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On levelling up and other fantasies

One glance at a news clip showing a politician flashing a manufactured smile at the camera that Melania Trump or Gordon Brown would have been proud of was enough. The annual political beauty parade was upon us.

It’s been interesting, in a grim kind of a way, to watch the posing and prattling of Britain’s politicians during the party conference season. Not as interesting, perhaps, as living through an energy shock and a bewildering array of new problems that seem to be surfacing every day. But it’s comforting to ask familiar questions, such as what works best in politics these days. I suppose that depends on what you’re looking to achieve.

A smiling face, twinkling eyes, a modicum of charm, real humour as opposed to speech-writers’ wit? A stream of clichés directed at a well-researched target audience, laced with familiar refrains that appeal to the half-considered beliefs that most of us are afraid to articulate in public?

Or righteous anger, directed in a volley of abuse towards a government, a segment of society or an economic class? Nothing like a bit of scum-chucking to get the blood boiling.

Perhaps the appearance of passion hits the spot – a self-portrait to illustrate personal principles and credentials, a laundry list of uncontroversial aspirations that carefully avoid subjects likely to cause storms on the social media and a desire to reach the most people with the least commitment. The projection of conviction without the risk of trial?

If you’re a voter, will you opt for a party led by a roundhead – full of virtue, modest yet determined, driven by a creed that transcends individuals and looks to the common good? Or will you choose a cavalier – a cuddly teddy bear with an overactive penis and a sense of fun?

Is the importance of the leader overestimated? Is it more desirable that the political team contains a range of personalities – from the opportunistic buffoon to the humourless keeper of the flame and every shade between?

Or do people vote with their tribe, those they feel are like-minded and whose loyalties to party transcend personalities and whose affiliation is built into their sense of who they are?

What happens when the tribe is threatened with extinction, or for reasons of changing personal motivation starts to fragment? Do new tribes form, or do the remnants of old ones launch bitter rearguard actions to protect their perceived wellbeing, driven by fear and resentment?

And how do politicians navigate the social media, which is the most powerful platform for influence and demagogy since Demosthenes and Alcibiades whipped up emotions in Ancient Athens? Do they take the high road of principle or walk down the gutter to the lowest common denominator?

We have seen all these phenomena in recent years, both in British politics and in other countries, most notably the United States.

The idea of a team of all the talents, however desirable, is dangerous for a leader who wishes to remain in office for a substantial term. Leaving aside actual competence, every team member with a talent for self-promotion is a potential rival. So the leader devotes considerable energy in neutralising or at least controlling those whom they see as a potential threat to their supremacy. Who does a prime minister or a president fear most: the enemy within or the enemy at the gates?

These thoughts kept flitting across my addled mind as Britain celebrated the return of the party conference season. A year ago, COVID forced these events online. Now they were back in the flesh. An opportunity for the faithful to convene, protest, plot, drink into the early hours and, who knows, fornicate, with the like-minded. Seeing opportunities to raise their profiles, ambitious nobodies were like ducks in a pond chasing after crumbs thrown by small children, scrabbling for media attention, best faces forward and lines to take at the ready.

Those of us who are unfaithful and uncommitted look on, reliant on such scraps as the media chose to share with us. In normal times, if such ever existed, we might shrug our shoulders and move on to more interesting stuff.

But these are not normal times. Supply chains are breaking down. No fuel, and the Great British Christmas might not be so happy. Energy prices rocketing, and COVID still rampant. Not forgetting, of course, the steady drumbeat of concern over climate change.

The problem for politicians is not that there are problems. There are always problems, great or small. It’s in the nature of politicians to promise solutions, to take credit for fortunate accidents and avoid blame for obvious mistakes.

So what is a politician to do if confronted by problems that will take decades to resolve? There’s little credit to be gained by taking baby steps, often costly and disruptive, that will not come to fruition until the instigators are well beyond their time in office, and perhaps well into their dotage.

Take the concept of levelling up, for example. Raising areas of the country out of poverty and deprivation has become a flagship policy of the current government. But turning towns and cities ravaged by the decline of manufacturing, the death of the coal industry and the demise of ship-building into localised economic powerhouses was a goal of successive governments long before some bright spark came up with the slogan of levelling up.

We’ve seen initiatives here and projects there, funded by grants and subsidies. Training, re-skilling and upskilling of the workforce in areas of economic blight. Money spent, some wisely, some less so. Grand strategies degenerating into piecemeal tactics based on inadequate forecasting and the impossibility of predicting future growth opportunities. Who, thirty years ago, anticipated the social media, online retail and the gig economy?

Levelling up, a fantasy concocted by a party determined to consolidate electoral gains in areas not previously considered its natural territory, will come and go like the seasons. It will be replaced by new promises, new initiatives. In thirty years’ time, there will still be poverty, depressed areas and inequality, though perhaps in different parts of the country. The difference between now and then, at least in bald statistical terms, will only be a matter of the degree of improvement, or otherwise.

While our politicians – best exemplified by one in particular – try to bathe us in a tingling jacuzzi of optimism, at what point will the electorate in sufficient numbers see through the bullshit? While optimism and hope are often enough to keep us afloat during hard times, there comes a point at which people start comparing the promises with the reality of their own lives.

If increased hardship thanks to spiralling energy costs and decreased state benefits forces a few million under the poverty line, that might not be enough to unseat the current government, as long as there enough voters who are prepared to buy into the Dunkirk Spirit in the expectation that current difficulties are merely the result of adjusting to Brexit. But if those difficulties turn into chronic problems, it’s surely only a matter of time before the patience of the faithful runs out.

And then, perhaps over the next couple of years, with another general election looming, it will once again be fantasy time. Boris Johnson’s election team, which he has never disbanded by the way, will again crank up into high gear and attempt to convince us that good times are just around the corner, as long as we keep the faith and don’t allow the doom merchants on the other side to return to power.

So once again Johnson will try and keep the balloon inflated, and Keir Starmer, if he remains in place, will attempt to deflate it by reminding us how dire things have become. We will be promised blood sweat and tears by one side, and the beginning of the end by the other.

If things do go from bad to worse, nothing is likely to convince the Brexit faithful that leaving the EU was a terrible mistake. They will simply blame the government for screwing it up. And the government will defend itself by citing COVID and other circumstances, such as supply chain problems and energy shortages, as factors beyond its control.

All of which makes the job of Labour and the other opposition parties fiendishly difficult. Forensic arguments pinning the blame on government incompetence will cut little ice with voters. For them the diagnosis will be less important than the cure. And the cure will have to be accompanied with a modicum of hope. Which probably means that the lies of the ruling party will have to be fought, if not with alternative lies, at least with gilded lilies.

But if Labour continues to be hopelessly fragmented, with different factions peddling alternative nirvanas, it’s hard to see them returning to power, unless it’s on the back of widespread disgust at the performance of the ruling party, or in the wake of some unforeseen disaster.

The problem for all parties is that positive change often comes at a snail’s pace. There’s little short-term political dividend to be gained from measures that will take years to come to fruition. Negative change, on the other hand, can send us slithering into anxiety and despair in short order, as we’re seeing at the moment.

So where are the forces for long-term change? Who creates the waves for the politicians to ride? It’s certainly not the politicians themselves. Back in the day, before the social media, “protest movements” found their voices through music, because radio and TV were the most effective ways to reach a mass audience. Yet it’s arguable that in the 60s the likes of Bob Dylan were more effective in bringing about cultural rather than political change. Woodstock didn’t stop the Vietnam war.

But in the same decade, Lyndon Johnson presided over game-changing civil rights legislation. Were it not for the efforts of Martin Luther King, Johnson might not have succeeded, or even felt the need to fight the fight. Here in the UK, Roy Jenkins was responding to cultural change when he introduced measures as Britain’s Home Secretary that created what was collectively known as the “permissive society”. (Remember the days when a minister earned more credit for landmark legislation than the Prime Minister of the time?)

Whether the cultural chicken or the political egg comes first is debatable – a perennial essay question perhaps.

Either way, at least within functioning democracies, positive change can come about both via grassroots pressure and top-down intervention. But since a large portion of the planet’s population is not governed through a functioning democracy, there is little that the people of China or Russia can do from the ground up. They’re reliant on their leaders to make the right calls. And if those leaders deem that national interest or their desire to remain in power dictates that certain actions – such as building new coal-fire power plants – take priority over longer-term necessities, no amount of diplomacy or trade sanctions will deter them.

However we stumble our way towards solutions to seemingly intractable problems, one thing seems certain. A levelling up of sorts has taken place. Over the past decade, bullshit and lies have come to sit squarely alongside reason and facts in driving public opinion in many countries, including my own.

That is unlikely to change in the current decade for as long as we continue to elect charming fools or angry ideologues to govern us. For now, as winter approaches, if I decide to camp out in the middle of a motorway, I shall make sure I bring a thick duvet.

Liberation – a ferry crossing away

Two of weeks ago, a couple we know took the ferry from the UK to Dublin. When they arrived as passport control, they were asked “have yer had yer jabs?”. The answer was yes, and before they had time to pull out their vaccination certificates, the official waved them past with a cheery “on yer go then!”.

Shortly afterwards, we took the ferry to France. The French immigration officer wasn’t quite as casual. He asked to see certificates, looked at them briefly, and then stamped our passports. It was the first time I can remember the welcoming kerchunk of the passport stamp in forty years of travel to and from our closest neighbour.

From then on, we entered a culture of conformity, at least as far of COVID was concerned, that would have left anti-vaxxers, mask resisters and COVID deniers in the UK and the US jumping up and down like outraged gibbons.

When we reached our usual haunt in Lot-et-Garonne, down in the south, people were wearing masks in the outdoor markets. In every restaurant, whether we were there for a meal or just enjoying a coffee in the outdoors, the staff asked to see our COVID passes sanitaires. No exceptions.

I’m not sure if such compliance is practiced only in the country, or whether the cities behave in a different way. But when you’re used to seeing video clips of vax protesters besieging institutions in the UK, and crazy people in the US coughing over others to make a point about masks, you do wonder about the sanity of those who have politicised the pandemic.

Here in France, you see normal life all around you, but with the sight adjustment of face masks and COVID passes. And it doesn’t seem as though the population is sullenly complying with the instructions of overbearing officialdom. Rather, there seems to be a social consensus that these small restrictions are necessary prerequisites to living a relatively normal life.

That’s fine with me, because “normal life” in rural France is a total joy after eighteen months locked away in my divided and rancorous country. Rush hour is a couple of cars where normally you would pass none. Most of the restaurants are open. The supermarkets still sell the same products. And there’s no sign that the beautiful rivers of the south are about to be polluted by torrents of shitty water – with permission from the government – because there’s a shortage of water treatment chemicals, as is the case in England.

There are also plenty of visitors here, despite the relative absence of Brits. German and Dutch accents abound – not just among the elderly who usually come in September, but spoken by young couples with pre-school kids, all looking for a bit of late summer sun.

The promised sun was very much on offer until yesterday, when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse made a surprise appearance in the form of a monstrously intense thunderstorm which delivered 90cm of rain within a couple of hours.

The next morning, debris was everywhere. A nearby field hosted a deep lake. The gite next to ours lost power. And here was an extraordinary thing: whereas in England, you might wait for days to get someone over to fix the problem, a team of two electricians showed up a mere four hours after the owner called them out. Truly a miracle.

I don’t think of myself as a naïve Francophile blind to the nation’s own set of problems, about which its own citizens grumble as much as we do about ours. We, the troublesome family next door, will no doubt continue to carp and mock the French for their bureaucracy, their patriotism and protective instincts, not to mention their willingness to man the barricades when the interests of sections of society are threatened.

But how can we claim to be different, with five-hour waits to enter the country, clunky COVID apps and a government whose idea of the truth is to pretend that the abnormal is normal, or that a major problem is a mere temporary anomaly?

Content as I am to live in England despite its multitude of problems, mostly self-inflicted, I have to say that a week or two in France is truly a liberation. I may have taken our neighbour for granted before the pandemic, but I shall never do so again.

The Old Lie

I wrote something a couple of weeks ago, just as the evacuation from Kabul and the accompanying recriminations, were going into high gear. After the ISIS bombing outside the airport, I felt it would be wrong to post it while people were dying once again for a lost cause. I suppose that now that thousands of families, soldiers and a few dogs and cats have been airlifted to safety and that door is now shut, this is as good a time as any to talk about our attitude towards the human cost, at least on the part of my countrymen and women who didn’t make it back alive.

One of the saddest themes of the episode just ended is the question of whether or not those killed in the conflict died in vain. How often do we use fiction and myth as balm that makes the stark reality of life palatable?

From a British perspective, a cynic might say this: that the discussion over whether members of the our armed forces did, or did not, die in vain in Afghanistan may be necessary for the families of those killed. That for the rest of us it’s irrelevant. That nobody dies in vain, and very few of us die for a cause. And that if we do die, the cause is irrelevant, because we don’t live to see whether our self-sacrifice is worthwhile.

A less contentious view would be that soldiers, police officers fire fighters and, to an extent, health workers, put their lives on the line mostly in full knowledge of the risks inherent in their professions. I make a qualification in the case of health workers because most National Health Service staff would hardly have considered the possibility that they would be caught up in a deadly pandemic.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that most people become soldiers not because they believe in British values, because they care about the Queen or because they have a deep-seated love for their country. They do so because it’s a job. A job that carries a higher risk to life and limb than other professions, but a job nonetheless. They are people who, when called upon, fight, or support others who fight, for a living. And they do so with courage and professionalism. What they get in return is a living, respect and a sense of job satisfaction. In Britain, we don’t ritualise that respect into formulaic expressions of appreciation, such as “thank you for your service”, but respect is there nonetheless. And among those who do serve, for the vast majority there’s surely a sense that they’re doing something worthwhile, which indeed they are.

But modern equivalents of Edwardian paeans to patriotism and sacrifice – “I vow to thee my country”, and so forth – seem to me to be no less manipulative than they were in the early 1900s.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m deeply grateful that there are people who are prepared to risk their lives to ensure my safety. I respect them and value them. But do most people sign up because they believe in the words of Tony Blair, Boris Johnson, or Winston Churchill for that matter? Or in what the war poet Wilfred Owen called “the old lie” of patriotic sentiment? I doubt it. (For those unfamiliar with Owen’s Dulci et Decorum Est, which he wrote after witnessing a gas attack, I close with an excerpt).

Our soldiers, sailors and flyers are professionals. They do what they’re ordered and go where they’re told. Of course they need motivational leaders and example-setters. Not the same situation as during the two world wars, in which, before conscription was introduced, citizens needed to be persuaded to join up through appeals to their patriotism, as in “Your Country Needs You”. Nowadays recruitment ads for the armed forces seem to focus on adventure, skills and personal development. This isn’t to say that our men and women in uniform don’t have a deep-seated sense of patriotism, or that our police and fire-fighters don’t join up because they want to do good in their communities. Undoubtedly many do.

And in the end, happy are those of us who do jobs that we believe to be worthwhile. Objectively, that can’t be said about all jobs, even if we justify the bullshit work we do on the grounds that we’re feeding our families.

But making value judgements about sacrifice seems to me a futile exercise. Every life is precious, and the waste of lives through carelessness or incompetence is a disgrace. Do we ask whether a brilliant scientist knocked over from her bike in London died in vain? Or 80 people in Grenfell Tower whose lives were cut short? Or a holidaymaker drowned off the coast of Cornwall? No, we call these deaths tragedies, as indeed they are for those closest to the dead.

And just as we have a social responsibility to protect people living in tower blocks and cyclists on our roads, so we have a responsibility as a nation not to put our armed forces in harm’s way without good reason underpinned by sound leadership.

Whether or not the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan was worth the suffering and the loss of life and limb is almost an unanswerable question. Depending on who we ask, there may be thousands of different answers. But they will come from the living, because the dead can no longer speak. And the answers we receive might be different five, ten or a hundred years from now.

I only know that if I’d lost a loved one in a dusty outpost so far away from home, only to find that the enterprise for which they had fought had come to nothing, I would find it hard not to be consumed with bitterness until the end of my life. I hope that I would also spare a thought for the families of tens of thousands of Afghans who have died in the conflict, and whose participation was never a matter of choice. My only consolation would be to focus on the intention rather than the result.

Would that translate into “not dying in vain”? That’s not for me to say.

“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

From The Old Lie, Wilfred
Owen, 1917

Once more with feeling (and taste and smell)

One more time then.

Hey you. Yes, you with the antivax t-shirt. Can I have a word? Thanks.

