the establishment, who sent the young men, felt that no punishment was appropriate.

Not for “one of us”.

Of course, when I say, “one of us”, I really mean “one of them”. This was a tiny number of people, bound by friendship and blood, especially blood. Their families had passed power from generation to generation, for centuries. As Connie Sachs understood, they had been bred to run an Empire and, after World War 2, there was no Empire for them to rule. Betrayal was an outlet for their pent-up frustration.

Sadly, that establishment hasn’t gone away. The more recent generations have lowered their sights and no longer aspire to Empire. But in all other respects they continue the tradition. The previous British Prime Minister, David Cameron, had been a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University, made up of entitled sons of the obscenely rich for whom a night out was to wreck a restaurant and have Daddy pop by to pay for the damage the next day.

Britain’s current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was a contemporary in the same Club. Born to rule, bred to behave badly.

One of the great advantages of the European Union is that it put a limited brake on their behaviour.

It’s interesting that a major aim of the Brexit movement is to “bring back control”. Free us up from those tiresome constraints from Brussels.

So that those born to rule can take control back and rule again.

God help us all.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The transients' diary: week 1

It all started when we decided that it would be fun to add some space to our little house, and make it slightly less little. Convert the loft, say, so that we could have three bedrooms – and, hey, luxury, two bathrooms. And how about a bigger kitchen that led straight to the garden? That could be a lot more comfortable.

It would be inconvenient, of course. There’d be noise and dust and the place would be barely inhabitable, but that seemed a price worth paying.

“Barely inhabitable?” said the contractor with what could only be described as a guffaw. “You want to stay here while we’re working? You’re kidding, right?”

“Not a good idea, you think?”

“Listen, pal.” He may not actually have said that – we are the clients, after all, and he wouldn’t be offensive – but the sneer was there by implication. “Barely inhabitable doesn’t cover the half of it. Completely uninhabitable’s a bit closer the mark. We’re going to cut off the gas and the electricity. The water too. And we’ll be working in both bedrooms. No, no, you can forget it. Out you go, I’m afraid. For two months, till we finish.”

Homeless! We’d made ourselves homeless! In pursuit of a more comfortable home.

Oh, life abounds with amusing ironies.

Barely inhabitable

Fortunately, we had friends with a flat to let. So we moved there.

So we’re in a time of transience. Which struck me as worth documenting. If only because it’s slightly different, and therefore potentially more interesting, than mere banal normality.

Oh, wow, that’s so much easier to write than to do…

It’s surprising how much less difference there is than you might imagine, between a small temporary move, and a full-scale permanent one. That’s principally because anything we weren’t taking with us had to be boxed up, or at least covered with dust sheets, if we wanted any hope of still being able to use it when we got back. As for the things we were taking, well that was just like a normal move. We used the same great Polish company we’d already used twice before since we moved to Luton (yep: we’re one just one step away from nomadic living). We prepared and boxed everything for them to take, made sure they had everything with them, and unpacked it all at the other end.

Just as big a job after a five-minute move as after a five-hour one.

The worst bit was getting the sofa up the stairs and into the living room. Both ends had to come off. And then be put back on again. But, hey, it had to be done: it’s where the dogs like to lie during the day, and they need to feel at home in the new environment. 

Don’t they?

The next day the builders moved in. And, as usual, the first step in making the place more attractive was to make it profoundly unappealing. To turn it into a disaster area, in fact.

However, and I have to admit this a perpetual source of amazement to me, within the maelstrom of destruction something constructive began to appear. Within days, a new set of steps appeared. We don’t have our new top floor yet – for the moment, we still have a loft – but we have steps up to it.

They may not go anywhere but, hey, they’re stairs

That’s progress, isn’t it?

Naturally, progress has to pause from time to time. What project doesn’t, after all? Today I learned that the scaffolders’ lorry had failed its emission tests and needed a new engine. That won’t be fitted until Tuesday, so the scaffolding won’t arrive until later next week, instead of last week as planned. But, never fear, the contractor assures me, as long as it does come by then, work can still complete within the two-month schedule.

“The timetable stays the same, does it?” I asked him.

“Oh yes, no problem,” he said, with that nonchalant tone people always adopt when they’re trying to hide the doubts that assail them.

There might be another small problem. The daughter of one of the building workers has been having seizures – “well, she has them all the time, but you know, this time she’s in hospital” – which means her Dad has had to have time off. But the contractor’s still nonchalant about things.

Worryingly nonchalant.

Meanwhile, we’re having trouble adapting to our temporary life. As she was driving us back from badminton today, I had to remind Danielle that she needed to turn left to the flat, and not go straight on to the now uninhabitable house.

