Friday, 28 September 2012

Stranger in a strange land

In the grey-blue time just before dawn the clock radio clicked into life, tuned to the usual news programme. Half awake and thinking of nothing in particular, I rolled over, expecting to give about half my attention to whatever mix of triumphs, disasters and strange new things was catching the media’s attention that morning.

But something wasn’t quite right. The newsreader’s voice had moved beyond authoritative to sombre. There seemed to be just one story. Something serious. An accident. Who was it? What was that? Some reference to the monarchy.

The queen must have died – I imagined BBC staff going onto their highest state of alert, opening sealed envelopes and activating a set of heavily-rehearsed contingency plans for The Big One, the death of a monarch and the ritual of national mourning demanded by protocol.

No, it wasn't the queen, it was ... oh, right, Diana Windsor (née Spencer). Was she back to being a Lady now? Or a Princess? What was the correct title of a divorced ex-royal spouse? I'd never been interested enough to find out.

It was a sort of hollowed-out 9/11 / death of JFK moment - I still remember hearing the news, although it had no significance for me. It was a personal tragedy for one family, but no sadder than the thousands of other news stories that involve somebody's untimely death.

Then something weird happened - the media-choreographed Mexican wave of sort-of-spontaneous public grief. Not the restrained, establishment-sanctioned sorrow of a John Snagge formally confirming a the end of a royal life, but not wholly spontaneous, either. I don't remember meeting or seeing any actual people sobbing uncontrollably, but there were enough people out there who apparently cared enough to leave heaps of floral tributes and crowd together in front of TV cameras to provide archive footage of A Nation In Mourning.

So I think I might give Ian Hislop's forthcoming programme, Stiff Upper Lip - An Emotional History Of Britain, a listen. The  proximate cause of Di-mania wasn't any more significant than any other family tragedy, but the collective wobbling of the national upper lip was a memorable and disturbing change.

For a republican* like me, it's highly unusual to feel sorry for the royals but I did feel a twinge of fellow feeling for Liz when she was stalked by all those needy, ranting, emotionally incontinent headlines ('Show Us You Care', 'Where Is Our Queen? Where Is Her Flag?' and 'Your People Are Suffering'). I don't give a stuff for the monarchy, but she was the one who'd lost a former daughter-in-law, not the millions who'd never met either of them, so it was pretty obvious that, for once, it was her family, not her people, who were suffering and she deserved to be left to deal with a death in the family in her own way.

Then there was the slow motion car-crash of Tony Blair's valedictory speech. The big eyes, chokey voice and significant pauses couldn't disguise the hollow stupidity of the phrase, 'the People's Princess' ('This was the Plebs' Aristocracy and that is how it will stay, how it will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever').

I heard commentators assuring me that his performance had 'triumphantly captured the national mood.' Jesus, that would have been embarrassing. What sort of person would happily swear allegiance to a nation of muddle-headed celebrity-worshippers noisily obsessing over their media diet of unrelieved grief porn? I suspect, and like to believe, that the 'national mood' didn't include large chunks of the population who quietly continued thinking for themselves, being stoical about troubles far more immediate and personal than the death of an aristocrat they'd never met and maintaining a sense of proportion amid all the noise.

It's normally right wingers and reactionaries who get all nostalgic for the good old days of the stiff upper lip. In general, I don't feel any connection with those sort of people and the sort of world they want to go back to. A Britain before significant levels of immigration? As I see it, humans from everywhere have always travelled to seek a better life and always will. You can no more blame the poor for trying to move to lands of opportunity than Canute could blame the tide for coming in. I'll only start to worry about immigrants if life in Britain ever gets so grim that they stop wanting to come here. Political correctness gone mad? So, it's now considered wrong to abuse and discriminate against somebody purely on the basis of their race, sex, sexuality, disability or whatever. That's worth celebrating - why would anyone but a bigot have a problem with it? Respect for authority? We're all entitled to be treated with a basic level of civility, unless we've forfeited it by terrible behaviour. As I see it, Lord and Lady Muck, the people with the key to the executive toilets and other Very Important People warrant exactly the same level of civility as other humans, not the higher level of deference that some of them feel entitled to.