Before you take the horse-wormer you smuggled in from the States, please hear what I have to say. I recently had COVID. No idea where it came from. I took all the standard precautions, but the bastard still got me.

As you can see, I’m not speaking from a hospital ward with machines beeping and clanging around me, barely able to breathe, with medical staff turning me over every few hours. Is that because COVID is a hoax, or because it’s just another form of flu? Or am I just lucky?

By rights, I should be in that ward getting ready for the possibility that I might soon breathe my last. I’m 70, slap bang in the middle of the danger zone. I have a couple of medical conditions that should be helping COVID do its work.

But I’m not in hospital. The minor symptoms that led me to take the test – sneezing and a runny nose – have gone. My isolation period has expired. So yes, I’m lucky, but most likely my easy ride isn’t just down to luck. Thank you NHS, the Oxford wizards and AstraZeneca for the jabs that almost certainly protected me from a worse fate.

You, on the other hand, are not protected. And if you’re one of the people not wearing a face mask who shared my train journeys across London the other day, perhaps you gave me the virus. Or perhaps I gave it to you. Either way, you’re worse than a fool if you think that exercising your freedom of choice gives you the right to put others at risk.

I know these words are unlikely to have the same impact on you as the deathbed repentances of the unvaccinated which pop up now and again on TikTok and YouTube. And I know you resent being spoken to like this. But I don’t really care.

If you want to spend the rest of your life ducking and diving to escape the COVID sniper’s alley, or if you’re happy to take the risk that the time you have left might end up quite short because stuff happens and there are lots of ways to die, that’s fine, so long as you do die and don’t end up with a whole bunch of debilitating conditions that stretch endlessly into the future.

Perhaps you’re religious, and think that God will give you protection if that’s what He decides. But haven’t you considered that perhaps He has smiled on the scientists who are offering protection, and vaccines are also part of His plan? Does not the Lord help those who help themselves?

Those who love you would like to have you around a bit longer. They’d like to invite you into their homes, go to the movies with you and when the winter months come sit down with you in a crowded restaurant. But they’re afraid, because you’re the weakest link.

I don’t care if you’re “hesitant” or ideologically driven. I can only say this: get out of whatever hole you’ve fallen into, and get vaccinated. This is not a nudge. It’s a kick up the arse. It may not save you from a fate worse than life, but at least it improves the odds.

I leave you with the apocryphal exchange between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor:

“Mr. Churchill, you’re drunk!” Mr. Churchill: “And you, Lady Astor, are ugly. As for my condition, it will pass by the morning. You, however, will still be ugly”

PS: My brother, who is an authority in such matters points out that the butt of Churchill’s insult was in fact Bessie Braddock. However, there are others who stick with Lady Astor. Since we’re on the subject of Churchillian insults, another, which also involved Lady Astor, occurred when she said “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.”. To which Winston replied:  “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” A good one, but equally apocryphal. S

Afghanistan: the Monkey and the Sonnet

Sometimes we forget the blindingly obvious. or at least I do.

No, history does not repeat itself. It merely pretends to do so for the convenience of the lazy historian.

It is foolish to compare the fall of Saigon with the fall of Kabul. Or to compare the fall of Kabul with any other previous event.

No weather pattern is an exact replica of another. It might take one chimpanzee billions of years to write a Shakespeare sonnet through assembling random letters. Another might do it in a couple of days. It’s a matter of luck. So is arriving at an exact prediction of future events when humans are involved. With apologies to Isaac Asimov, psychohistory is bunk.

As I watched the Taliban taking over Kabul, I started thinking about the future for Afghanistan. I went through the usual gears of historical comparison and came up with nothing but questions.

Will there be violence and retribution? Based on historical precedents, of course there will. Think back to the Second World War. Violence in Europe didn’t stop in May 1945. It continued for years beyond the defeat of Germany. But will the Taliban’s victory also spark an orgy of ethnic cleansing, factional conflict and mass migration of people across borders? Maybe, maybe not.

Will the Taliban return to their oppressive ways, using their vision of the Sharia as its justification? Maybe, maybe not. In some parts of the country, maybe, in others maybe not. Do we think of the Taliban as a monolith, or as a cloud of sub-cultures, educational backgrounds and experiences? Is what holds the Taliban together stronger than what might pull them apart?

In a wired world where everyone has access to the Internet, is formal education even relevant any more? When information is imparted as much by video as by the written word, is literacy as important as it once was?

So what influences a young Talib? The word of his elders, the written word of the Quran or the experience of watching his brothers, sisters and parents blown up by a drone or through a casual act of violence by someone in uniform?

What have the Taliban’s leaders learned over the past twenty years? Have they learned more from sipping cardamon coffee in cushioned comfort among the gilded towers of Qatar than from fighting on dusty plains?

What do the Taliban want from their new government? Lasting peace, to be left alone by their neighbours or once again to serve as a base for those who would spread the Islamist revolution elsewhere? Will a Lenin emerge, determined to export a revolutionary ideology? A Stalin, determined to project power at the expense of ideology? A Brezhnev, a conserver of power? A Gorbachev, a prophet of openness at the expense of political control? Or a Putin, a nationalist empire builder? Most likely none of those things, because each leader thrived in the conditions of their time, which are so different from those of today as to make parallels ridiculous. That’s of course assuming that the Taliban have a leader worthy of the name.

It’s easy to make historical comparisons, mostly by using big picture stuff. Anyone who invades Afghanistan is doomed to failure. Look at Twitter and you’ll find many people quoting from Return of a King, William Dalrymple’s epic story of the disastrous British expedition of 1839-42. On a more micro level, before long someone familiar with Middle Eastern history will no doubt trot out the story of how King Abdulaziz galvanised a small army of religious zealots and used them to conquer what is now Saudi Arabia. When they became ungovernable, he wiped them out, paving the way for what the country’s critics would claim was a slowly ossifying dynasty of his sons, propped up by western powers with an interest in the country’s natural resources.

There will be others who will use the story of Saudi Arabia’s oil to ask whether lithium is Afghanistan’s oil, and whether China will attempt to monopolise its mining and production, as it has done with other rare earths in various parts of the world.

Will the Taliban allow another Al Qaeda to take root? On the basis that history never repeats itself, unlikely for two reasons: there will never be another Al Qaeda, and if they allow something similar to operate in the way Al Qaeda did, they know the likely consequences. In a nation full of factions, ethnic groups and former opponents, the Taliban might well find it difficult to organise a coherent government, let alone one whose intentions and machinations could easily be concealed. It would take decades of oppression and ethnic cleansing to build a hermit state like North Korea, and unimaginable wealth to build a surveillance state like China. Until Afghanistan has transformed itself into a version of either, in which it is able to obfuscate and conceal, the Taliban will discover that you can fight an insurgency with impermeable cells, but you can’t govern a country on a need-to-know basis.

Counter-terrorist intelligence gathering, or so we are told, is so much more sophisticated now than it was in 2001. So what happens in Afghanistan will, to a greater or lesser extent, take place in the full light of day, even if that light is obscured by a haze of disinformation. If Afghanistan is ungovernable, it’s ungovernable by the Taliban too. And if Al-Qaeda-style camps spring up, the US, anxious to justify their decision to disengage, will probably have no hesitation in locating and destroying them from afar.

Back in the political centres of the former occupying (or liberating) powers, the search is on for sonnets written by monkeys. The media look to interview people who “told you so”. The truth is: those people didn’t know, they couldn’t know. If anyone knew, it was an unknowable entity Who for some reason refused to share the knowledge, Who preferred to watch from afar and Whose reason for allowing twenty years of pain and bloodshed is unknowable, whatever the claims of those who search for simian sonnet writers.

In Britain, the ineffably wise people who govern us have announced that we’ll take 20,000 Afghan refugees over the next four years, starting with 5,000 this year. How do they think that that will work? By building a dam a quarter of the size needed, putting it halfway up a mountain, and hoping that the rest of the water will wait patiently rather than cascade down the slope any which way?

What’s done is done. The usual suspects will spend the next ten years ruminating on what lessons can be learned from the debacle. Books will be written and PhDs will be awarded. But will we be any the wiser about how to deal with such a situation should it arise again? No, because the same situation will never arise again.

Last year, when the threat of COVID became apparent, the British government rolled out a plan based on a flu pandemic. COVID is not the flu. Within months the government was struggling to improvise, lashing out huge sums on inadequate protective equipment, allowing thousands to die in care homes and building tracking software that didn’t work. Why? Because it chose the wrong model, and because a model for dealing with COVID-19 didn’t exist.

The truth is that each new crisis is unknowable because it’s new. You can only work on probabilities, just as you can only create vaccines for the disease in front of you, not for any variants that haven’t yet appeared.

Biden, Johnson and other clearly did a poor job in contingency planning and readiness to implement those plans. But whatever the finger pointers might claim, and whatever failures of intelligence-gathering might emerge, it is absolutely unrealistic to believe that what happened could have been accurately predicted, unless you happen to be the chimpanzee that wrote the sonnet.

We live in a messy, unknowable world that consistently overturns the data we diligently collect, confounds the wisdom of experts and constantly surprises us. Admittedly, sometimes it’s surprising that we’re surprised. If you’re a nation that for twenty years has become addicted to Western wealth and firepower, is it surprising that faced with the withdrawal of those resources, you collapse in a heap of despair? Why would you wish to lose your life in a losing cause?

What arrogant fools we humans are, that we should presume to believe that we know the unknowable, especially what lies in the hearts of our fellow humans. A little more humility might be in order.

And no, history isn’t bunk. It’s glorious, enriching, enlightening and endlessly open to interpretation. But it isn’t a tool for predicting the future.

Virus-dodging in the Home of Cricket

Yesterday I had a lovely day at the cricket. By “the cricket”, I don’t mean The Hundred, which is a new variant of the game manufactured somewhere in a lab in England and designed to make the largest number of people wet themselves with excitement in the shortest possible time. I’m talking about proper cricket, which is more akin to the Peninsula War than the Battle of Waterloo.

The occasion was first day of the Test Match between England and India at Lord’s cricket ground, the London venue that calls itself the home of cricket. I grew up thinking that the game first appeared in the Hampshire village of Hambledon, but there you go. Members of the Marylebone Cricket Club, who own the ground – mostly jowly old gents with red faces, straw hats and cream jackets topped off with the distinctive bacon-and-egg MCC tie, who waddle about with a proprietorial air – clearly feel otherwise. The rest of us don’t really care.

Despite a couple of rain stoppages, the cricket itself was a joy. All seven hours of it, in which some of the most skilled batsmen in the world, using technique that would reduce Hundred audiences to drowning in their beer in frustration, dissected the England bowlers like a Japanese chef removing the poisonous bits from a fugu fish before serving it up to his trusting customers. Field-piercing shot selection, defence when needed and the ability to up the pace when the bowlers were flagging. A masterclass.

What was equally interesting for me was the experience of being part of a mass event in the middle of a pandemic. And yes, based on the evidence from around the world, we are still in the middle of it. So here’s how it went, through the eyes of someone who has tended to err on the cautious side since March 2020.

The journey to Lord’s for me consisted of a half-hour train ride to Waterloo Station, followed by a short trip on the underground, and then a ten-minute walk to the ground. On the two train journeys face-masks were mandatory. But in both cases about a third of the passengers weren’t masked. The few staff in evidence made no attempt to enforce the measure. And yes, you guessed it, most of the unmasked were the young ones. Which prompts me to send a message to the Mayor of London, whose virtuous messages about every journey mattering to him are all over the media: if you are unwilling or unable to back up your pronouncements, don’t bother making them. If you don’t have staff who are empowered to do something about offenders, the glares of old farts like me are only likely to provoke unpleasant scenes – not to say knife fights. A toothless ordinance, if ever I saw one.

When I joined other family members at the ground, we were all ready to show our COVID vaccination certificates, without which, we were led to believe, we would be denied entry. Piff paff. Nobody asked for them, so the vaccinated and the unjabbed could theoretically walk in and sit side by side. Once again, just words, it seemed.

As we made for our seats, we were subjected to a long announcement warning us that we were liable to be chucked out of the ground for at least sixteen categories of abuse. They ranged from the usual subjects like race, gender, ethnic origin and age to some really weird ones like marital status. I wondered what form the latter might take. Perhaps “oi you, what you doing with that wedding ring, you fat tosser? No bastard would want to marry you….” Unlikely, but possible, I suppose. I was surprised they didn’t warn us about casting aspersions on cockroaches (a Men in Black reference for the uninitiated) or hooting at some politician unwise enough to show up in the posh area. I fancy our blubberous Prime Minister might not have gotten the friendliest reception from some quarters.

By the time the action started, the place was packed, with barely an empty seat. In contrast to short-form cricket like 20:20 and the Hundred, which is pretty hysterical from start to finish, the dynamic of a large crowd at the start of a long-form international match goes through phases. Before lunch, barring the occasional roar when something significant happens, the atmosphere is fairly sedate – a bit like a Buckingham Palace Garden Party on steroids. Lots of chat, mostly about cricket, and among the young ones about who’s shagging who (overheard in the queue to the loo) and other matters of vital importance. A time for loading up on the beer without being carried away on the alcoholic tide.

In the afternoon, things get livelier, the roars get louder and the direction of the match starts developing. In this case, to India’s advantage. Down at our end, Moeen Ali, my fellow Brummie and favourite England cricketer, was cheered loudly every time he took his position close to us. No expulsions necessary in our neck of the woods. Being a humble kind of guy, he reacted to the adulation with a half-embarrassed smile. Unfortunately he didn’t have much luck when handed the ball. He suffered from the same slow evisceration as the rest of our bowlers.

After the tea break, the beer started to do its work. When Jimmy Anderson, the oldest player on the pitch and arguably England’s finest ever bowler finally removed one of the batsmen, the volume went up several notches. From the haunting chants of the Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift we went to roar of German tribesmen descending on Maximus and his legions in Gladiator. Neither battle went well for the attackers, and so it was for the English bowlers, who ended up with only two more batsmen dismissed, a fairly miserable haul.

As things proceeded to the bitter end, a goodly proportion of the crowd were at various stages of inebriation. This included a bunch of young guys directly behind us, who treated us to a spot of community singing. “Jimmy, Jimmy Jimmy Andursunnnn” “Sweet Caroline”, “Ingerlund” and other ear-splitting ditties. They may have been vaccinated, but I suspect that a few of them weren’t. So I kept imagining showers of little virus particles descending on us in an alcoholic breeze. So if this ends up being my last post, you know the reason why.

But looking on the bright side, a good time was had by all, and we were treated to an awesome display of skill, even if most of it came from the opposition. If I end up with a nasty dose of COVID, more fool me for emerging from my shell for a day. If staying at home to avoid the virus and taking reasonable precautions when venturing out is a matter of judgement, escaping infection when plunging one’s self into a maelstrom of eighteen thousand cricket fans, some of whom are absolutely likely to be carrying the virus, is largely a matter of luck.

But if good cheer provides an extra level of immunity against nasty bugs, then hopefully we’ll all emerge unscathed. And goodness knows, we need a few more doses of brightness in this grim summer, do we not?

As for me, you guessed it: I don’t like cricket – I love it.

PS: On Day Two, as I’m finishing this post, the Indian batsmen are falling over like nine-pins. Perhaps I wrote off the Zulus and the Germans a little prematurely. Which shows how gloriously unpredictable the game can be. Rather like COVID, in fact, but definitely more fun.

All is not lost – provided you can dodge the muck and bullets

This post is a bit of a ramble. Not that I’m apologising. There’s been too much going on for sustained orderly thinking. It’s been a month since we moved house. The wounds on top of my head sustained by colliding with low doorways in our new home have largely healed. My brain has become used to the new terrain. More importantly, its cells seem to have avoided permanent damage.

The war against ground elder in the garden has intensified. The battle to bring order to the garage is largely over – family heirlooms are beginning to emerge from the primordial swamp of boxes, bags, crates and redundant furniture. The endless emptying of boxes stacked in various parts of the house is nearing conclusion. Long-lost clothes are coming to light. Not exactly stashes of Victorian frock coats and pinafores, but stuff old enough to spark memories of when, back in marital pre-history, we last wore them and where we bought them.

Some mysteries endure. Where are the controls for the central heating? This is a question that will become highly relevant in a couple of month’s time. Why do the external lights come on and off of their own accord? We’re thinking of booking an exorcist. And why do the rugs we’ve laid down on the downstairs carpets seem to move of their own volition? After years of having wood flooring, this is a phenomenon new to us. Even the plastic mat that allows an office chair to move around is drifting about, despite little spikes that are supposed to grip the carpet.