“Old habits,” she said as she wrenched the wheel around to enter the side street, “they’re difficult to break.”

That’s certainly true. Later, I took the dogs for a long walk, and didn’t wake up to what I was doing on the drive back until I found myself pulling up in front of our house instead of the flat. I, of course, don’t acknowledge my faults as readily as Danielle does, so I just pretended (to the dogs and to myself, because there was nowhere else present) that I was there deliberately, preferring to park near our house rather than in any old anonymous side street near where we’re staying – though not living.

We’re now at day 6 of our temporary exile. That means there are only 56 more days to go. The plan is to be back in our place by 15 October.

I have confidence in that date. Because the contractor has told me he’ll meet it, so what grounds have I for doubt? Contractors are people for whom it is a point of pride to perform or die, to bring a project in to budget and to schedule against any odds that society or nature throws against them.

Aren’t they?

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

After Charlottesville: Trump and taking down statues

Donald Trump has come up with some interesting remarks on the clashes that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. These were the background that led to the murder of a protester  leading to the murder of a protester, Heather Heyer, and the injury of several others, by a white supremacist who took a leaf out of the terrorists’ book, and drove a car into the crowd. 

Trump said:

Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee. This week, it is Robert E Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? ... Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue? … You're changing history, you're changing culture...

Robert E. Lee: should his statue go?
In a sense, he has a point, though not the one he thinks he’s making. It’s true that iconic figures from the US past have terribly tarnished images: George Washington was a slaveowner who never freed any of his slaves, even on his deathbed.

Thomas Jefferson too, who penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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,” clearly felt the right to liberty was alienable for anyone with African blood. Why, he even took it from his own family. Visitors to his house at Monticello commented on the strange sensation of being served at table by slaves whose looks made it absolutely clear they were Jefferson’s own sons. He had fathered them on another of his slaves, Sally Hemings. 

He enslaved his own children? What an indictment.

So one can see an argument for taking down their statues.

However, that would mean simply ignoring their real achievements elsewhere. One of Washington’s finest was to have led the American army to victory over the British colonial power, and then to have resisted the temptation to take on the military dictatorship that was clearly open to him. And Jefferson was the voice of the revolution. He may have behaved shockingly in his home, but at least he set certain principles for democratic behaviour – though limited only to white males at the time – which have become a benchmark for the rest of us to aim at (but for everyone).

So maybe their statues should remain after all.

What about Lee?

I’ve never understood why he had monuments anyway. He swore allegiance to the United States, served in its armed forces, and when his state rose against his country, chose to side with his state. He couldn’t, he claimed, draw his sword against his “country”, but by that he meant Virginia, not the USA.

That made him an oathbreaker and turncoat. In absolutely strict terms, he committed treason. And that betrayal was directed at the very country, the United States, most Southerners would loudly uphold today.

Why on earth celebrate such treason? Why tolerate monuments to it? Why aren’t they in the forefront of the movement to tear down his statue?

Don’t think it was the only option open to him. His fellow-Virginian, George H. Thomas, made the opposite decision. He remained loyal to the country to which he had sworn allegiance and to the army in which he served. He became, in my view, the most effective general on either side – significantly better in that respect than was Lee himself.

That view runs counter to the claims of many who maintain that Lee deserves our respect as a great soldier. Really? He sent men to march a mile under devastating fire from enemies in well-protected positions, in what became known as Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. George Pickett himself, the man who gave his name to the charge though he didn’t order it, when asked to put his division in order for a defensive fight after the charge, replied that he no longer had a division.

Men like Douglas Haig, who threw away hundreds of thousands of lives of British soldiers under his command in the First World War, and his equivalents in the French and German armies, simply took Lee’s Gettysburg lunacy to a new level of carnage.

As for Stonewall Jackson, well there’s little to say. He was a religious maniac and a man of appalling brutality. An effective soldier maybe but a thoroughly unpleasant man. Take down his statue by all means.

And why not, indeed, Lee’s too.

So, you see, Trump has a point. Though I doubt he’d agree with it if he thought it through. On the other hand, who’s ever accused Trump of thinking things through?

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Toffee's diary: strange things. Like trains. And adulthood.

Trains. Terrible things. Do you know them? I didn’t. But I found out a week ago.

They go chunka-chunka-chunka for hours and hours. And sometimes woosh-woosh-woosh. Worst of all, when another one goes by, they go woosh-woosh-roar-roar-roar-clackety-clackety-clack.

It’s horrible. Especially because it goes on and on and on.

Still it was wonderful when we got to the end. Its somewhere called Scotland. There’s lots of great places. A river we can wander along. A field with lots of other dogs that Luci could run away from and I could play with. And there was even a sea thing which was fun.