But I must admit that I do have a hankering for the days before the Di-ification. It makes me  feel as out of place as the most harrumphing Disgusted-Of-Tumbridge-Wells reactionary. A fondness for the stiff upper lip is seen as right wing / ruling class nostalgia - remember all those old British war films featuring impeccably-spoken chaps of the officer class setting their jaws to do deeds of understated heroism in the face of everything Jerry or the cruel sea could throw at them. But there are people from all walks of life who just get on with what they need to do, without turning it into a public melodrama. Ordinary people, living hard lives, doing what they can do to the best of their ability, the mostly unnoticed people who keep organisations, families and societies going.

People out of step with the modern world of relentless self-promotion, where it seems to matter less what you do than how loudly and insistently you shout about it. Where nothing's real unless it's been on telly (a quiet message to every prospective self-marketing reality TV star and his or her ego - put it away and do something more worthwhile, because I'll never be anywhere near as interested in you as you are). Where faux outrage over irrelevant nonsense counts as news. Where you are a product. Where it doesn't matter whether you're right or wrong, so long as you're sincere. Where the shoutiest solipsists get to choose their own reality.

As a dad, I'm seldom prouder than when my kid takes a tumble, then - rather than rolling about and making a noisy, tearful fuss about it - picks himself up, reassures anyone listening that he's fine and just carries on. It gives me hope for a better future.

*although I think that the royal family are so hugely irrelevant that abolishing them probably wouldn't make the top few hundred in my fantasy wish list of thing I'd most like to change if I was running the country.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you

I see The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is now seeing its followers persecuted for their faith, like any proper religion. As the persecutors in question belong to a party of violent neo-Nazi wingnuts, I don't expect that the Pastafarians will have to wait around too long for their first martyr.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

First world problem of the week

I know it's tough out there, but this tragic headline from Slate shocked me to the (quad) core:

I Stood in Line To Buy the Wrong Color iPhone And Then They Told Me "Congratulations"

I feel your pain, man.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Blood brothers

I wouldn't even contemplate doing a deal, even if it gave the party advantage, unless we first had written in blood, I think, rather than a cast-iron guarantee, an absolute promise that we would have a proper referendum on our relationship with the EU.
Nigel Farage

Would it count if the Tories wrote the promise in Nick Clegg's blood? Just asking.

The Ministry of Love announced today...

Pakistan has declared Friday a “Day of Love for the Prophet Mohammad”.

Protesters took to the streets of the Pakistani city of Peshawar, an old frontier town on the main road to Afghanistan, and torched a cinema and clashed with riot police who tried to disperse them with teargas.

At least five protesters were hurt, a doctor at the city’s main hospital said.

In the capital, Islamabad, about 1,000 stone-throwing protesters clashed with police as they tried to force their way to the US embassy on Thursday and the government shut down mobile phone services in more than a dozen cities as part of security arrangements ahead of protests expected on Friday.


Are you feeling the love yet?


Pakistan's experimental Haight-Ashbury-style love-in seems to have gathered together as many examples of extravagant facial hair as your authentic '60s hippy happening, but the rioting, arson and body count suggest that they haven't quite got the hang of this peace and love thing.

Meanwhile, in other news

Yet thou in thy manifold mercies forsookest them not in the wilderness: the pillar of the cloud departed not from them by day, to lead them in the way; neither the pillar of fire by night, to shew them light, and the way wherein they should go. 
Nehemiah 9:19

You have to admit that a pillar of fire in the wilderness would be a pretty impressive sight. So here's a real photo of nature getting impressively Old Testament in the Australian outback.* The proximate cause of this startling phenomenon wasn't God leading His chosen people through the wilderness, but a dust devil sucking a bush fire into its ravening maw. It gets my vote for the coolest bit of freaky Australian weather since atmospheric dust turned Sydney an eerie martian red in 2009.

Moving from extreme acts of God to human nature at its most extreme, one Alison Whelan has just been sent down for the mother of all epic drunken benders:

A drunken woman stole a passenger ferry on the River Dart and shouted 'I'm Jack Sparrow' and 'I'm a pirate' as she drifted away from police on the shore, a court has been told.