But here’s a more serious conundrum. Our new home backs on to hundreds of acres of meadows and woodland. We have trees, hedges and a beautiful lake nearby. Our old place was in the middle of a private estate with plenty of trees and a bit of woodland nearby, but smack bang in the middle of a busy town. How come the mornings here are relatively silent? I estimate about a quarter of the birds come near our new garden than visited the old. Also no foxes, no squirrels and no evidence of predatory cats. The most common birds to be seen are crows and pigeons. Where are the tits, the robins, the woodpeckers and the blackbirds? The dawn chorus often sounds like a single soloist playing to an empty auditorium. Something must be done. A garden without birds has no soul.

The Olympics have provided welcome relief from the voyage of discovery. Not that I’ve been watching much stuff on TV, but the drumbeat of headlines about this or that medal won by our glorious team was a useful distraction from the usual menu of murder, mayhem and destruction. That said, the Games have their own quirky traditions of indeterminate origin. What the hell is this pike that gymnasts and divers perform? If it’s a fish, why not a salmon? And if it’s a spear, why not call it a bloody spear, rather than a weapon that went out of fashion three hundred years ago? Or possibly a lance? As for those curious cycling competitions, what do Keirin and Madison have to do with anything?

Anyway, I have no doubt that the winners themselves and their families are jumping for joy. But for most of us, for whom taekwondo and urban skateboarding are sports that only come to our attention once every four years, I suspect that the reaction to our successes were little more than a mute “oh that’s nice” rather than roars of approval and raucous flag-waving. That was even more the case when most of the events took place in the dead of night or early in the morning. Watching the edited highlights is not quite the same as the full-on live experience.

Everyone loves a winner, of course, but the dopamine surge that would have resulted from England winning the Euros would have been earthshattering compared with the quiet satisfaction to be derived from a gold medal in skeet shooting (whatever a skeet might be).

But hey, we should take our dopamine where we find it, because there’s so much else going on that might cause us to reach for the oxycontin.

The blubbery charlatan is still running (or should we say ruining) the country. Wildfires in Greece are the worst for the thirty years – did we blame climate change back then? We in Britain have spent two weeks getting royally soaked. Again, climate change? Nobody seems to remember the endlessly wet summers that used to plague us in the sixties. If you detect a note of cynicism, perhaps it’s because I’m suspicious of any phenomenon that becomes an article of faith rather than the product of reason. I’m not a denier, merely confused and ignorant. Or possibly susceptible to the plague of wishful thinking. I’m certainly not going to stand to attention when a minister whose only professional exposure to science is as a chartered accountant (the science of obfuscation?) tells me that we’re in the last chance saloon. And when the scientists all speak with one voice, the more they sound like Pharisees.

And then there are the virulent anti-vax propagandists who on a regular basis seem to be going to their graves swearing that it’s safer to get COVID than to be vaccinated against it. I guess that if you’re going to hold an irrational belief, you might as well be prepared to die for it.

Further afield, the Taliban are waging a vicious campaign of intimidation and revenge as they seek to take back Afghanistan, Bashar Al-Assad is pulverising rebel cities in Syria, North Korea is starving again. Russia, China, the US and even little Britain are busy playing war games.

Has there ever been a worse time to be alive? In terms of pessimism shared across the globe about the future, perhaps not. But it can’t have been much fun being caught up in the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Taiping Rebellion or two world wars. What has changed is that we’ve been reminded of two possible causes of mass extinction – climate change and pandemics – to add to the modern perennials of nuclear conflict, asteroid strikes and super-volcanos.

So even if we’ve been lucky enough thus far to avoid war zones or the ravages of COVID, or even the more mundane causes of personal destruction – knife crime or riding a scooter into oncoming traffic, for example – we’re still consumed by a miasma of fear about things to come.

Looking forward to things that are still vaguely under individual control, what’s to look forward to? La Belle France is open again. Perhaps a trip in September, along with legions of other vaxed-up retirees for whom the attraction of visiting a foreign country is now the proximity of loos and the availability of a decent hospital nearby as much as the quality of the restaurants and the beauty of the scenery. Further afield will have to wait until we’ve had our COVID/flu boosters in the autumn. By the way, much as I sympathise with the argument that we should share our excess vaccine with nations that need it most rather than using it to give third jabs to our own population, there’s also an argument that getting double-jabbed to the greatest possible extent and then boostered, we can serve as a test bed that will inform other countries about the effectiveness of such an approach. And shouldn’t we, as a responsible, wealthy nation, aim to do both?

But then again, perhaps I’ve forgotten that our country is run by Boris Johnson and an assorted gang of spivs and grifters, and we no longer have the right to call ourselves responsible. Fortunately though, it’s worth remembering that Boris is for Christmas, not for life. Sooner or later we’ll chuck him out of the car window onto some layby on the way to sanity.

With that happy thought, I’ll end with another bit of good news. The proposed tunnel near Stonehenge, which I drove past the other day, would have laid waste to thousands of years of potential archaeological treasure. It has been blocked by a legal action. Hopefully our transportation planners will come up with another scheme that will divert traffic from the area altogether. Surely another ten minutes on the journey to Cornwall is a price worth paying to avoid the desecration of an area so steeped in evidence of early human habitation? If our future is as a much-diminished landmass in which the arches of Stonehenge and the nearby tumuli occasionally pop up above a permanent lake, perhaps we shouldn’t care. But we aren’t at that point yet, and if we have the wit to devise methods of reducing carbon emissions, then surely the challenge of preserving a national treasure isn’t beyond us.

As the story of the Stonehenge tunnel shows and even the most pessimistic climate scientists seem to agree, all is not yet lost. A thought worth hanging on to.

Upping Sticks: Part 3 – The Move

Thinking about moving homes is one thing. But being confronted by the reality is entirely another. Once upon a time it was easy. As I mentioned in Part 1, a couple of suitcases, a few LPs, a guitar case, a mate’s Transit van, and job done. But how much baggage one acquires over forty years!

My baggage, my wife’s baggage and the junk accumulated by two daughters who now live, relatively speaking, in shoeboxes and don’t have room for their stuff. And then – because this is the meaning of downsizing – you face the prospect of putting all your belongings into a space half the size. Which meant that something had to give.

I made at least fifteen visits to the municipal recycling centre in the month before we moved. I barely made a dent in the junk mountain, but at least I got my wife, who is an inveterate hoarder, to accept that some things are not for ever.

I had a plan. The new garage was considerably larger than the old one. So I measured out by the centimetre where we would put all the stuff “we couldn’t chuck out because it might come in handy later”. It included a washing machine, two fridge freezers, six boxes of Christmas stuff, books, pictures, three sofas, all of which would be useful when the offspring move from their shoeboxes to more substantial abodes. Plus their stuff, of course: clothes, books, furniture and so forth. My stuff? Very little to be stored, apart from some tool boxes with which to dismantle or lash together all the other stuff. Much of what I value most is in on bookshelves, in my head or on a hard disc.

On the day before the move, the packers descended. There were about six of them, all women. It seems that they were from three families – one from Russia, one from Ukraine and one from Moldova. With the occasional dark Slavic oath, they attacked our belongings like locusts. But not before we had set aside two bags.

There was the wedding bag, because two days after the move our elder daughter was due to tie the knot with her beloved. Good timing, eh? And then there was the emergency bag. This was a must have. It was filled with screwdrivers, glue, WD-40, measuring tape, wrenches, duct tape and various other instruments of torture. My wife packed another: loo paper, coffee, kettle, survival rations and more duct tape. Oh, and all the medications we needed to prevent us from collapsing mid-move.

On moving day, a new team arrived. They included a South African supervisor, three Brits and a guy who spoke little English, and therefore couldn’t read the detailed instructions that we wrote on bits of masking tape stuck on each piece of furniture. As a result, there were many items that ended up in places where we didn’t want them. Things were not helped by the fact that the boss of the moving company was let down by the people from whom he had hired two of the six trucks he reckoned he needed. So the whole job took much longer than expected. So long that by ten in the evening, boxes and furniture were still being hauled into the new house by increasingly ratty, and careless, movers.

Another complication was that our new abode is a Grade 2 Listed Building. This means that it’s recognised by the authorities as a place of special historical interest. It was built in 1730. We’re therefore under obligation not to make any dramatic changes to the appearance and structure of the house. We knew this in advance. We also knew that in certain parts of the house, the doorways were built to accommodate people of very small stature, which I am not. I’m fine with that. It just means lowering your head when moving from room to room. Or at least that was the theory. In practice, on the day of the move I must have banged my head at least seven times. There was blood everywhere. Bits of my scalp were hanging off door frames. I showed up at the wedding looking as though I had been assaulted several times with a crowbar. So if in future you notice that I have a few additional screws loose in my reasoning and powers of description, now you know why.

I did eventually get used to it, but not before I’d garlanded every doorway with a layer of bubble wrap and black gaffer tape. Not really in keeping, but useful when the doorway to the main bedroom, for example comes down to your chin. I now walk around the house with a permanent stoop, as befits my age, I guess.

The other interesting feature of the new house is the Aga. This battleship of a cooker, beloved of the English middle classes who sit in their cosy homes fantasising about wild sex in the saddle room, dominates the kitchen, radiating heat at the hottest time of year. I’ve never owned an Aga before, and I was shocked to discover that you can’t turn the damn thing off except when you’re having it serviced. What kind of device is that, in an age when we’re all trying to do our bit to cut the national carbon emissions? You also can’t grill (at least, not to my satisfaction), and you have only two oven settings: hot and not so hot. How can I practise my culinary art with such crude equipment?

But there are many compensations. We overlook a village green which boasts other houses of a similar vintage. There are plenty of pubs and restaurants nearby. And down the side of our house is a little pathway which doggie people use to reach a lake a quarter of a mile away. So we get interesting snippets of their conversations as they pass by. Beyond the garden there’s a big field. This is a pleasant change from the last place, where there was a guy who lived in the an apartment block over the back who seemed to spend most of his time on his balcony. He would let out a roar whenever his football team scored. I never needed to know how England or Manchester United were doing with this person’s incessant bellowing.

The garden is beautiful, though slightly let go, as though the previous owner lost interest once she decided to sell. I have already started an endless battle against the dreaded convolvulus.

By and large, my wife and I have worked together pretty well as we settle in. I have to bite my tongue as she takes her time to unpack the stuff in her domain, and she has to do likewise as I indulge in a frenzied effort to get the place looking as “normal” as possible in the shortest time.

There has been a price, though, as you would expect from a process reckoned to be only slightly less stressful than divorce or bereavement. A couple of pictures broken because the packers didn’t wrap them properly. An antique chair badly scuffed for the same reason. Ordinary items bizarrely absent after the great re-assembly of possessions. Stuff that leads you to ask “where the fuck is…” without the world coming to an end. And I feel as though I’ve spent two weeks constantly moving heavy boxes from one place to another, especially in the garage, which bears only the slightest resemblance to the orderly stack of accessible objects I’d originally envisaged. From Tutankhamun’s tomb in one place to the seven layers of Troy in the new one.

Inevitably there will be work done on the house itself. Tiles and wood flooring downstairs instead of the rather tired carpets, for example. Provided, of course, that the arbiters of authenticity give their blessing.

There was one aspect of the move that we didn’t anticipate. When we left the old house, we had to get the agreement of the new owners that we could leave up our cross-trainer, which is monstrously heavy and unwieldy, in place for a couple of weeks. It was beyond the power of the movers to get down the stairs without destroying all around it, so we had to hire a gym specialist to shift it in bits and reassemble it.

When we came back to the house with the fitness guys to take it away, we were met with a scene of devastation. Carpets ripped up, wood flooring in a skip outside. Skirting boards hacked away. Granite kitchen surfaces in bits. Fittings that we’d installed over decades tossed casually into the skip. Stuff that cost money, some as good as new, now unwanted and discarded as though it was of no use to anyone. Things that could easily have been recycled and re-used.

Until then, with no evidence to go on one way or another, we imagined that our home of three decades would continue to be as it was, only with someone else’s possessions. It came as a bit of a shock to realise not only that it wasn’t our home anymore, but that all traces of our ownership were in the process of being erased.

It really was over.

Two weeks on, with everything more or less in place and only a dozen more boxes to empty, we spent most of our time in the garden enjoying our glorious heatwave. Was the whole project worthwhile? I think so, but you’ll have to ask my therapist for independent corroboration. There may be one or two amongst our friends who questioned our sanity in moving to an old, quirky house. You’re getting old, they might say. You need simplicity, so you can remember where things are when your memory fades.

Tosh, I say. As we get older and more eccentric, it’s good to live in surroundings that match our eccentricity and continually challenge the brain cells (those that haven’t been wiped out by frequent collisions with doorways). Not everything has to be convenient. What’s more, our grandchildren need nooks and crannies to explore, places to hide. We relish the opportunity to put our modest stamp on a place that has withstood many generations of occupants. And we have much to discover too. What will it be like in the autumn, winter and spring? What causes the external lights to come on at night despite our determined attempts to turn them off? A ghost, perhaps? And if I ran a metal detector over the lawn, what Georgian or Victorian detritus might I find?

Much to explore, much to learn perhaps. So yes, it’s going to be fine.

Upping Sticks: Part 2 – the Faithless and the Fickle

No, this is not our house….

In many countries, selling and buying a home is a relatively simple transaction. But in England, it’s a nightmarish rollercoaster fraught with bear-traps and multiple opportunities for carpet-chewing rage.

This is a story about why it took a year for us to sell our home and find a replacement – something that might have taken no more than three months in earlier times. The antics of Fluffy and Mr Pratt, of whom more later, were major contributing factors.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the property market in England is a rat’s nest. With a few honourable exceptions, it’s infested by oleaginous estate agents and manipulative property websites that give you false expectations as to the value of your house, media pundits who contribute to buying frenzies or prophesise doom and gloom, leaden-footed lawyers and unscrupulous service providers who feed on the market.

Then there are the buyers and sellers themselves. Lax regulation allows them to jerk you around on a whim, to pull out of transactions for no valid reason, or hold you to ransom on price after you’ve incurred big costs in the run-up to contract exchange. That’s not to say that all people behave this way, but when so many deals depend on other deals, it only takes a few to send laboriously constructed buying and selling chains crashing into the dust.

Add to these beartraps the fact that the housing market is currently going through a highly volatile phase. For a number of reasons, property prices in England are rising rapidly. If your sale takes six months to complete, your house could well be significantly more valuable than it was when you agreed the price. So do you sell for the original price, or try and negotiate an uplift before exchange?

When we bought the house we’ve just sold, on the morning of contract exchange, with no prior notice, the seller informed us that the deal was off unless we came up with an additional 10% of the purchase price. All our ducks were in a row – our buyers ready to go – and she was effectively putting a financial gun to our heads. She gave us six hours to come up with the extra money. After a negotiation to whittle down her demand and a frantic scrambling to raise the additional cash, we managed to save the deal. There is no better way to behave badly when you’re engaged in an arm’s length transaction.

Fast forward three decades, and we come to Fluffy and Mr Pratt. Fluffy is the name we gave to a potential buyer, a lady of a certain age, who was blonde, bubbly and convincingly sincere. When we put our home on the market, she and her partner were among the early viewers. She loved the house, she said, and though she hadn’t sold hers she could buy ours because Daddy was prepared to provide a bridging loan. If anyone thinks that the Bank of Mum and Dad becomes defunct once its customers enter their fifties, think again. Often as not, as long as its executives continue to draw breath, its funding will be required.

So Fluffy made an offer, we haggled a bit, and we arrived at an acceptable price. We then made an offer on a place not too far away. It was also accepted. At which point the lawyers, on our side at least, whirred into action. The money began haemorrhaging. While we were pressing forward with our purchase, our garrulous buyer seemed to be moving at a more leisurely pace. After two months of messing around, we started getting worried. We spoke to the estate agent on a regular basis to find out what was going on. His input was vaguely encouraging but non-committal. It was only after several weeks that he admitted that he’d dealt with her before and that she was, to use his words, somewhat “fickle”. By this time, we were ready finalise our purchase. At which point she informed us via the agent that unfortunately she couldn’t go ahead, because Daddy had changed his mind. Yeah right.

So Fluffy cost us a lot of money. She also wasted months of summer selling time. Thanks for warning us, Mr Estate Agent. It would have been nice to know of her vacillating personality before we accepted her offer. We duly pulled out of our purchase, much to the annoyance of our seller. By this time the second COVID wave was starting to crest, so we decided to put the project on hold until the following year.

Come the Spring, we were half-thinking of staying put, when another of the early viewers put in an offer. Not great, but we had come to realise our house’s one weakness was a relatively small kitchen. This was a more significant factor than we originally thought.