“Yes,” says Luci, “where I went in and you ran away.”

Luci went into the sea thing
But I thought it was a bit safer to watch and bark a bit at it
Not really. I didn’t run away. I went in too. But I only went in just a bit. Paws, you know. That was far enough. The rest of the water just kept moving. Luci may have liked that but I though it made more sense to stay near the sand. Sand! That’s great stuff. You can get it everywhere, and dig in it, and even run across it.

What’s more, there were some really nice humans in Scotland. There was a woman who was like our human number 1, but she was even better at picking me up. Rocking me, you know, and stroking me and telling me how nice I was.

“She doesn’t know you like our number 1 does,” says Luci.

And a man too, who’s terribly big. Bigger than human number 2. Amazing. And the third one’s a puppy. I knew that because she was, well, puppy-like. She was taller than my humans and almost as big as the man one, but still a puppy’s a puppy, and you just know when you see one.

Talking about puppies, something really odd happened to me this week. The humans told me I wasn’t one any more. Not a puppy. No idea why. “She’s in season,” the humans kept saying.

In season? What on earth did that mean?

“It’s summer,” said Luci, “that’s the season. Not that you’d know it with the rain. And it won’t be for long anyway. Trust me, I know. I’ve seen seasons come and go.”

Seasons come and go? So what does that mean? That I’ll stop being an adult and be a puppy all over again? I think I’d prefer that.

But the worst of it was that they started talking about me making puppies. Making them? I like being one but I’ve no idea how to make one. Why don’t they just let me go on as a puppy myself instead of trying to turn me into some kind of puppy-making adult? 

“The humans will sort it all out,” says Luci. 

It’s all very well for her to say that: it seems they’ve made sure she can’t make puppies, and I don’t know how they did that, any more than I know why I can’t either but they think I can.

“You’ll find out,” says Luci.

Oh, well. It was fun in Scotland anyway. And now we’re off again. Chunka-chunka-chunka. Woosh-woosh-woosh. But it doesn’t feel so bad this time. Maybe I’m getting more used to it. And, after all, putting up with it worked out pretty well, considering, last time.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Venezuela: the case for just saying “no”

There is a glorious scene in my favourite book of World War One memoirs, Emilio Lussu’s Sardinian Brigade. He describes a moment when his Italian unit is waiting to charge the Austrian lines. The pre-assault artillery barrage starts up but the fire, instead of hitting the Austrians, falls on its own, Italian positions.

While Lussu rushes about trying to restore discipline among the panicking troops, he’s struck by an astonishing sight: one machine gun unit which is under full control of its officer, a friend of his, marching in fine order – towards the rear.

“What on Earth are you doing?” shouts Lussu.

“Attacking those guns,” replies his friend.

“But they’re our guns,” he shouts back.

“They’re firing at me,” comes the calm reply, “so they’re enemy guns.”

That strikes me as a thoroughly sensible, not to say commendable, attitude. By analogous reasoning, if a government is wreaking havoc on the lives of workers and the poor, it is, by that simple fact, a government hostile to the principles of socialism. It’s crucial to bring it down, as quickly as possible. If it claims to be socialist then, as soon as we’ve got our hollow laugh out of the way, we need to devote ourselves still more urgently to the task – a false friend is far more dangerous than an open enemy.

Why do I mention that just now?

Because there seems to be a belief among certain circles of the British Left that we need to back the present government in Venezuela, on the grounds that it’s ‘socialist’. This is a ‘socialist’ government that presided over a reduction in GDP by 18.6% last year. Inflation was running at a yearly rate of 741% in February 2017. Although the official figures are different, many commentators believe that unemployment is climbing towards 20%.

The face of socialism? Not as I see it
Venezuela is sitting on the biggest oil reserves in the world. And yet it’s GDP per head is a little over $12,800 a head and falling, while even Cuba, with no oil, is running at $11,900. How long before Venezuela falls below Cuba?

There’s plenty wrong about Cuba, but at least it’s delivering a stable economy, secure if low living standards and decent healthcare, in spite of decades of US sanctions. Nicolás Maduro’s government is delivering chaos, in which the first victims are the poor and the workers it claims to protect.

Sure, the parties likely to replace his in power may well be pretty awful. At least they’re open enemies and we can get on with opposing them once they’re in office. The one controlling the regime right down is a false friend and it’s wreaking horrific damage on those it should be defending.

Marching on it at the head of a machine gun detachment probably isn’t a good idea. But doing the same thing metaphorically? It’s firing on our people, which makes it the enemy, so why not?

After all, don’t forget Stalin called himself a socialist too. He proved it by taking out 80 million people. Among whom were all the leaders, bar him, of the revolution that was supposed to bring socialism to Russia.