Alison Whelan, 51, had been on a two-day bender drinking Lambrini and eating hallucinogenic plants when she sought late-night shelter with a companion on the Dart Princess Passenger Ferry. When police arrived to speak to her she unmoored the 45ft vessel from the Kingswear pontoon and set off up the river...

... Whelan later told police she untied two or three of the ropes connecting the boat to the shore because she kept tripping over them.

She said before she knew it she felt the boat moving and 'noticed the hotels getting a long way away'.

Police joined lifeboat crew on the river trying to intercept the boat. The harbour master was also alerted.

But the errant suspects shouted abuse from the out-of-control boat and made jokes about being kidnapped, the court was told.

Police watched as the vessel span into a £70,000 fibreglass catamaran called Force Majeure causing £300 of damage and a moored vessel called Tomcat.

It finally came to rest in still water about a mile or so upstream.

When arrested Whelan said they would have ended up in St Tropez if they hadn't been caught.

This is South Devon

It's hilarious to read about, but tragic to live. Whelan suffers from chronic alcoholism and is currently awaiting a liver transplant. It's all very sad, rather dangerous and hugely irresponsible, but the cliches about comedy and tragedy being bedfellows also apply. Talk about going out in a blaze of glory.

*via Boing Boing, originally from The Australian (registration required)

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Be careful what you wish for...

I wished quite hard for this...

Just once it would be nice to hear a Very Important Person apologising for something that he or she has actually done ... rather than offering a fulsome apology in the sure and certain knowledge that he or she can never really be blamed for the Bad Thing being regretted.

When it finally happened it turned out to be strangely unsatisfying.

It doesn't make me feel any more sympathetic to Nick Clegg in person, although it has made me a bit more understanding of the politician's dilemma and the justified fear being mocked for showing contrition.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Jesus H. Zeitgeist

With the weight of the new evidence in this report, it is right for me today as Prime Minister to make a proper apology to the families of the 96 for all they have suffered over the past 23 years.
David Cameron's statement about the Hillsborough tragedy, delivered this week

Acknowledging a past wrong 23 years later is all very well, but it's a bit late. How about doing it a century and a half later? This was Tony Blair speaking about the Irish Potato Famine in June 1997:
The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. It has left deep scars. That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today. Those who governed in London at the time failed their people.

Jeremy Paxman was unimpressed:
You should apologise for things that you have done, that you recognise that perhaps you shouldn’t have done or regret. But apologising for things that your great, great, great, great-grandfather or grandmother did, seems to me a complete exercise in moral vacuousness.
Paxman got it right here, but he also got it spectacularly wrong. He was right, I think, to point out that a meaningful apology has to come from the person who did it and nobody else (I'll get to what he got wrong later). Even a Very Important Person can't shoulder the burden of somebody else's sins. The fact that we even entertain this idea is probably due to the reactionary fashion for "respecting" and indulging deeply held beliefs, however bizarre and irrational, with special reference to the odd, but rarely-challenged, notion that a very special individual can atone for the past sins of others:

And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. 
1 John 2:2 (KJV)

Or, in the more up-to-the-minute language of the New International Version,  'He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.' For centuries, clerics have persuaded millions of people to believe in a magic man who was sacrificed to make amends for the sins of millions of other people he'd never even met, including the long dead and the yet unborn.

It's a useful belief system for a hierarchical society built on obedient subjects, as opposed to a free society built on the rights of thinking citizens. People's responsibility to account for their own actions and their right to forgive the actions of others is taken away and judgement is placed into the hands of the mythical chief executive who sits at the apex of a of a pyramidal religious hierarchy. Only the supreme authority figure has the authority to forgive (almost) every sin.* Only the supreme authority figure can dispense ultimate justice (which you may have to hang on until the afterlife to actually experience). Subjects don't even have sufficient agency to make a free choice between sinning and not sinning. Thanks to the doctrine of original sin, the option of avoiding sin is unavailable. You're born naughty and only your loving father in heaven can forgive you.
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Psalm 51:5 (KJV)

Wow, thanks, mum! And, thanks too, for infant baptism, which means you don't even get to choose whether or not you're in the club. You're initiated as a powerless, unquestioning child with no capacity for reason, then encouraged to carry on accepting that adult authority lies with others for the rest of your life.