But it seems, on the evidence of website postings and estate agents’ shop-window ads (see the picture above, which is NOT of our house, by the way), that people who buy large houses these days are obsessed with having kitchens the size of a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, but minus the sweating, cursing sous-chefs. Islands surrounded by acres of shelving and expensive equipment. A dining area nearby, with the potential to go alfresco by opening enormous doors that lead out to an equally well-provisioned patio. It’s called lifestyle, apparently.

Voluminous kitchens are a must even if the occupants use them for little more than boiling the occasional egg or warming up Tesco ready meals, while guests sit around close by, guzzling prosecco and talking about the joys of Brexit. And in many estate agent windows, all you see of a property is the bloody kitchen. Which must tell you something about the state of Middle England’s health, as waistlines expand and middle-aged livers pack up in despair.

My approach to cooking, by the way, is somewhat different. When I’m in the middle of some complex operation such as a Christmas dinner, all I want is for our beloved guests to get the hell out of my face.

Anyway, in the interests of getting on with it, we accepted an offer slightly below the asking price and re-started our property search. By this time, the property market was going into a frenzy, at least in the imagination of the media. The government had temporarily reduced stamp duty (a wicked little tax on house purchases) to aid the post-COVID recovery. People were scrambling to get their deals done before the deadline, after which the tax rate returned to normal levels. The dominant ethos was FOMO – fear of missing out. The rise in house prices was also partly due to the fact that there weren’t many sellers. Not surprising that during a pandemic people are reluctant to have hordes of prospective buyers tramping through their homes.

After a few near misses, including a place whose owner was “insulted” by our opening offer and still refused to sell to us even when we came up to the asking price) we found another place which, contrary to all the media hype, had been on the market for a few months. Its owner, whom we shall call Mr Pratt, had been letting the property to long-term tenants, but now wanted to sell because, if the tenants were to be believed, he had a few financial problems. So we duly put in an offer slightly below the asking price, which he accepted.

Finally, all seemed set fair. Our buyer was moving ahead at a reasonable pace, and so were we. Back onto the merry-go-round of surveys and searches, our agent, lawyers and other advisors were again rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of yet more lucrative funds from our direction.

As the moment of contract exchange approached, Mr Pratt put a spanner in the works. Out of the blue, one day after we had been discussing with him the logistics of moving in, he sent a curt email to the agent saying he wished to withdraw from the sale. No reason given. We gathered that he’d being talking to his mates, who told him he was selling too cheaply.

Fortunately, we’d already spotted another property nearby that was far more enticing than his, but for a similar price. Because we’d committed to Mr Pratt, we hadn’t looked into it further. But as soon as he dropped his bombshell, we immediately viewed the other place, loved it, and within a day had put in an offer, which the seller accepted.

Meanwhile, Mr P. turned out to have been bluffing. Within a couple of days he went back to the agent to tell him that he would, in fact, be prepared to sell, but only with a significant uplift of the asking price. We then had the delicious pleasure of telling him to go forth and multiply. His tenants had moved out and now, thanks to his cupidity, he’d lost his sale. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, we thought.

With our new seller we set a deadline for completion. Our buyers agreed to hang on a little longer, provided we completed before the end of the tax holiday.

And so, miracle of miracles, despite all the Jeremiahs in the media telling us that it currently takes up to six months to buy a house in these interesting times, with the help of a cooperative seller we completed our purchase within four weeks.

Thus ended our journey to a new home, eighteen months since we first started thinking about a move. We encountered many strange characters on the way, of which Fluffy and Pratt were but two examples. In the end, all the costs involved, including those incurred through the false starts, amounted to an additional ten percent on top of the asking price for our new home. Compare that with Australia, for example, where the average cost of buying is around half that figure.

Which causes me to reflect what a dumb way we English have chosen to run our property market. Weak regulation, opportunistic sellers and capricious buyers who can jerk you around at no cost to themselves, service providers such as removal companies who will jack up prices at times of high demand. Anecdotal evidence suggests that our experience is far from unusual. But at least it had a happy ending.

Why, you might ask, did we put ourselves through all this grief? As we explained in Part 1 of this little saga, in common with many people whose kids have left home and who rattle around in houses too large for our needs, we were downsizing.

For all the fun and games involved in putting a quart into a pint pot, as we Imperial English say, I shall shortly be posting Part 3.

Upping Sticks: Part 1 – Thinking About It

Old Bridge over River Wey - Weybridge, Surrey. Pic from

If I’ve been a little quiet of late, it’s been because I’ve been preoccupied by a life-changing event.

No, I haven’t hovered on death’s door with COVID (yet). Nor does England’s success in a football tournament register much on the radar. In fact, I’ve watched virtually no TV in the past few weeks, and paid very little attention to all the stuff that usually gets me going, such as politics and the strange habits of migrating ducks. And no, my wife hasn’t tired of my eccentricities enough to divorce me or at least seek respite in Bognor Regis.

The event in question was a house move.

It must have been five years ago when we first started to think about downsizing. We’d been in the same home for a quarter of a century. Our kids had grown up there. The cat was buried at the bottom of the garden. The dog’s DNA was everywhere. Neighbours had come and gone.

The folks who lived opposite us had stayed in their large house until the bitter end, sustained by armies of helpers: carers, cleaners, shoppers and gardeners. Did we really want to end our days in a house built for a large family, or should we make way for others who might use it more fully? If so, the time to move was when we still had the energy to up sticks and go somewhere where we could moulder away without getting lost in all the unused space.

It was strange, really, to spend five years thinking about moving when, earlier in life, I would cheerfully hop from one place to another in the blink of an eye with barely a couple of suitcases to call my own.

Back in 2016, given the election of Donald Trump and the imminent collapse of the British economy at the hands of Brexit, we thought of moving far away. Away from the crowing of Nigel Farage, the Occado vans, the floods of fake prosecco and death-delivering clouds of diesel fumes.

Perhaps a remote Hebridean isle (if the Scots would have us), or one of those craggy outposts to the far west of Ireland.

Iceland? Quickly discounted – too cold, and full of bearded policemen. Easter Island? Too full of rats and spooky statues. Ulan Bator? A possibility. It would have felt like a return to an ancestral homeland, because I’m convinced I’m descended from Genghis Khan. And fermented mare’s milk probably goes well with the morning coffee. But again, too cold, I thought.

If we did go abroad, the chances were that we’d settle in some warm island far into the Atlantic or the Pacific that hadn’t been turned into a glassy wasteland through repeated nuclear tests, or isn’t a giant runway populated by stealth bombers.

As for the kids, of course we’d miss them. But they could always come and visit us every few years once they’d saved up for the six flights and the motorised outrigger they’d need to reach us. Assuming of course that the world wasn’t a smouldering wasteland by then.

But in the end, we decided that in such places we’d probably die of boredom, as opposed to through the pestilence, flooding and the negligence of feckless politicians back home. Better, perhaps, to expire in an interesting place.

Not that you’d describe Surrey, in the big scheme of things, as particularly interesting. Weybridge, our little town, is not urban, it’s not suburban and it’s not country. If you want edgy, go to Hackney or Islington. Surrey had the edges knocked off it long ago. Apart from the occasional phantom tree slayer, nothing much happens in our backyard. And that seems to be how people like it. It’s manicured, affluent and relatively anonymous. It has no nightlife to speak of, no MacDonald’s and no cinema. In other words, it’s a safe pair of hands, whose embodiment for many years was its Member of Parliament, Sir Philip Hammond, a property developer who became Chancellor of the Exchequer and was known to his colleagues as Spreadsheet Phil.

It’s perhaps significant that as the town grows larger, the traffic gets ever more clogged and our most recent claim to fame was a nutter who went around with a chainsaw chopping down innocent trees at night, that Hammond’s recent successor is a mental health doctor by trade.

For most of our time in Weybridge, we lived in something of an enclave. People in Surrey, if they can afford to live in them, like their private estates. Ours was typical of the genre, a collection of large houses that were built in the 1930s on land that once belonged to a single manor.

When we arrived in 1993, it was a quiet place. A mixture of long-term residents and, like us, younger folks with families. Since then, residential property in England has come to be regarded as a source of enrichment as well as “home”. Everybody seems to have become obsessed with improving their homes, and with them their fortunes.

There was never a moment, in my recollection, when one house or another in our estate hadn’t had a host of white vans parked outside upgrading kitchens, erecting summer houses, converting lofts or building extensions. You could say that the legal phrase “quiet enjoyment” of your property was subordinate to the relentless urge of your neighbours to add a few thousand pounds to the value of their homes by upgrading it one way or another. I confess that at one stage we joined in the fun. We extended our home by a third.

Over the past couple of decades, many hadn’t stopped at upgrades. Sharp-eyed developers had been at work. A good third of the houses had been ripped down, to be replaced by two on the same plot. The result was that for many years one part of the estate or another hosted building sites as well as gracious living.

Some of the new builds blended in nicely with the existing properties. Others didn’t. One of them was a vast grey Lubianka of a mansion, which stood in stark contrast to the red brick to be seen just about everywhere else. How the owner got planning permission to build such a monstrosity is beyond me. Another decided to be eclectic. He took the existing shell of his building and adorned it with a feature of just about every architectural style from the Tudor period onwards. More recent rippers-down seem to have chosen a more traditional style favoured by developers who specialise in building for footballers and Russian oligarchs. McMansions, in other words.

Things calmed down in recent years, partly because all the big plots had already been divided. But there was and is still scope for people to demolish their houses and build bigger ones.

By and large, we jogged along quite happily among the steady tick of home improvement. On the domestic front, we lived fairly quiet lives, though occasionally our teenage daughters would contribute to the few moments of excitement that set tongues wagging.

But now the teenage torch had been passed to others, some of whom we’d watched grow from infancy. Over the past year, coronavirus had stunted the rites of passage, though we could still hear the occasional raucous gathering from nearby gardens.

We felt like the oldies whom time had forgotten, surrounded by professionals busy furthering their careers and burnishing the prospects of their offspring. We were ready to move on. Was it a wrench? Perhaps more for my wife than for me. For her, our home was the source of memories, many of them treasured, some less so. Not so much connected with any feature of the house, but more as an invisible patina that covered everything and everywhere. For me, it was all about objects – pictures, photos and other stuff we acquired over our stay. The underlying bricks, wood and stone are pretty much irrelevant. And those objects would move with us wherever we went. They would make a house a home.

But first we had to put our our beloved place on the market. And that, for all the bullshit you might have read in the media about the frothy state of English property prices, was no simple task.

Part 2 has all the gory details.

Ten thousand fans and a hundred wedding guests

The other day I wrote a few words about the peak stupidity of those who refuse to have a COVID vaccine because they’re worried about being poisoned. Very arrogant of me, I know, though I’ve been poisoning myself for decades with various things and I’m still here. At least I was when I was writing this.

Now I have another beef.

Yesterday, I sat in front of my TV watching the England cricket team, as usual, teeter on the edge of disaster against New Zealand. The match was in my home town, Birmingham, in front of a crowd of 17,000 real spectators, young and old. As the afternoon progressed and the beer looked like running out, things got louder and louder. In the tightly packed stands, the banter and bawling intensified. It began to feel like old times.

In the evening, closer to where I live today, another 10,000 were at The Oval in London to watch a 20/20 match. For the uninitiated, 20/20 is crash-bang-wallop version of cricket that has as much in common with the game I grew up playing as cage fighting does with chess. I was at that fixture two years ago courtesy of our friend Carlo. It was so much fun that my wife, who has long heroically tolerated my domination of the couch for big football, golf and cricket events, came close to being converted. The final conversion came shortly afterwards when Ben Stokes and his unlikely batting partner Jack Leach blurred the distinction between the two forms of the game with a savage display of hitting that ripped the heart out of the Aussies in Leeds. Happy days.

Watching all the new-normal fun on display yesterday was something of a bittersweet experience. In just over three weeks someone very close to us is due to be married. She’s planned for a hundred guests. But now, after putting off the event once because of the second COVID wave, it looks as though her date falls a day or two within the rumoured extension to the current restrictions. This means that she’ll have to disinvite seventy of her guests, and that just one of the three tiers of wedding cake that I’ve made for her will get eaten.

All the while, there will be thousands of fans at Wembley watching England in a football tournament, no doubt bawling and hollering even more loudly than the relatively sedate cricket fans in Birmingham. Not that I begrudge anyone partaking in national sporting sacraments. After all, negative tests and two jabs should be enough to keep the dreaded Delta Variant (as we must now call it) at bay. Theoretically anyway, even if I would probably respond to any dissenting opinion with “you might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment”.

So why, one might ask, would it be impossible for a bride-to-be to have her wedding under the same rules? Negative tests, jabbed, masks indoors and celebrations outdoors. All of the oldies who are due to be there have had two jabs. Just as it’s possible to hire police officers for football matches, why shouldn’t they be allowed to hire a couple of soldiers to check our COVID credentials on arrival and keep us from getting too rowdy?

It’s not fair, she and her intended are entitled to wail. And they’d be right. It isn’t fair. But who said fairness was a human right? Not the virus, not the victims, not the rabbits in the headlights masquerading as a government.

Tomorrow, it seems, the rabbits will announce the latest rules. A lot of people will no doubt be disappointed. Fairness won’t be a factor, though the appearance of fairness will. Perhaps the bride will have her cast of thousands. Perhaps not. Either way, they’ll be grand.

All of which leads to one of my rules of life. Fairness is a gift that you should always seek to bestow on others, but should never expect for yourself. Which, I guess, is the same rule I apply to kindness and generosity, none of which can possibly be measured except in the heart of the recipient.

I once was lost, but now am found

I am profoundly grateful that Twitter and Instagram didn’t exist when I was eighteen years old. Not because I would have come up with the kind of stuff that has caused an England cricketer to be banned from representing his country eight years after the event. More likely because the eighteen-year-old me was an idiot, full of pompous pretension and half-formed ideas. Today, a quick look at scribblings from that time make me squirm with embarrassment.

But they were private thoughts, and God knows what I would have splattered out into the social media for the benefit of my one-and-a-half followers. I suppose it would have depended on what I thought I had to gain by doing so.

These are different times. The dominant ethos for millions of social media users seems to be “I Tweet Therefore I Am”. Or, in the case of Donald Trump, “I Can’t Tweet, Therefore I’m Stuffed”.

Digging up ancient tweets is an increasingly popular way of making a living for media folks who no longer need to creep around behind bushes or rifle through dustbins in order to uncover moral weakness on the part of public figures. All you have to do is scour the social media for stuff that people who subsequently become famous are too stupid to delete. And there are plenty of stupid, famous people out there, it seems.

But if we are to be condemned to the outer darkness for things we said or did as adolescents, I hate to think how many of us would have had careers at all. Which begs a few questions. First, why do teenagers make such arses of themselves on the social media? Second, are our personalities fully formed and immutable at the point when our acne starts dying down? And third, can we now expect some form of generally-accepted codification governing punishment for socially-unacceptable outbursts on the social media? Is there to be a statute of limitations on racist and sexist tweets, and, by the way, should we expect a bunch of ex-cricketers to have a coherent stab at writing it?

The first question presumes that teenagers are fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Making sexist or racist jokes might imply self-confidence and a hardened set of beliefs. But it might also reflect a desire to be liked. After all, why do jokers joke? And when you joke, do you not try and make sure that your audience will find your jokes funny? Therefore might not Olly Robinson’s jokes reflect a desire to be liked by a peer group rather than the beginning of a lifelong attitude?

To answer the second question, you probably need to delve into the psychologist’s craft. Whatever personality traits are fixed by eighteen, your behaviour or attitude can surely evolve over time. At the age of seventy, I would argue that I’m not the same person I was at twenty, thirty or forty.

The third question is, on the surface, a dumb one. Of course it’s reasonable to expect that the perpetrator should make the usual ritual apology. I’m ashamed of what I tweeted, I’m not that person now and blah, blah blah. But where do you draw the line? There must surely be a difference between a juvenile who posts a racist tweets and subsequently joins Tommy Robinson’s praetorian guard, and someone who shares an off-colour joke with his mates, but whose subsequent behaviour gives no indication of racist (or sexist) attitudes. And before we start moralising, should we not ask ourselves if we have never laughed at a joke that penetrates the layers of our personalities and wakens the person we were when we were pimply adolescents?

Where do you draw the line, bearing in mind that what might have been acceptable ten years ago is a no-no today? And who does the drawing? Do we need yet another law, which might have to change every few years as social mores change? Or a code of conduct, drawn up by some currently unidentified high priesthood, which will also need to change with time. And should the social media giants have a role in agreeing such a code? After all, they’re the enablers of all this crapology.