I got tired decades ago of being told that his successors’ governments had to be supported simply for the principles to which they paid lip service. I feel tired when I hear the same stale old rhetoric being dragged out in defence of Maduro. 

We need to find something more innovative. And actually stand up for the people we’re supposed to represent.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Who'd be a democratic socialist? Depends on what you mean by it

On 21 October 1966, 40,000 cubic metres of stones and mud slid down a hillside in Wales. In their track stood the village of Aberfan and Pantglas Junior School. 116 children and 28 adults died.

Aberfan: aftermath of disaster
The heap that slid was slurry from the nearby coalmine. It had been dumped for years on top of known springs. The constant flow of water made it unstable and many voices had been raised in concern.

The slagheap was the responsibility by the National Coal Board. It had taken control of the coal industry when it was nationalised by Attlee’s iconic Labour government. It was headed by Alf Robens, a former Labour MP who had held the position of Minister for Power in that same government.

Robens falsely claimed that the disaster could not have been foreseen. He strove to minimise the Coal Board’s contribution to reconstruction, which only proceeded when a new Labour government under Harold Wilson came up with some money, though that didn’t stop £150,000 being taken from the charitable fund for the disaster (ultimately paid back by yet another Labour government, under Tony Blair).

Why do I recall that story now?

Because just recently some friends on the left accused me of not being a “democratic socialist”. I don’t take offence at such attacks: they merely balance charges of being a “raving socialist” levelled at me from the right (the centre-right: I don’t knowingly have friends in the hard right). Still, it’s a criticism that deserves consideration.

I’ve always thought that central to socialism is the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. There are huge difficulties with this principle, not least that no one can really say what anyone’s needs are.

Generally, many socialists accept as an intermediate step the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution”. Achieving even that would be a huge step forward. And we’re a long way from doing so.

A recent report reveals that chief executives of top UK companies are, on average, paid in a year what someone on a median income would take 160 years to earn.

Major company chief executives may be doing an important job. But their claims to take responsibility are empty. When companies go wrong, Chief Executives generally just move on. Tony Hayward, Chief Executive of BP at the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, has taken up lucrative new positions with Glencore Xstrata and Corus. As his history shows, these top executives aren’t always as competent as one might hope: the link between ther contribution and reward is hard to see. Certainly, it isn’t established at 160 times median pay.

Tackling this kind of problem strikes me as central to democratic socialism.

Sadly, however, those who most loudly proclaim their socialism take what to me seems a far more reductionist view of socialism. They equate it with nationalisation of industry which they conflate with people’s control. That sounds democratic. Indeed, with people’s control it would seem likely that a more socialistic approach, linking remuneration to contribution might be adopted.

Sadly, the real experience of nationalisation is that it produces not people’s control but state control. The bureaucrats who run nationalised industries don’t act in the interests of the people, but generally in the interests of the self-proclaimed elite that includes men of Tony Hayward’s ilk.

Aberfan shows how such bureaucrats can be sucked into the game and ignore the legitimate claims of ordinary people. I sympathise with the Aberfan father who wanted the cause of his son’s death to be recorded as “buried alive by the National Coal Board”. The same coal board would do Thatcher’s bidding and bury the entire British coal industry less than twenty years later.

It also saddens me that many friends on the left line up with the Brexit camp in the great debate that dominates British politics. In a pamphlet on the subject, an MP for whom I have great admiration expressed his surprise at the fact that the far right shares his desire to leave the European Union. Only his surprise surprises me. The driving force for Brexit is fear of immigration and a nationalistic loss of local state power – a fundamental concern of the far right.

On the other hand, one of the few forces to have resisted the hegemony of the Tony Haywards has been the EU. It has ensured the adoption of employment laws that are anathema to the top executives. It represents a bulwark against the kind of behaviour of employers that marked the National Coal Board and Lord Robens at Aberfan. It guarantees freedoms, including the freedom of movement, that give wage earners the right to pursue the best opportunities for themselves anywhere across the world’s largest trading bloc.

Why would any democratic socialist want to give any of that up?

Brexit: "bringing back control" to hand it to Washington?
Thanks for sharing, @AnnEnglishRose

So, friends who doubt my democratic socialist credentials, here’s my answer: if democratic socialism is reduced to state control of industry and a nationalistic refusal of merged sovereignty with our neighbours, then certainly I want no part of it. If, on the other hand, democratic socialism means battling against the injustice and regressive effect of inequity, revealed in individuals being paid 160 times more than others for delivering not even a fraction of 160 times as much; if it means working with other nations to defend our rights and extend our prosperity; why, then democratic socialism is precisely what I believe in.

And isn’t that precisely what the Labour Party should be about?