As for the sins you can help committing, well the scriptural advice doesn't seem to have been written for grown-ups:

My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:

1 John 2:1 (KJV)

When I read this passage, the voice I hear in my head sounds like Joyce Grenfell's nursery teacher:**

Children... pay attention, please. Free time is over, so put away your things and we are going to tell our nice story, so come over here and make a circle on the floor all around me, and we'll tell the story together... Hurry up everybody. Don't push - there's lots of room for us all ... Edgar, let go of Timmy's ear and settle down ... George! Don't do that...

Thanks to a few centuries of exceptional people standing up to unreasoning authority, thinking things through for themselves, accepting the evidence of their eyes and ears rather than what authority figures tell them to believe and questioning why things are the way they are, (heroic version), or the sheer weight of  evidence (prosaic version), many people have left this sort of learned infantalisation behind.

I agree with Paxman that it's morally stupid to think you can trade quotas of guilt, so that one person is able to atone for somebody else's actions. If you've done something wrong, nobody else can shoulder your burden of blame (and, conversely, nobody except the victim has the right to forgive a wrong - sorry, Jesus). In the case of Hillsborough, an apology from David Cameron means nothing. However long it is in coming, sincere remorse from Kelvin MacKenzie, or any of the people responsible for making the grounds safe at the time, or for conducting the policing of the match, or for organising the ambulance service response - in short, anybody personally responsible for the negligence and malice that occurred  - would be a start.

I also mentioned that Paxman got something spectacularly wrong about Blair and the Potato Famine. Paxo seems to have been responding to headlines, rather than to the content of Tony Blair's statement. The headlines went something like this; "Blair issues apology for Irish Potato Famine". But, if you read the text of his "apology" it becomes clear that he wasn't actually apologising, just acknowledging that something terrible and indefensible had happened in the past. Given Blair's messianic, holier-than-thou persona, it's understandable that Paxman seems to have looked no further than the headlines and assumed that the Blessed Tony really was morphing into the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. To Blair's credit, he wasn't doing any such thing (at least in this case).

Normally I'd be uneasy with politicians giving the impression that they're apologising, whilst using carefully-chosen words to avoid actually letting any blame attach to themselves, but in this case, the tone is perfectly right. There was absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging that the British authorities of the day callously turned a natural disaster into a far worse man-made catastrophe, but Blair was clearly not in a position to accept responsibility for events that happened 150 years before and he, rightly, didn't attempt to shoulder the guilt, or to offer an apology.

In an Irish context, it would have been not only been morally vacuous to offer an apology, but positively dangerous. The idea that Brits alive today carry the guilt for the negligence and malice of British administrations in the past is precisely what made anyone who happened to have been born in Britain a "legitimate target" in the minds of hard-line Irish Republican bomb-makers.

I guess Blair could have complained that the headlines didn't reflect his statement, but failing to correct misleading headlines about an "apology" for events a century and a half in the past is no biggie. Unlike, say, failing to correct misleading headlines suggesting that the country needed to go to war to avoid the imminent danger of attack by a hostile power ("Brits 45 mins from doom","Mad Saddam Ready to Attack: 45 Minutes from a Chemical War", etc). That's something that incontestably happened on Blair's watch, although I'm not expecting the apology that he might legitimately offer for that one any time soon.

*Except for blasphemy (i.e. questioning the authority of the system) which, at least according to Mark, Chapter 3, is the ultimate, unforgivable, sin.

**Normally the voice of the King James Version thunders in my mind with the stark gravitas of a Richard Burton, although the sillier bits are voiced by a tweedy, fussily earnest Alan Bennett-style Anglican clergyman with worn leather elbow patches and bicycle clips, a species sadly now on the endangered list.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Justice delayed

OK, so you're one of the unlucky ones. You lose a loved one in an accident deemed embarrassing to the authorities. Not only is it entirely possible that the person you've lost might have lived, but for somebody's negligence, but the body's scarcely cold before the person you've lost, along all those who died, is subject to a vicious campaign of blame-shifting, defamation and vilification.