And most important of all, should we really be punishing people who have broken no laws for things they said ten years ago? That, to me, smacks of retrospective criminalisation, which is a pretty abhorrent concept, especially when it deprives people of their livelihoods.

Better, surely, to draw the line now, to expect an apology from the historic miscreants, and create an expectation that they should atone by voluntary work, perhaps with the vaccination teams in Bolton and Hackney, by sharing their talent and knowledge on school visits or by raising funds for womens’ refuge shelters. I’m sure you can come up with a few more imaginative ideas. John Newton, the reformed slave trader whose line from Amazing Grace I quoted in the title, would certainly have had some thoughts on the redemption of loose-tongued cricketer.

Perhaps also sports administrators should have a hand in the process, by providing workshops that help newly famous sportspeople handle their new-found fame. Media training, for example, that advises them what not to say if they wish to avoid the current hounds of hell – such as trans stuff, dissing Marcus Rashford and Winston Churchill, arguing for or against Brexit or claiming that the COVID vaccine made forks stick to their foreheads. In other words, to expunge all evidence of personality until they’re rich enough not to care about getting 98 hate tweets a day. And probably, if they want to become media pundits, for a long time after retirement.

So the choice facing elite sportspeople today is do you want to famous, rich and anodyne, or do you want to be loud, opinionated and fired? Not a dilemma that former cricketing giants like Geoff Boycott, Ian Botham or Viv Richards had to deal with.

I’m with Don Henley: they’re not here

In one of my favourite Don Henley songs, They’re Not Here, They’re Not Coming, Henley captures the yearning of every UFOlogist for the aliens to make themselves known:

From the Arizona desert
To the Salisbury Plain
Lights on the horizon
Patterns on the grain
Anxious eyes turned upward
Clutching souvenirs
Carrying our highest hopes and our darkest fears

But now a whole bunch of well-qualified people, including military pilots who have witnessed their impossible aerobatics, are saying that they are indeed here. Not only that, but worse, they’re a threat to US national security. The last five words are enough to cause every cold warrior, prepper, paranoid backwoodsman and Pentagon general to sit up and take notice.

I write this because that paragon of truth and wisdom, the US Government, is about to pronounce on the likelihood that we are not alone. I’m not holding my breath.

The question is: if they’re not the product of infernal Chinese or Russian ingenuity, or of interlopers from a parallel universe, to whom do these flying objects that can hurtle at 16 times the speed of sound, disappear in and out of water and turn on a sixpence belong? And why do they tease American pilots by running in and out of restricted airspace?

Until they announce themselves, we’re unlikely to know. But you would have thought that if they were planning to wipe us out, colonise or enslave us, they would have done so by now. Unless, that is, the mothership is lurking behind the moon, ready to make its appearance by darkening the skies over Los Angeles.

Most likely they’re robots rather than squidgy, malodourous organisms from some planet light years away. After all, who would want to live in one of those things, unless they have the properties of a Tardis? If they do turn out to be robots, perhaps they’re the alien equivalent of drones, though which the owners can watch us go about our lives from the comfort of their alien homes. Assuming, of course that they can get over the time lag of several million years that it would take the video feed to reach them. But perhaps they’ve sorted time travel.

If the aliens do show themselves in the guise of friendly tourists, no doubt the Americans, always eager to exploit a commercial opportunity, will entrust the job of showing them around to Disney. Though how they’d get paid is anybody’s guess.

But here’s a thought. If they are here, they won’t care about human rights, because they’re not human, just as we don’t pay attention to ant rights because we’re not ants. They won’t care about Brexit, Vladimir Putin or the plight of the Uyghurs. A few Palestinians dying as bombs demolish their homes will be no more significant to them than accidentally stepping on a beetle is to us. They might be mildly interested to see how we as a species deal with existential threats such as climate change. But as individuals we are surely irrelevant.

Perhaps more engaging for them would be to look at a world that looks similar to the one their ancestors once occupied, before they evolved from the six-legged flying insects they once were into the squidgy brain-blobs they subsequently became.

Perhaps they envy us the freedom with which we dance, play football, copulate and kill each other, and wish they could still do those things. Or perhaps not, because they can do all those things without leaving their brain-blobs.

Perhaps they’ve always been with us, dropping by every so often from their parallel universe to check us out. Or could they be our descendants, looking back through time, like archaeologists, at what once was?

Who knows? Who cares? Whoever or whatever our alien visitors might be, those earnest people in the Pentagon worrying about national security are engaged in a pointless exercise. The squidgies won’t be wiped out by a virus, nor will their motherships be brought crashing down by our puny nukes. They will do what they choose without reference to us. They’re our terra incognita, our “here there be dragons”, a reminder that there will always be things beyond our comprehension, and that each discovery we make brings forth a hundred unanswered questions.

Until things turn out otherwise, I’ll leave the last words to Don Henley:

They’re not here, they’re not coming
Not in a million years
Turn your weary eyes back homeward
Stop your trembling, dry your tears
You may see the heavens flashing
You may hear the cosmos humming
But I promise you, my brother
They’re not here, they’re not coming

They’re not here, they’re not coming
Not in a million years
‘Til we put away our hatred
And lay aside our fears
You may see the heavens flashing
You may hear the cosmos humming
But I promise you, my brother
They’re not here, they’re not coming

Song by Don Henley and Stan Lynch, from the album Inside Job

You might think I’m a tad cynical, but I’m with Henley, even if he’s subsequently changed his mind.

When I grow up, I want to be a shrink

This is a post about stupidity. Or perhaps about how a cocktail of influences fatally skews the minds of people who are not ordinarily stupid to behave in stupid ways.

When I think about those who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID because they don’t want poison to be injected into their arms, I’m reminded of the infamous air crash near Madrid, in which a Colombian Boeing 747 plunged into the ground a few miles short of the airport because the pilots chose to believe an erroneous altimeter setting rather than the evidence of their own eyes and, more critically, the automated alarm that urged them to “PULL UP, PULL UP!” The last words of the pilot, preserved on the voice recorder, were alleged to be “shut up, you stupid gringo”.

Of course there is a difference between the split-second reaction of a pilot and a person who has all the time in the world and an abundance of evidence on which to make their decision. But there is surely also a difference between innate stupidity, if such a condition exists, and a stupid decision.

Antivax arguments range from improbable and paranoid (as in Bill Gates, microchips and world controllers) to logical (we don’t know the long-term effects, think thalidomide), ethical (the clinical trials were far shorter than normal, so we’re taking an unacceptable risk) and emotional (how dare you tell me what to allow into my arm?).

I prefer to focus on the poison argument, because that’s the one I’ve encountered in the real world. I don’t tend to socialise with people who believe in the Antichrist or contend that the world is ruled by half-men-half-lizards, so let’s disregard the wilder shores. But to refuse a medication on the grounds that it’s poisonous strikes me as perverse. After all, many of us ingest poisons every day: alcohol, paracetamol, tobacco, diesel fumes, animal flesh incinerated on barbecues. In small doses they may not kill us, but in sufficient quantities or over a sufficient period of time, they will. And we know it.

And then there are some of the extreme medications used to treat us when we have a life-threatening disease. How many of those who refuse vaccines on the grounds that they’re poisonous would refuse chemotherapy for their cancer, or not allow themselves to be bombarded by potentially lethal gamma rays?

As for the those who see a mass poisoning event, brought about by a global conspiracy, are they brave outliers who know something that we don’t, whose individuality and freedom of thought should be cherished and respected? Or are they just another cult whose adherents have disappeared down a rabbit hole and whose beliefs, against overwhelming evidence, threaten the safety and security of the rest of us? Whichever view you take, there seems to be a high level of scientific consensus that as long as COVID is allowed to spread, it will develop variants that will become steadily more effective in evading the vaccines that currently protect the vast majority of recipients.

Should we condemn them for being stupid, selfish and attention-seeking, or should we embrace them and seek to assuage the fear, if that’s the compelling emotion, that lies at the heart of their stance? Although condemnation is the easiest route, the alternative is unlikely to be more successful, because such is the multiplicity of information sources available to all of us that viral disinformation is far more effective than COVID at dismantling any defences that we can construct against it.

As is often the case, I fall between two stools. I think their behaviour is stupid. But I also think that their mindset needs to be categorised as a personality disorder and treated as such. It feels at the moment as though a good proportion of the world’s population is having a variety of simultaneous nervous breakdowns. But then again, perhaps that’s always been the case, but we’re only just noticing it. With so many people who haven’t fallen down rabbit holes nonetheless fretting about their mental health, you would think that this is a good time to be a shrink.

One wonders how our ancestors, who lived through famine, wars, economic collapse and any number of massacres, plagues and natural disasters actually survived without them and still managed to produce us.

Summer Reading: Putin’s People

The abduction of a Belarussian dissident from a Ryanair flight forcibly diverted to Minsk is a timely reminder that in some countries, the international rule of law means nothing when, in the perception of the rulers, the prospect of staying in power is at stake.

This is one of the dominant themes running through Catherine Belton’s book, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, which was published in 2020.

Belton’s story, written from the perspective of a former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times, is not so much about Vladimir Putin, more about the former KGB operatives who surround him, and who, even as the chaotic Yeltsin era unfolded, set about restoring the power networks that underpinned the old Soviet Union before it collapsed. Though not so much for the benefit of the newly-emerged Russian state – more for their own personal enrichment. Once gained, the preservation of those riches would be impossible without the power to control all the levers of state.

Putin is ever-present, of course, but as a cold-eyed, glowering tsar who sits at the top of the pyramid on which he was installed, manipulating his subordinates, playing them off against each other and using them as proxies for his own enrichment. But the book is as much about money as power politics.

The story begins as the Soviet Union crumbles. A faction of the KGB realises that the transformation of the communist party state with its command economy into a form of democracy and a market economy is inevitable. They therefore begin quietly siphoning off money into offshore financial institutions that they can use to sustain their foreign influence networks.

Although Yeltsin’s financial reforms gave the first oligarchs – Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky and others – the opportunity to amass fortunes by often questionable means, the old KGB operatives were also at work, forming unholy alliances with organised criminal gangs, especially in St Petersburg, where Putin was serving as deputy mayor. As Yeltsin’s health deteriorated, they pushed Putin, the former junior KGB officer in Dresden, into positions of increasing power: first as head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, then as Prime Minister. Finally, they persuaded Yeltsin to give way to him as president, despite the fact that to the average Russian he was a nobody.

Belton takes us through the crises of his first decade in power: the Moscow apartment bombings, the Chechen war, the Moscow theatre hostage crisis and the Beslan school siege. She leaves open the question of the extent to which these events were acts of provocation by the FSB that enabled Putin to establish his credentials as a strong leader, but the implication is clear.

Once he became more secure in his position, Putin took down the original oligarchs. Those whom he didn’t imprison he allowed to keep their wealth, provided that they kept out pf politics and made their wealth available to the state when needed. They were left with little doubt that they remained in place on sufferance, and could be taken down in an instant on the say-so of the tsar. As for those whom Putin imprisoned or forced into exile, their fortunes were restored to the state, with large slices hived off to institutions controlled by his cronies.

By the 2010’s Putin had ceased to be the placeman. He was now the puppet master, a man who was setting out with a vengeance to restore Russia’s imperial power. The war with Georgia and the annexation of the Crimea followed. Just as during the communist era, foreign policy was a zero-sum game. Where the West appeared weak, Russia would step in, hence its entry into the Syrian civil war. At home, Western investors, having meekly accepted the take-down of Khodorkovsky, continued to do business with Russia.

Meanwhile, it seems, Putin’s former KGB associates continued to suck vast sums of money out of the country and squirrel it away in the West, often with the assistance of crime gangs via impenetrable money-laundering schemes. Some of those funds were used to corrupt foreign politicians and support nationalist agendas. Much of it ended up in London, which was perceived to be more lax in its regulations than the United States.

Belton goes as far as she can without falling foul of defamation laws to portray Donald Trump as the beneficiary of Russian money, especially at the time when his business empire nearly collapsed. Whether or not he was and is an agent under Putin’s control remains unproven, but again the implication is clear.

Because the book largely focuses on the pursuit and acquisition of wealth and power by Putin’s people, we don’t learn much about the intimidation tactics employed against their opponents, such as Alexander Litvinenko, the Skripals and Alexei Navalny. Nor do we learn about the assassination of one of Putin’s main rivals, Boris Nemtsov. But it becomes clear that under the cloak of deniability, Putin was prepared to go to any lengths to suppress or remove anyone who challenges his rule, just as the KGB did during the Cold War.

Unfortunately for him, some of his extreme measures have resulted in economic sanctions by western countries including the US, the EU and Britain. The knock-on effect of those sanctions has been to increase the gap between his wealthy cronies and the ordinary Russian. Widespread impoverishment has led to a decrease in his popularity, to the extent that many of his actions are now driven by fear of insurrection. Hence the brutal tactics employed by his security services to repress protest.

According to Belton, Putin is now more isolated in his Kremlin citadel than ever. He knows that if he steps down he might face serious consequences. In effect, he is trapped in office, presiding over a government of quarrelling factions with no ideology and no purpose beyond the projection of power and the continuation of his rule and that of his people.

Putin’s People is compelling, exhaustive and exhausting. It now serves as a reference whenever I read about some of the movers and shakers in Russia. The other day I came across about a court case currently being heard in London involving three oligarchs. I went straight to the book, and from there back to a section in which Belton describes the links of the three litigants to Russian organised crime.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the narrative would be easier to follow if it included a network diagram showing the relationships between the massive number of players – the oligarchs, the ex-KGB courtiers and the crime gangs. The trouble is that it would probably fill a wall.

Does the book alter my perspective on the Putin years? Not really – I’ve followed events in Russia quite closely for much of my life. But it does intensify the impression of what many call a kleptocracy, a mafia state. The level of detail, winkled out of those brave individuals who were prepared to speak to Belton, is impressive. But much more remains to be discovered. Putin’s people are good at covering their tracks.

What to make of this territorially vast, nuclear-armed state that was never the West’s friend, despite the imaginings of Western politicians who believed that Boris Yeltsin had written a new chapter in the relations between Russia and its Cold War adversaries? Should we judge Putin and his people by the standards that prevailed in the West before black Russian cash seemingly corrupted so many of its institutions? Or should we see him as a man who, by establishing a cloak of secrecy over the financial dealings of the state and destroying the independence of institutions designed to bring a degree of accountability to government, simply turned back the clock? And does that place Russia among other nations that have never had such accountability, such as the monarchies of the Middle East, with which we are happy to do business?

The difference, perhaps, is that the likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not able to threaten their rivals with nuclear weapons, don’t (Jamal Khashoggi excepted) liquidate critics on foreign soil, and (at least since the mid-seventies) have refrained from using their oil and gas as an economic and political weapon.

One of Catherine Belton’s most telling observations is that Putin and his former KGB associates have created a “KGB simulation of a normal market economy”, with the willing complicity of the West:

Institutions of power and the market that were meant to be independent were in fact no more than Kremlin fronts. The rulings handed down by Russian courts looked, on paper, as if they could be legitimate. In the Khodorkovsky case, the oil tycoon went through more than two years of court hearings and two sets of criminal charges, the second of which accused him of stealing all the oil Yukos had ever produced, the same oil that he’d previously been accused of evading tax on. But in reality, the court’s rulings were not rulings, but Kremlin directives. The court system was not a court system, but an arm of the Kremlin. Anyone who crossed the Kremlin could be jailed at any moment on rigged or trumped-up charges.

In a system where stealing was pervasive, where property was constantly being divided up on a nod and a bribe to the relevant person in the Kremlin and law enforcement, Putin’s men had compromising information on everyone. The country had returned to the time of informants….

How much time, effort and resources went into the transformation of Russia into a nation governed under the cover of questionable appearances is anybody’s guess, but one of Putin’s critics estimated that without the systematic appropriation of wealth by its ruling class, the country would at the time of writing have been the fifth largest economy in the world, whereas it was actually ranked thirteenth.

As with China – and other allies and adversaries whose systems of government don’t sit well with those who live in liberal democracies – future relations between the West and Russia should surely be based not on the premise of dealing with big bad wolves, but on a deep understanding of the realities, strengths and weaknesses of those systems. And we should never become so consumed by paranoia that we forget the humanity of those who live within those systems. If they’re to change for what we see as the better, it will be the ordinary citizens who will have to do the heavy lifting.