Well, at least justice will be done. You might get an apology, twenty three years later. Not from anybody who might conceivably have been responsible for what happened, and might reasonably be supposed to owe you an apology, but from a Prime Minister who, at the time in question was a mere slip of a 25 year old party researcher in his first proper job after university, and had precisely sod all to do with what happened.

Just once it would be nice to hear a Very Important Person apologising for something that he or she has actually done (it's not as if Dave's short of things worth apologising for), rather than offering a fulsome apology in the sure and certain knowledge that he or she can never really be blamed for the Bad Thing being regretted. It would be even nicer if Very Important People who screw up, then lie about it weren't routinely able to kick the blame into the long grass somewhere on the other side of their retirement date.

Other people writing interesting things

I'm finding it hard to dredge up the energy or enthusiasm to blog about anything very much at the moment. That just means that I'm feeling a bit stale and uninspired. It doesn't mean that I think nothing interesting is happening out there, or that nobody has anything interesting to say about what's happening, as I will go on to prove:

Exhibit A - As Barbra Streisand didn't quite sing, People who hate people / Are the luckiest people in the world. Not only are self-important bigots lucky enough to enjoy the pre-emptive self-censorship of an ever-accommodating  deputy prime minister who'll bend over backwards rather than cause them a moment's discomfort, or the tiniest jot or tittle of offence, but, thanks to the European Convention on Human Rights, they're entitled to their day in court to explain exactly why they think their right to discriminate against other people is more important than other people's right not to be discriminated against.  The best of luck with that one, guys.

Exhibit B - Rather less lucky and well-respected are Britain's poor. You know they've got it bad when even the Daily Mail finds the language routinely being used to scapegoat the powerless 'vile and dehumanising'. Sadly, such compassion cuts little ice with the loose coalition of looters and free market jihadists currently dominating the ideological battlefield, whose only discernible reaction is to indignantly deny the existence of 'real' poverty in Britain. From this basic premise it is very simple to prove that the existence of desperate people relying on Britain's growing food bank sector is merely the product of a deranged imagination.

Exhibit C - Speaking of looters, our glorious new health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has come under the scrutiny of Dr Éoin Clarke. In case you missed it: Jeremy Hunt lobbied NHS officials to hand 7 hospitals over to Richard Branson, and Jeremy Hunt to force NHS to sell 912 services this year as Virgin's 350 profit clinics stand ready to pounce. This health secretary gig has been a step up for Hunt in more ways than one. Not only does health trump culture in the inter-departmental food chain, but he gets to be seen as the bagman for the fresher, cuddlier face of the predatory plutocracy, rather than gofer for its its wrinklier, rather less appealing face.

Exhibit D - A popular historian takes a look at Islam's founding stories and concludes that the religion's origins were more nuanced, incremental and subject to revision and editing than the heroic foundation myth would suggest. He's a good-natured academic, 'almost painfully concerned to stress his respectful attitude and good intentions' and has debated politely with his critics. Cue the boringly predictable outbreak of frothing and threats from the 'look-at-me-I'm-offended-now' crowd.

All quite interesting, but also rather depressing. It might be this all-enveloping air of doom and gloom that's robbing me of the urge to blog at the moment. Perhaps the answer is to ignore the news for a bit, or to get properly angry about it (the alternative to anger being apathy, depression and disillusion), or to pan for nuggets of good news, or just to direct my attention to life's odd, less travelled byways. Alternatively, I could shut up altogether, although fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), I've a stubborn streak that disinclines me from depriving the world (or a miniscule portion of the poulation thereof) of the benefit of my opinions.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Big, floppy shorts

As compensation for Britain's worst-in-a-century summer, September (so far) has been relatively warm and dry but, regardless of the Indian summer, it's still nearly time to pack my shorts away until next year. In truth, it's probably time to throw them away for good as, after a few years of wear, they've become so distressed that the kindest thing would be to have them quietly euthanized.