The last thing we need is to return to an era when every misunderstanding between Cold War rivals threatened to spill over into nuclear conflagration. To avoid that outcome, we need to eliminate the potential for misunderstanding, which means replacing supposition with hard knowledge. And, since knowledge and disinformation directly influence our decisions as to who we should elect to govern us, any well-researched piece of investigative journalism, properly corroborated, that reaches a wider audience is surely helpful.

To that end, Putin’s People is a fine piece of work.

Exit stage right, pursued by vengeful variants

My mother with a friend, Cornwall 1939

It’s time to think about holidays. Or, since everything about Britain must by government edict be bathed in superlatives, about the Great British Holiday.

I’ve spent the last fifteen months confined within the borders of a country which for much of that time has been determined to keep its citizens locked up (or down, depending on how you choose to describe it). I can well understand the joy felt by thousands of us who are departing for Portugal, St Helena and the Falklands Islands, and who are salivating at the prospect of sea, sun and, depending on the destination, microwaved lasagne, guided tours of Napoleon’s place of confinement, or penguins and former minefields.

We shall not be joining them for the foreseeable future, because we have stuff going on at home. If you asked me whether it was also because the prospect of rubbing sunburnt shoulders with hordes of beer-guzzling fellow-Brits horrifies me, I would deny it, because I don’t consider myself a snob. Much.

But I will admit that I prefer to mingle with my fellow-citizens in their natural habitat, where they freely moan about the weather, tear down statues, hurl anti-Semitic insults from cars and fret about Indian variants. That way I can retreat from them if need be. Even those dubious pleasures have been once-removed from personal experience over the past few months as we waited for the second jab that theoretically should liberate us from our ivory tower in leafy suburbia.

In fact, the person I most relate to is the character in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads who spends most of her time looking out of her front window at the little dramas playing out in the street beyond. Except that in my case the window is a little screen, from which I observe corpses flowing down the Ganges, tower blocks in Gaza reduced to girders, concrete and mangled bodies in an eerie echo of 9/11, and shooting stars playing whack-a-mole with each other in the night sky. And when I look at my own country, all I see is endless footage of people in pubs, pubs and more pubs. Oh, and Hugh Pym, the BBC’s very own Angel of Death, lurking in hospital corridors with his quizzical smile, waiting for the latest shed-load of COVID patients to flood back into Britain’s intensive care wards.

Pretty grim stuff, though on the positive side there are plenty of murder dramas to be watched on telly, set in glamorous locations from Italy and Corsica. Or, if you can’t bear to see those gorgeous European locations that the government is discouraging you to visit, there’s always the delight of watching half the population of Kansas City wiped out in gang warfare, or nasty little homicides in Wales. (I do sometimes wonder why it is that the middle-aged love their murders, whereas the young ones adore science fiction and superheroes. Is it because sci-fi is a tableau of endless possibilities for those who have much of their lives yet to live, whereas murder mysteries serve to remind those of us who are closer to the end how lucky we will be to die in our beds?)

For me, as I travel beyond the perihelion of late middle age into the deep vacuum of decrepitude, strange obsessions are flourishing. I yearn for a Full English Breakfast, for example. I was thinking the other day about all the golf tours that were once a regular feature of my summer. I now realise that the major attraction was not cursing my way around an unfamiliar golf course with friends, but the joy of stumbling down in the morning to a table with a white linen tablecloth and immaculate silver cutlery, to be offered orange juice, fresh fruit, croissants and the sacred components of the Full English: eggs, sausages, bacon, beans and hash browns. How could one consume such a feast every morning and expect to hit a white ball in a straight line with one’s centre of gravity so dramatically skewed?

I’ve also come to realise that if I can enjoy such luxury without having to play golf, and in the après-golf endure endless stories about futile endeavour, I can quite happily do so in England. My wife doesn’t agree with me on this, but at the moment, now that we’re properly vaxxed-up, I’d be delighted to suffer two weeks of rain and cold in some picturesque coastal village, in Cornwall or Devon perhaps, because what matters is not the sun but being in a different place. Not having to bother to cook. Walks along shores and cliffs. Scary little lanes and ancient churches with indecipherable saint’s names. Fish suppers. Pasties. Clotted cream.

Until the pandemic arrived, we Brits had become rather spoilt in our holiday options. We tend to forget that sixty years ago a foreign holiday was a rare luxury for all but a tiny minority of the population. If you worked in manufacturing, you only had one time of the year when you could get away: the two weeks of the industrial holiday, when the factory shut down. Depending on where you lived, you would flock to popular and affordable holiday destinations in the UK – Blackpool, Skegness, Weston-Super-Mare, where a Pontins or Butlins holiday camp awaited. If the weather was crap, so be it. You either stayed indoors, or wrapped up against the elements and sat in deckchairs on the piers, pretending to have fun. And when you got home you said you had a lovely time.

These days, the pursuit of sun, sea and Stella Artois is regarded as a human right. As is the right to be right when everyone else knows you’re wrong. And the right to tell porkies because they’re your truth. And the right to kill people because God tells you to. And the right to decent bandwidth so that you can watch everyone else exercising their human rights from the safety of your own home.

All in all, the prospect of departing for foreign shores is becoming steadily less attractive. Not only is your human right to pass freely across borders (courtesy of the Queen, as our passports point out) without being curtailed because of Brexit, government traffic lights, endless PCR testing and interminable queues at airports, but even when you’re in the air, you risk being diverted to some godawful Stalinist enclave if one of your fellow passengers happens to be a dangerous subversive whose presence is required in that rathole. And should you safely arrive at your destination, goodness knows what horrors await you as variant waves threaten to inundate you, seemingly from nowhere.

So it seems that for us at least, an English summer is the preferred option, with Wimbledon, wild weather and God knows, World War 3, all streaming on our little electronic windows.

But wait. The weather forecasters tell us that we’re in for a few days of average weather, meaning no rain, not too much wind and temperatures around 20C. Does that mean that we’ll be able to turn off our central heating and thereby save the planet?

Bring it on, I say.

Finding happiness in unlikely places

This week I’ve made a concerted effort to be happy.

Boris Johnson has just announced that it’s OK for us English to hug each other. Even though Johnson himself is the last person in the world I’d like to hug, except possibly the Orange Monster, I’m delighted that the Ministry of Silly Hugs, locked away in Westminster, has made this determination. What other physical acts will we soon be allowed to perform? The mind boggles. My only quibble is that we’re only allowed to hug our loved ones. I should have thought that unloved ones are more deserving.

Anyway, what other reasons are there to be happy? I sometimes think of finding happiness as a form of alchemy – creating emotional gold out of the base metal of experience. Hence the Breughel painting (The Alchemist) above. Let’s find some examples.

On Saturday, it pelted down with rain. I wimped out of a round of golf, but it was such a pleasure to see the rain bathing my roses and kissing the grass. I wonder if Noah felt the same way about his pomegranates before God spoke to him.

We’ve just had an election, and the Charlatan Party carried almost all before it (I’m not talking about the Scottish Nationalists or Welsh Labour). But I don’t care, because we’re not about to go to war with France. That makes me very happy.

The social media thinks I’m an alien-obsessed Manchester United fan with an interest in buying gold coins and electric radiators. Let them think that. I shall continue to do random searches to throw them off the scent. It shows how dumb their algorithms are. Such fun to be had with pieces of inanimate code.

It’s someone’s birthday today, Facebook informs me, but on principle I’m not bothering to congratulate them because I’m not an electronic sheep. I’m happy about that.

LinkedIn wants me to apply for all kind of grand-sounding chief executive jobs, because it doesn’t know I’m seventy and I’m quite happy not working for anyone, thank you very much.

My local online website has just informed me that Japanese knotweed undermines houses and makes them harder to sell. I’m delighted, because no little knotweed seeds have been drifting past our house lately.

Over the weekend, we went to dinner with two other couples in someone’s garden. We’re all fully vaccinated, and the whole thing almost felt normal. We talked, among other things, about holidays in Tristan da Cunha and St Helena. I was fine with that, because I’m good at delayed gratification.

The other day, our little grandson spent the day with us while his mum was at work. He was as good as gold. I felt smug because he’s driving her mad at the moment. Don’t worry, I was able to say with the wisdom of an experienced parent, familiarity breeds contempt and it’s only a phase. Smugness counts as happiness, even if it’s a slightly twisted version.

Skimming through my MSN news feed, I learn from a Daily Mail “expert” that “farting could help lower your blood pressure”. I’m delighted to hear that, until I realise that misread the word “fasting”. But I’m sure the former statement is also true. So I’m pleased, because I now know why, against the odds, my blood pressure is consistently normal. I also have a little giggle when I imagine Trump in one of his medical press conferences telling the world that flatulence wards off COVID. The consequences would have been unimaginable.

Last week, someone stole my identity on Facebook and created a rival me, seemingly to spam my friends. I’m delighted, because the new me was born in 1953. This means that in a couple of years I’ll be able to celebrate my 70th birthday again. Oh joy.

Soon there will be cricket on the telly again. England are playing New Zealand. Not only that, but I’m going to a real live match. I shall have the opportunity to take a train for the first time since lockdown. Such pleasure to be had from small things. Also the prospect of falling asleep among hundreds of others is almost as exciting as being able to indulge in a group hug.

Speaking of telly, we watched Tenet the other night. My block was comprehensively busted. I don’t think I’ve ever sat through two hours of crash-bang-wallop, much of it in reverse, and not had a clue about what was going on throughout, except that the ending was neatly set up for an equally incomprehensible sequel. Why was I happy about that? Because we were spared the effort and expense of going through the same fatuous experience at a cinema seven miles away.

I’m currently reading a book called Putin’s People, which of course is about Vladimir Putin and the irredeemable shits with whom he has surrounded himself during his distinguished political career. His life is a reminder that you can have wealth and power, but if you find yourself unable to walk away without being eaten by wolves, you are condemned to an eternity of paranoia and sadness. Sic semper tyrannis. Which makes me profoundly grateful that fate granted me a life of obscurity.

This little stream of disconnected thoughts is the result of a concerted effort to be happy at a time when good cheer seems to be in short supply. If you’re feeling a bit miserable, please remember that if I, the gloomiest bastard on the planet, can do it, so can you.

But fear not, no doubt tomorrow I shall find many reasons to be melancholy again. Because, as Gordon Gekko didn’t say, gloom is good.

The ascendancy of lies

Do you ever get the feeling that we’re adrift in a lifeboat, whose occupants are starting to devour their weaker brethren, despite having more than enough supplies for a long spell on the water? And that they do so not because it’s necessary, but because they can?

The other day, I got an email from the catering manager at the golf course where I’ve spent thousands of pounds on my favourite form of recreation over the years. It went to all members of the club which it hosts. The club doesn’t own the course, but you would think there was a symbiotic relationship, given that subscriptions form a very handy and stable source of income alongside what they gain from members of the public with no affiliation who simply turn up and pay green fees.

For some years, the company that owns the course has provided a modest discount to club members for food and drink bought from the bar. Now, it seems, we have to pay money up front and order through an app that stores our financial details, in order to get the discount.

I have no fundamental objection to this move. It’s a commercial decision. The owner of the golf centre will have taken quite a hit during lockdown, so you can understand why it would want to boost its cashflow.

But what pisses me off is the way in which this measure is presented as a benefit. Here’s part of the email:

From the 1st of May 2021, we are making a few changes to the way that you order and pay for food and drink. We are introducing the widely successful Levy scheme as an additional member benefit.

Levy is a way in which you will be able to preload your member account with credit, making food and drink purchases even more seamless. Plus you’ll never have to worry about leaving your wallet at home again!

Levy will need to be topped up in advance of any purchases and can be done so via the Golf Centre App, where you can also see your remaining balance.

Beginning 1st May, to continue to benefit from your 10% discount, food and drink must be ordered and paid for using a levy balance which you can manage via the app.

The bold type is mine, and I’ve removed the name of the golf centre to spare them embarrassment.

Now I can see how some member with incipient dementia might forget their wallet, which is about the only obvious “benefit” on offer, except that such a person is the least likely to want to go to the trouble of downloading an app and sharing their credit card details with yet another online vendor whose data security is no more likely to be watertight than any other. As for “seamless purchases”, waving a card over a machine seems pretty seamless to me, after which my card returns to its miniature faraday cage in my wallet.

Anyone with an ounce of perception will recognise an obvious cash grab. So why go to the trouble of describing it as a benefit?

The answer is that everybody else does, or rather nobody has the honesty to admit that they’re raising revenue, be it by stealth taxes, diminished consumer rights, altered terms and conditions or exclusions hiding in the small print of commercial agreements.

Blatant dishonesty that insults the intelligence seems to be the currency of the age. Since politicians like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump came to realise that lying has no consequences, everyone else seems to think that they can do the same and get away with it. Though there’s nothing new about lying, it now seems to have become a commonly accepted ethos. Everyone lies, so why not me?

Within a fractured society in which everybody lies, there’s another dynamic that flourishes: the abandonment of the idea that your interest is my interest.

There have always been unscrupulous politicians, employers and businesses who are out for what they can get. But these days it seems that even apparently reputable organisations believe that it’s OK to shaft people so long as those people don’t realise that they’re being shafted.

The principle of mutual interest is the fundamental lubricant of society. I pay my taxes, you protect me. I buy a new home, you guarantee that it won’t fall down in a couple of years. I work for you, you pay me and make sure that I work in a safe place. I am your customer, it’s in your interest that you deal with me honestly so that I buy from you again.

On the other hand, if I buy Brexit from you and it turns into a disaster, or if I buy an apartment and I’m bankrupted by the cost of removing the cladding, or if I buy a diesel car which was sold to me on the basis of deliberately falsified emission data, how will I trust you again?

The answer is that if I can keep the truth from you, you will happily continue to trust me. Though the benefits of Brexit were always debatable, it was only after the Grenfell fire that the cladding scandal became clear. And maybe those car-makers reckoned that they could get away with falsifying the data.

When we talk about the scale of the disinformation that’s spread though the social media, and the part governments have played in its dissemination, we should remember that Vladimir Putin had nothing to do with Grenfell and diesel emissions, even if he may have pushed us towards Brexit.

It’s also ironic that while mutual interest involves an understanding of what each party wants out of a relationship or a transaction, companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon claim to know in ever more granular detail what “customers” want. Yet large organisations, who presumably use the data provided by the social media, often make catastrophic mistakes of perception.

Take the twelve leading football clubs, for example, whose owners decided to create a European Super League, only to retreat in disarray after mass protests from the fans of those clubs. Under the principle of mutual interest, you would have thought that they would have ensured that they would have taken steps to get the fans on board, or at least to discover what motivates them, before announcing the new league. Were they so remote from their customer base that they thought that they could sell what was effectively a money grab as a benefit to the fans? Or did they consider that the only customers that counted were the TV companies and the merchandisers? What they actually achieved was the perception among those lifelong fans of the football clubs that they, the owners, regarded their clubs as properties, investments, and, more importantly, that they cared little about the culture, traditions and wider welfare of the sport.

The result? A breakdown of trust among those who regarded the owners as custodians rather than the rational but hard-headed businessmen that they are. A failure to understand mutual interest, in other words.

And what of construction giants who stiff their subcontractors with late payment in pursuit of higher short-term profits, and pay their executives eight-figure bonuses? And supermarkets who use their purchasing power to drive down farmers’ margins and make more money through cash management than they make from their customers? Where’s the big picture, the wider benefit to society?

The picture is not universally grim. A pharmaceutical company can still sell its vaccine at cost so that poorer countries can more easily afford its product, in the knowledge that it will be able to make a normal margin from follow-on products. It’s surely in its interest to prevent a global economic meltdown, so that the world will be able to afford its drugs in the longer term.

Wealthy philanthropists – Gates, Buffett et al – can still use their fortunes to fill gaps in healthcare and research that governments ignore or are unable to address.

While jumped-up go-betweens can still make fortunes from PPE because they have a friend in government, there are still volunteers who will risk their own health to staff vaccination centres or deliver free meals to vulnerable people kept at home during lockdown.

And if you’re looking for an example of dedication and commitment in the public sector, you only need to think of the thousands of National Health Service staff who kept us alive during the pandemic. Despite the efforts of politicians to persuade us that we are customers, with the dubious implication that we have the right to become customers of someone else, to these people, who saw so many of their colleagues succumb to COVID, we were always human beings.

All is not lost. Society still trundles on like a bicycle with a wobbly wheel. But if we’re to return to a state where honesty and responsibility are once again standard expectations of our politicians, public servants, businesses and citizens, we need to start voting with our feet. We can still cast out the liars, punish the devious and loudly excoriate those who are beyond our reach. We can walk away from companies whose ethics and objectives we find wanting. We don’t need a cancel culture to name and shame. We can encourage and applaud those who discover the truth and expose the liars. And if we show intelligence when we look at the world, our powers of perception will be less likely to be insulted.

A tall order, you might think, when the temptation is to sit back and passively accept the lies and short-term thinking that seem to be all around us. But as we emerge from our lockdown caves and enthusiastically enter into our new normal, it’s surely not too much to hope that when the euphoria fades, and we look to rebuild what has been broken, we shall start raising our expectations of those who ask us to trust them.

On this election day in the United Kingdom, that’s perhaps too much to ask. But I’d like to think that the reckoning might not be too far away.

Great men are not always the famous ones

Time, once again, to commemorate the life of a person who was never famous except to those who loved him. The other day, my wife lost a beloved uncle. For her, he was the latest and one of the best of many elderly relatives who have passed on in recent years. I, on the other hand, grew up without uncles and aunts. There were a few second cousins dotted around, but as a family, we rarely saw them. Sadly, they ended up as curiosities rather than friends. People with shared genes, yet few shared experiences.

My wife had a very different childhood. She grew up in Ireland as the oldest of six siblings. There were cousins everywhere. The magic number seemed to be six. Six from her father’s twin brother, and six from her mother’s sister. To me, whose relatives were remote and thin on the ground, it seemed her character was formed by many influences beyond those of her parents. A beloved grandmother, uncles and aunts who were also godparents, cousins who were like brothers and sisters, running in and out of each other’s houses or arriving from the other side of the country with great fanfare.

If I could have had a choice of a favourite uncle, I would have had to have selected them from Paula’s tribe. My choice would have been between Aiden Meade, a thoughtful, softly-spoken doctor, who was the twin brother of her father, and Tom Bourke, who married her mother’s sister, Jean.

By the time I met Tom and Jean, their roles as parents of growing children were largely done. The younger ones were still at school, but most of their offspring were out in the world, either at university or into careers. But the family home never stopped being a centre of gravity for a clan whose members ended up at various times in Germany, Spain, Australia, Britain, New Zealand and Dublin.

Tom died last week at the age of 92. He spent part of his youth in London, where he worked as a pharmacist. By the time I got to know him, he had settled with Jean in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. Only a couple of their six sons were still living at home, but the rest would drop in on a regular basis whenever they could.

Paula and I met when the Troubles were still raging in the north. Whenever we visited Ireland, those we encountered were always welcoming, yet deep down I used to ask myself what these people who had successfully broken away from my country fifty years before really thought of us Brits.

I had no such misgivings about Tom Bourke. From the very first time we went to Galway, his welcome was genuine and wholehearted. He was a big man with a booming voice, full of stories, opinion and jokes. For Tom and Jean, hospitality was not only a family obligation but an exuberant performance. If we arrived in the morning, Tom would lay on a fry-up, which for much of his life was his favourite way of starting the day. There would be songs, with Jean on the piano. If the weather was good, he’d take us out to Salthill, where the family would swim, or on boat trips down the Shannon. And no evening would pass without Tom insisting on a swift pint at his favourite bar down the road. When we left, no departure would be complete without a parade of Bourkes on the pavement, lining up to sing a raucous farewell anthem.

Unlike Aiden, who was quietly analytical, and whose views on medicine were always interesting, Tom would start with an opinion, and then find the means to back it up. He had no time for the bomb-blasting nationalists of the north, and little time for the rituals of the church, though he rarely missed a good funeral. He and Jean were Fine Gael supporters, and would go to great lengths to excoriate Eamon De Valera, the Republic’s dominant patriarch. According to Jean, one of her distant forebears, a Michael Collins man, once had the opportunity to take a pot shot at Dev, but chose to let him live. Cursed be the day, thought Tom, though in truth he was not a man to wish anyone dead.

He loved his time in London, hinting with a sly grin at what devilment took place in the house where he rented a room. But when he married Jean, there was no place but Ireland to raise a family.

You can use what cliché you like – a force of nature, larger than life, a big man – and Tom fitted the bill. He needed to be all of those things, with six sons, each a strong character in his own right, to raise. But he was perhaps unusual in that the relationship between him and Jean was one of equals. I never felt that one or the other was the dominant partner. Both were exuberant extroverts. Life around them was never boring.

His funeral was a muted affair, not just because of COVID’s dulling influence, but because Tom didn’t want a big send-off. He often said that he would prefer to be buried before anyone knew he was dead. Unusually in Catholic Ireland, he chose to be cremated.

I’ve always been fond of my Irish relatives-by-marriage, but none more so than Tom Bourke. We shared a love of history and politics. He had the same respect and affection for my country as I do for his. I can think of no recent piece of writing that would have warmed his heart more than an article by my favourite historian, Tom Holland, on the influence of the Irish on England before strife and conquest muddied the waters between our two nations. He begins What England Owes the Irish with these words:

Once, long before Partition, the Potato Famine, Drogheda, the Plantation of Ulster, the Statutes of Kilkenny and Henry II’s landing at Waterford, Anglo-Irish relations stood on an even and happy keel. “A people who never did anyone any harm, and were always most friendly to the English.” So wrote Bede, the greatest scholar of the Northumbrian golden age, in the early 8th century. Ireland was celebrated not just for the asceticism of its holy men and women, the formidable quality of its learning, and the indefatigability of its missionaries, but also for its hospitality. Many in Northumbria travelled there, Bede wrote, to learn from the example of its inhabitants. “The Irish welcomed them all gladly, gave them their daily food, and also provided them with books to read and with instruction, without asking for any payment.”

Holland could have been writing about Tom Bourke’s sense of hospitality, even if the idea of being a holy man would have sent him staggering into the nearest bog in a paroxysm of laughter.

To all who knew him, me included, he was indeed a great man.

Pockets of evil in England’s green and pleasant land

Once upon a time, as an eleven-year-old at one of England’s private boarding schools, I was dragged out of bed at nine in the evening by a fierce maths teacher and made to repeat the classwork that I’d royally screwed up earlier in the day. In my school report for that term, he wrote that “Royston gives a passable impression of a fool”. Perhaps that explains why I failed to see the beauty of numbers until someone invented the spreadsheet.

Sixty years ago, as I was struggling with quadratic equations, it seems that others were enduring an altogether darker experience.

Louis de Bernières, the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandarin, has recently caused a stir by revealing the abuse he suffered while a pupil at his English preparatory school. Beatings, sexual abuse and mental cruelty abounded. For him and, it seems, many other boarders in such institutions, there was no escape. As a result, he says, he was permanently scarred, and unable to form stable relationships.

For those of you unfamiliar with the arcane world of English private schools, preparatory schools are where kids go between the ages of around 8 to 13. They are ‘preparatory’ because their aim is to prepare pupils for entry into a public school, which in fact isn’t public but private. Many of them are boarding schools. In my day, we only saw our parents every few weeks.

De Bernières asked for written contributions from people who suffered he did at a prep school. The Sunday Times published some of their stories. In common with his experience, the tales of abuse and suffering were quite harrowing. Many were left emotionally stunted for life. This was not a new phenomenon. As anyone who has read Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall and any number of other novels set in English boarding schools will know, private education in this country has a long history of malpractice that sits alongside its reputation for excellence.

I had two experiences of prep schools. My parents sent me to an establishment called Akeley Wood at the age of eight. This was in the early sixties, a few years before De Bernières went to his school. And then, after I left the public school for which Akeley Wood was “preparing” me, I worked for a summer term as a teacher at another: Port Regis.

I was lucky, or maybe I should give credit to my parents for choosing my school carefully. With the exception of the incident involving the overzealous maths teacher, nothing happened to me that you could describe as abuse, either physical or mental. In fact, I wore my school report as a badge of honour.

The fact that the teacher felt able to describe me as a fool to my parents, who paid the fees that kept him in a job, is an indicator of how these schools were a law unto themselves. One wonders what OFSTED, our education regulator, would have made of that report.

Nonetheless Akeley Wood was, as I remember it, generally a benign institution. Perhaps it was significant that the headmaster, who was also the owner, was married. Many of De Bernières’ correspondents wrote that most of their teachers were single. One of them recalled that the situation at his school improved dramatically when the head got married. The sixties was also a period when many World War 2 veterans were in teaching. At that time, there was no requirement for a private school teacher to hold any formal teaching qualification. An MA from Oxbridge, then something of a formality following after a first degree, was often all that they needed. So it’s not surprising that so many brought their physical and mental scars into private schools, where the only selection criterion was the approval of the headmaster.

Funnily enough, two of the most dominant personalities at my school were women. They were the matrons, who were tasked with ensuring our physical wellbeing. Misses Lawrence and Maber, also known as Beefy and Battleaxe, were a fearsome pair, at least to us. A reason, perhaps, why Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seemed an entirely believable character to me. Certainly mental wellbeing didn’t seem to figure strongly in their remit.

And yet, despite my being in the care of the odd and damaged characters whose eccentricities are obvious with the hindsight of sixty years, Akeley Wood gave me a decent, if traditional, education that enabled me to get into my next school with a minor scholarship. I didn’t find boarding a problem. Any unpleasant memories are largely overshadowed by good ones: sitting in the loo late at night reading Homer; trips to see Shakespeare in Stratford; tunnelling under snowdrifts in the great freeze of 1962; horse-riding through Stowe, a country estate full of endless gallops, surrounded by eighteenth-century follies. And then of course the teachers, the best of whom helped to instil in me a love of the written word, and a passion for history, especially of the ancient world, that remains with me to this day.

If there was anything that I blanked out, it’s stayed blanked out to this day, And anyway, I doubt if what I went through would be more difficult than that experienced by any number of kids at state schools at the time. Or so I believe, having spoken to many friends over the years about their school days.

My second encounter with a prep school was in 1969, when I took a summer job as a teacher at Port Regis. It was a good way of filling in time before I went to university. I got the job in the time-honoured way, thanks to influence. My younger brother was at the school at the time, so I imagine that my parents put in a word for me.

Which is how I ended up in a classroom at the age of eighteen, teaching a bunch of kids about the Battle of Cannae and much else besides. Port Regis was better-connected than Akeley Wood. At the time it boasted a couple of Conrans among its pupils, as well as a smattering of other scions of the great and the good. Later on, Princess Anne sent her children there. By the time I arrived, some of the old warhorses of the sort who abounded at Akeley Wood had started to retire, though there were a few eccentrics still shuffling over the polished wood floors.

Mr Mellor, the art teacher, for example, who appeared to have a weakness for the sauce, and always at breakfast replied to a cheery “good morning” with a bleary “is it?”. And the redoubtable Mr Winnall, who was fond of shooting and once caused all the pupils in one dormitory to wet themselves in terror when he came into the room late one evening, opened a window and took a pot shot at a rabbit on the front lawn. Or so the story goes.

Again, I only have happy memories of Port Regis, even if the experience of teaching for a summer term made me realise that I wasn’t born to be an educator.

I write this to point out that not every private boarding school was a hotbed of abuse whose legacy festered in those who suffered from it. Just as in the current era, when most private schools, often out of economic necessity, have converted from single sex to co-educational institutions, I can’t believe that all such schools are swamps of misogyny and male predation, despite recent scandals that might make you think otherwise.

The difference, perhaps, was that in the sixties the prevailing ethos was, as Prince Philip liked to say, you got on with it. In the schools De Bernières and his contributors describe, you ate the food you were given – all of it – even if it made you vomit. You accepted the beatings and the furtive fumblings of paedophile teachers. And, most extraordinary as it seems now, you practiced a code of omerta. You didn’t tell your parents. Even if you did tell them, they may not have believed you. So because you and your cohorts were all in the same boat, you found a way of dealing with the reality around you.

That wasn’t my experience, though just as a chimpanzee is only a few strands of DNA away from being human, it only would have taken a few small adjustments for my school to have been the same – a little less kindness, perhaps, or a less benign headmaster.

Things are different now, in that abuse can’t so easily be concealed. A best-selling author can unearth stories of cruelty from an earlier age. A Facebook campaign exposes widespread misogyny among pupils at co-ed secondary schools, both private and public. In today’s prep schools, staff who indulged in the practices of the sixties would end up in prison, and the schools themselves dead in the water. Thank goodness. The social media may be a malignant force in many people’s lives, but it has its uses.

Can we ascribe what others see as one of our national characteristics – the British reserve, the stiff upper lip – to the emotion-stunting educational regimes imposed on generations born into privilege? I don’t believe so. It’s a trite theory that doesn’t explain why so many of those whose parents relied on the state for education – the vast majority – stoically marched into the trenches in war time, worked in factories and fields for a pittance and when asked about their well-being would answer with the stock reply: “mustn’t grumble”.

The truth is that we’ve always grumbled, which is why over the centuries our grumbles have turned into civil wars, riots, industrial unrest and, more recently, Brexit. Though I’d never wish to downplay the harm done to Louis de Bernières and so many others of my generation, a fate from which I mercifully escaped, we should always remember that within each generation there are people who suffer in silence – even now, in an era when the social media has industrialised the expression of pain.

Perhaps the best way we can recognise historical suffering – for my generation will soon be history – is to shine a light on those who suffer today, and not just in our own country. There are plenty of victims of religious, political and societal abuse who deserve our attention. Silence is the friend of the oppressor, as it was for the little tyrants of our private schools. So we should complain and protest, so that suffering that’s happening around us is not revealed far too late for any remedial action.

Our forebears were right. We mustn’t grumble. Because grumbling simply isn’t enough.

Boris’s Fawlty moment

Much as I despise Boris Johnson as a politician, I can’t believe that his alleged outburst that he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown was anything other than a howl of frustration worthy of Basil Fawlty in his pomp.

In moments of stress or argument, do we not all say things that we don’t mean – to hurt, to provoke or to shock? I’ve certainly been known to do so, but I’ve been fortunate enough not to be someone whose words are taken seriously by those around me, and certainly I’ve never been attended by po-faced acolytes hovering with notebooks when I’ve let rip.

The consequences of loose words spoken in anger are a reason why I rarely text, tweet or email when I’m angry. The dopamine hit of a good rant rarely lasts long, and usually ends in remorse. Best to let the words blow away in the wind. But if you’re in Johnson’s position, your words will never blow away, especially if you create an environment in which someone who stops being a friend automatically becomes an enemy.

The thought of Boris blowing a fuse in front of his advisers brings to mind Kim Jong Un, who always surrounds himself with eager toadies who scribble his every word in their notebooks. I imagine them gathering in conclaves away from his presence just to make sure that their notes tallied. In his darker moments, I wonder if our prime minister doesn’t envy Kim, whose sidekicks know that one false move or leaked word can result in them being blown away rather than the words he utters.

Anyway, I don’t for a moment believe that Boris doesn’t care about those whose bodies have been piling up over the past year. He’s just fond of using words for dramatic effect. In that sense he’s rather like a pubescent schoolboy who’s just discovered his willy. He doesn’t care about truth or lies, only about the gratification that a good turn of phrase (or hand) can deliver.

Should we care about the onanistic ranting of our leader? After all, we elected him in full knowledge of his track record of offensive remarks, which is second only to that of our beloved and recently departed Prince Philip. Only if we think he believes the stuff he says, which is highly debatable. More important, for me at least, is the damage he has caused by treating politics as a game to be played which he was determined to win. Having won the game, he has seemed unable to figure out how to achieve anything without continuing the tactics that brought him to power.

The only thing that’s certain is that he will go eventually, and someone else will have the job of clearing up the mess, or possibly making it worse. The question is when enough of the electorate realises that he’s just a naughty boy. His colleagues in parliament know that already. The odds are that they’ll make the decision first, before we get the chance to have our say.

In which case, good riddance, and good luck to him in his return to the future as a newspaper columnist and occasional pantomime star.

The Phantom Tree-Slayer bites the sawdust

At the end of my previous post, I promised more when I had it on the Phantom Tree-Slayer who has been plaguing deepest Surrey. But if you read the English national newspapers, you will probably know that the saga is over. The alleged perpetrator has been arrested.

As it turned out, I didn’t join the tree patrol that public-spirited residents formed in order to stop the arboreal massacre. I doubt if my knees would have appreciated the effects of lurking behind bushes and hiding in the undergrowth in an attempt to catch the Tree-Slayer in the act. And if I had joined those who waited in unlit cars in the dead of night, I wouldn’t have been much use. I would have fallen asleep.

As I suspected it would, the story of the Tree-Slayer has gone mainstream. It even inspired a Peter Brookes cartoon in The Times (above), which showed Dominic Cummings cutting a tree under which Boris Johnson was sitting, a reference to the argument between two of our leading political miscreants, who are currently attempting to devour each other.