If I chuck them away, though, there's all the faff of finding an old or cheap pair of jeans-style of trousers and inexpertly chopping and hemming them (you wouldn't want to do this to an expensive pair), because the trouble with most ready-made men's shorts these days is that they're cut way too loose. This can be a real problem, as Andy Murray discovered this summer, when his balls dropped out of a particularly baggy pair.

What's true for balls on the tennis court is true for keys, wallets, loose change or mobiles off the court - big, floppy shorts with ridiculously loose, shallow pockets are good only for losing stuff. These inadequate pockets are often supplemented by those silly look-at-me-I'm-Bear Grylls adventurer-style cargo pockets, which are absolutely no help unless you like your keys, wallet, etc, swinging around somewhere just above knee level and don't mind having to duck down like a particularly downtrodden serf every time you want to get something out of your pocket (unless you've been blessed with gorilla-length arms).

Less baggy shorts aren't quite so well ventilated, but by the time you've got rid of the best part of the legs, a cut-off pair of regular fit jeans still provides sufficient airflow under most conditions, without the flappy risk of unintentional and embarrassing disarray.

The shortage of functionally well-cut men's shorts is a piffling first world problem if ever there was one, but it can be comforting to focus on such small, manageable inconveniences when the stark reality of more significant real-world problems seems just too depressing to contemplate.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Because you're worth it

I'd just like to say a big thank you to the nice people at Aviva Private Health Insurance for believing in me. Their latest letter to me kicks off with a massive complement 'You deserve private medical treatment', it says here. Presumably there are also worthless losers out there who don't deserve private medical treatment, but here, in black and white, on the corporate headed paper of a firm of private health insurance experts, is official confirmation that I'm seen as one of the elect, a worthy member of an exclusive meritocracy. Well done, me!

Admittedly, it would have been nicer to receive a personalised complement, rather than one addressed to 'Dear Sir/Madam', but I still like to think they must think rather highly of me.

Mind you, the further I read on, the less select and exclusive this deal sounds:

In just a few words, we'd like to show how you can benefit from prompt treatment, excellent care and comfortable surroundings. After all, we think that's what everyone deserves if they're unwell - we're sure you agree!

No I bloody well don't! You told me I deserved private medical treatment. Like I was someone special. I had visions of reclining in my exclusive private room with deferential doctors addressing me in respectfully hushed tones, as attentive nurses flitted about, mopping my fevered brow and feeding me grapes. Now, all of a sudden, it's 'everyone' who deserves 'prompt treatment, excellent care and comfortable surroundings'. If 'everyone' deserves what you're selling, how the hell am I supposed to differentiate myself from the valueless mass of paupers, plebs, scroungers, scumbags and scamps who aren't fit to have private medical insurance and deserve only to die in a ditch?

No, that won't do at all. When even private health care providers get sissy-bleeding-heart-liberal notions about what 'everyone deserves when they're unwell' (regardless of ability to pay), we're clearly living the 'nightmare of socialized medicine' that America's Teabaggers have been warning the world about. It looks as if that Jeremy Hunt's* going to have his work cut out in his new job as the National Health Service's dismantler-in-chief.

*Seriously, just when I thought my opinion of Jeremy (cough) Hunt couldn't possible get any lower than it already was, I find out that he thinks homeopathy can make a positive contribution to NHS health care. Git.


Update - it's worth reading Ben Goldacre on Hunt. The man who's now health secretary called for the National Health Service to be dismantled back in 2009, showing that he's got just as much of a barely-hidden agenda as he did when he was supposed to be the culture secretary, objectively overseeing media ownership. I already knew he was a homeopathy nut, but Goldacre's concise summary of why this matters should be tattooed, in large, unfriendly letters, on Hunt's forehead as a warning to others:

To be clear, a Health Minister who believes in magic sugar pills is like a Chancellor who believes - literally - in money trees. Or a Transport Minister who believes in perpetual motion. 

I didn't know he was also on the extreme end of the anti-abortion spectrum and has spoken out against hybrid stem cell research, but that hardly bodes well.

Hunt's hardly got his feet under his new desk, but the warning signs couldn't be any more obvious, short of the new appointee responsible for the welfare of the NHS actually turning out to be a skeletal individual in a black cowled robe, carrying an hourglass and a scythe.