I suspect that my abiding memory of the episode will be the thought of the good citizens of Weybridge hiding in bushes in the hope of capturing the Slayer. It has echoes of Dad’s Army, except that the enemy was not a German spy, but a 24-year-old man in whose car the police found an array of tree-cutting implements including a chainsaw, a hacksaw and some rope.

No doubt when we discover what motivated the chap, he will be dealt with accordingly (unlike all the burglars and car thieves in our neck of the woods who have never been caught), and the episode will quietly slip into history. Perhaps his tools will become an exhibit in the Weybridge Museum, which sits above the public library in the high street. But for our latter-day Captain Mainwarings and Private Pikes, the thrill of the chase will surely be the subject of endless conversations in the St George’s Hill Tennis Club, Waitrose and the local charity shops.

Hopefully they will be encouraged to engage in other public-spirited acts of surveillance. Like catching people who scoop their dogs’ excretions into garish-coloured plastic bags and hang them like Christmas tree ornaments on bushes beside public footpaths. Perhaps also they will become COVID sneaks, and patrol the parks in the hope of catching those who break the sacred Rule of Six, or peek over each other’s garden hedges in the hope of capturing their neighbours hosting orgies under the cover of family barbecues.

Regardless of the aspirations of its activist residents, the Tree-Slayer outrage wasn’t the only source of excitement in our normally quiet little town. The other day, as we were sitting in our garden taking in the pastoral sounds of nearby tree-surgeons (genuine ones this time – our next-door neighbour was giving his forest a haircut) and manic lawn mowers, the sky suddenly became full of police helicopters circulating above. It seems that some guy got into an argument about where he could park his car when visiting the Marks and Spencer store. He mowed down a couple of people, killing one and injuring the other. Very sad, but also very Pennsylvania.

And then came a report that a diesel theft from a nearby bus depot had resulted in a spillage of fuel into the River Wey. We were asked to watch out for “wildlife in the river looking distressed”. Another job for the tree patrol, I suggest, who could station themselves by the river, ready to come to the assistance of collapsing joggers and little old ladies overcome by fumes while feeding the ducks. They could also report any local restauranteur who offers “a little diesel with your trout, madam?”.

I’m beginning to wonder how much more of this excitement I can take. A Surrey town whose main claim to fame is as the birthplace of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb which wreaked havoc on the German dams in the Second World War has, it seems, become a hotbed of violence, pollution and mental instability. Maybe it’s no accident that H. G. Wells chose nearby Woking as the place where the Martians arrived in The War of the Worlds. Did he know something that we don’t?

I await the coming of the aliens with keen interest. Either that, or divine punishment for my cynical glibness.

The Phantom Tree-Slayer of Deepest Surrey

In our serene little Surrey town, far from the maddened crowds of the big city, nothing noteworthy ever happens. Generally speaking, the crime rate around here is pretty low. Plenty of burglaries, but knifings and shootings are not common. But suddenly, we have been woken from our somnolence by a very different curse: the Phantom Tree-Slayer.

Over the past few days someone has been scooting around our streets with a chain-saw in their trunk. They pop out of their car, take a tree down and drive off at speed. Nobody has been able to identify them. So far they’ve accounted for twenty trees, which they leave at the crime scene. The outrage has even merited a mention in London’s evening newspaper, The Metro.

The reaction has been predictable. Who is this maniac, and if they can go for trees, will humans be next? Is this a precursor to an Elmbridge Chainsaw Massacre? Messages have been pinging around on our residents’ WhatsApp group. A couple of nights ago I was on my patio and heard what sounded like a chainsaw. My wife posted this information on WhatsApp immediately. By all accounts, a posse from the street went forth to investigate and found nothing. The atmosphere is febrile – the most excitement since the local hospital burned down, or possibly since a group of travellers set up camp in the car park belonging to the local train station.

I do wonder what motivates the perpetrator. Has someone on the council upset them? Do they have a grudge against tree-huggers in general, and Greta Thunberg in particular? Are they demented victims of the Brazilian Variant, who in their mania have mistaken Surrey’s temperate trees for a rainforest? Or has lockdown finally sent them over the edge? No doubt all will be revealed in the course of time, unless of course the case of the Phantom Tree-Slayer ends up as one of the great mysteries of our borough. In which case I shall be the first to organise Tree-Slayer tours for visitors who will no doubt come from far and wide to visit the crime scenes. For which I will be handsomely paid, naturally.

Until the case is solved, no doubt the good people of my neighbourhood will be keeping vigil behind their front doors, alert to the sound of a chainsaw, and ready to repel the invader with axes, cricket bats and 7-irons. Quite right too. You can replace burgled stuff pretty quickly, but trees take longer, and they’re not covered by insurance.

Personally, I think the aliens have arrived. Would it not be an irony if they thought that trees were a higher form of life than us humans, and therefore more worthy of their attention? And they may have a point. After all, who would you prefer to talk to if you’d just arrived on the planet: scruffy, smelly humans snuffling around the ground, or majestic oak trees standing stoic, resolute and seemingly eternal?

Going back to reality, it’s not funny, and it’s continuing to happen. Last night, several more trees came down. The police, according to the Metro story I linked above, are on the case. That’s very decent of them, considering how overburdened they are as they chase COVID violators around the local parks.

I, meanwhile, shall return to the business of trying to be sociable until the next lockdown arrives. I think I’ll join the tree patrol. More when I have it on this unpleasant tale.

London after lockdown

Last Friday marked our first foray into the world since the end of Lockdown 3. When I say “our”, I mean as a couple. I don’t include my disastrous forays on to the golf course which reminded me not only of my age but how easily body and mind lose coordination and muscle memory in a few short months.

The outing in question was to a lunch date in London, where we met our elder daughter, her husband-to-be and his parents at a posh Chinese restaurant in Pimlico. The main topics of conversation were matters matrimonial. The offspring are due to be married in July at a civil ceremony that will be mercifully free of media stars, judges and assorted duchesses, archdukes and margraves.

The restaurant offered one option only: an endless tasting menu with little dishes worthy of its two Michelin stars. The price was eye-watering, as was the wine bill. One bottle would have paid for a crate of plonk from Tesco. But hey, think of all the money we’ve saved through not eating out during the lockdown months.

The restaurant had built a cabin on the pavement, which felt as much indoors as indoors. There were three tables, each kitted out for the magic six guests. COVID has also led to a strange ritual, wherein you can eat without masks in the outdoor indoors, but should you step into the indoor indoors to go to the loo, you have to mask up. Strange really, because you would have thought that you had a far greater chance breathing airborne virus particles in the company of the braying occupants of the next table than within the restaurant itself, which was free of humans apart from the chef lurking in the shadows.

One thing hadn’t changed since pre-lockdown. A group of four, who represented a quarter of the restaurant’s afternoon turnover, failed to turn up, despite receiving a text and phone call the day before asking them if they were definitely coming. No wonder the price was so high, We were paying for the no-shows.

After three hours of delicious bits and pieces, interspersed with a fascinating commentary on the derivation of the dishes from the waiter, who comes from Tibet, we broke up to go our separate ways. Daughter to a wedding dress fitting, in-laws to their place round the corner and us to our home in deepest Surrey. As we stepped out onto the street, two large women beggars were engaged in a shift change on the payment opposite. Deliveroo cyclists were zipping back and forth. Polyglot London was in full flow, with barely a facemask in sight. It was as if the pandemic was a bad dream.

But before we could return to our suburban womb, we had to endure a real nightmare, utterly at odds with the image of the depopulated lockdown city in which street pigeons were the only sign of life. Our route home took us through Chelsea. It took an hour and a half of crawling through traffic to arrive at Putney Bridge, a distance of about three miles. Very few trucks, mainly cars and the occasional bus. Barring a few road works, there seemed no reason why so many people seemed to be heading in the same direction. Were they all heading out to the country? Were they afraid to take public transport? Whatever the cause, every alternative route showed red on our phone satnav. There was no way out.

The only upside was that we had the time to observe the natives as they sensibly used the pavements to get to where they wanted to go. Barely a soul over forty to be seen. You would think that anyone over that age had been locked up or had died off. Strollers and joggers, the lovers and the lonely. That part of London, full of apartments and small houses, is a game reserve for the young, the cool and the hopeful, for whom London is the greatest city in Europe. Like young butterflies with glistening wings, they’ve started to emerge into the post-lockdown sunshine.

Further on, into Putney, we passed a pub next to the Common, with tables laid out over ground normally occupied by middle-aged ladies and their dogs. The rule of six appeared to be in abeyance. More like the rule of sixty, as crowds of drinkers spread out over the open ground.

South-West London is hardly representative of the sprawling city that you see on the flightpath to Heathrow Airport. The rest of it ranges from grim to glorious, populated with people for whom there is no opportunity to escape into the clear air of the country, whose lives are not on a trajectory towards gracious living away from grubbiness and knife crime. I spent a brief period living in what estate agents grandly called West Kensington, but which was actually a shared terraced house in Fulham. It was fun enough, but then I escaped to Saudi Arabia. I never returned. I don’t regret it.

London is fine to visit, but since I’m not an oligarch with zillions to spend on a gracious residence in Hampstead, Kensington or Notting Hill, the mix is a bit rich for me. I prefer the suburban backwaters, where nothing ever happens. Until, that is, the emergence of the Phantom Tree-Slayer. For that story, you’ll have to go to the next post, which follows shortly.

Marie Kondos of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but your cheque stubs

Have fun, Boris Johnson tells us in this bright shiny week when England goes en fête because six people can gather together in the park. Down in ours, the tennis players are back, and a middle-aged chap sits on a park bench nearby playing jaunty tunes on his guitar.

Boris’s idea of fun, of course, is chasing around his lover’s flat looking for a sock because he has an impending date with members of the royal family. Or was, back in the days when he was London’s libidinous mayor, according to an expose on his relationship with one Jennifer Arcuri.

My idea of a good time is far more boring. I have a round or two of golf lined up over the next few weeks. That will be fun of a sort, though my body, unused to five mile walks punctuated by violent spinal contortion, is unlikely to see things that way. But the real amusement lies in what I call The Sorting.

If that sounds like the title of a horror film involving a demented postman, all well and good, because dementia is very much on the agenda. Not because I suffer from it as far as as I’m aware, even though those closest to me might secretly believe that I’ve been demented for decades. But for anyone who’s just reached seventy, as I have, gaga is no longer a landmark on a distant horizon.

Nor is our project to clear out stuff that we don’t need the result of any desire for an uncluttered life advocated by that pre-COVID self-improvement hero, Marie Kondo. She’s young, after all, and the young rarely appreciate the ephemera accumulated over over a long life, because their lives have not, in terms of average life expectancy, been long. In other words, less experiences, less memories and less stuff that triggers those memories.

No, The Sorting is necessary because we need to prepare for a time when we no longer find pleasure in rattling around a large house, and start thinking about the dangers of having to shuffle around with a Zimmer frame, tripping over unnecessary obstacles and taking an eternity to find a doctor’s appointment letter (amazingly, my lot still send letters) among a mountain of paperwork. Best to do that preparation now, while we still retain some remnants of middle-aged vigour, rather than to wait until we’re so old that we couldn’t give a damn, and wouldn’t be able to do anything about it even if we did.

So over the past couple of weeks I’ve become very friendly with my local recycling centre. Every day or three, I’ve been down there with our latest load of stuff, much of it from the attic and the rest from the garage. I’ve disposed of all kind of things, some of which induce pangs of guilt. I feel particularly bad about jettisoning ancient DVD recorders and desktop computers (hard disks removed) which work perfectly well but are rendered redundant by satellite TV boxes, laptops and smart phones. Our ancestors, who built stuff to last for generations, would be flabbergasted that something as sophisticated and intricately constructed as a motherboard should be useless within ten or fifteen years.

But electronics, wonky furniture, moth-eaten clothes and leaky garden hoses are merely the low-hanging fruit of The Sorting. Things get interesting and, in a weird kind of way, fun, when, as members of a fast-dwindling population for whom paper was at the centre of our lives, we get to grips with the written evidence of the past that will soon be irrelevant to all but ourselves.

I’m not talking about the kind of papers that end up in the Bodleian Library – a lifetime’s collection of letters, doodles and musings by the likes of Isaac Newton and Winston Churchill. Much as I’d like it to have been otherwise, our lives will not be analysed, dissected and argued about for centuries once we’re gone. Curious descendants with a yen for family history might wish to delve, but all they’re likely to find are clues as to the origin of their own quirks. Assuming, of course, that when we’re gone our immediate offspring, when going through the quiet ritual known as Sorting the Effects of the Deceased don’t decide that the stuff we value isn’t worth keeping and make their own journeys to the municipal dump.

Therein lies a key question: what do we value? Not so much for the benefit of future generations, but for us, while we still have the capacity to recall events in our lives and bathe in nostalgia?

Of what value are chequebook stubs, apart from serving to remind me how ridiculously loyal I was to the bank I started with when I first went to university? Why keep the stern letters from bank managers about overdrafts, credit card statements, ancient employment contracts, phone bills, tax returns, airline tickets and ream upon ream of paperwork relating to businesses in which I’ve been involved over four decades? They may have served as evidence of what I did, where and when – insurance against one day having to prove such facts, even though I couldn’t conceive of having reason to do so. But now, no value, except in the opportunity while purging them to revisit both good and difficult days before the memories finally fade.

Anything dating beyond a handful of years is irrelevant, stacked in chests in the garage, never visited. Time to get rid. Not so much the vestigial records that remind me of the essentials, but why do I need to remember that on May 17 1992 we had to call a plumber out to fix a broken ballcock? Unless, of course, in a fit of murderous rage I destroyed the loo as well. Which I didn’t.

Simple then. Just chuck ’em. Well not quite. A while ago, my wife, out of an abundance of caution, suggested that we should remove any personal information from bits of paper we discard. I should have thought that there were easier ways of gathering sufficient information to steal our identities, through hacking for example. But she assures me that there are gremlins and goblins out there who recycle paper and do just that.

This means that the whole process involves mass snipping, which takes some time. But what the hell. I always reckon that going to the dump is like another kind of dump. This is similar. It just means that you have the chance to listen to an interminable Mahler symphony or the entire works of Bob Dylan while doing the needful.

There are some items that are spared The Sorting. These include every birthday and Christmas card since the beginning of time (not my decision). Also the obvious stuff: photos, programmes of plays I acted in, letters, miscellaneous writings, school reports, certificates of birth, deaths and marriage. Then there are all the things relating to the offspring: school books, baby’s first weight chart, works of art of staggering beauty created when the artist was seven, as well as a video which bears the legend “strictly off-limits to my parents”, which I imagine dates to one or the other’s teenage years and gives rise to the ethical dilemma as to whether the content can be used by the bride’s father when that time comes.

Working though this lot is indeed fun, though in a sad kind of way when I compare the young face staring at me from visa applications and ancient driving licences with what I see in the mirror today. And then, halfway through the project, I got a reminder of why it’s worth doing. It came in the form of a documentary about Jack Charlton, a footballer celebrated as a player and a manager. A man of trenchant views and a character in all the best senses of the word. It looked back on his life, but included footage of him in old age before his dementia carried him off: staring into space, able to remember little of his long and productive life.

The moral of the tale is that when you have your marbles, use them. Something, I suspect, that Marie Kondo will come to appreciate in a few decades’ time. Will her de-cluttering philosophy survive into old age, or will she devise some new pearls of wisdom about what you shouldn’t throw away? And will she come to realise that what might fail to spark joy today might one day remind us of joys past?

If so, I’ll be long gone by that time, so back to the cheque stubs. Not much joy to be found in them, that’s for sure.

A decimation in Ragusa – Big Brother has much to answer for

There are times when I think that lockdown evenings need some variation. Just as we make sure to mix up our dinners with fish, a veggie night and a takeaway at least once a week, perhaps we would benefit, in the absence of restaurants, theatres, cinema, get-togethers and other staples of pre- and hopefully post-lockdown life, from more active evening pursuits. Cake-making perhaps, or scrabble and chess. Building a nuclear reactor. Talking even. Yet often as not, the default in our household is TV.

Which is fine, but I do sometimes get impatient.

Last night’s menu was supposed to be Deutschland 89 followed by The Unforgotten, with the news in-between. We rarely bother to watch the 10pm bulletin all the way through, because so many of the stories are unbearably miserable, and the BBC, which usually is quite good at avoiding journalistic clichés, seems unable to provide any commentary on crowd scenes without starting every story of tragedy, insurrection or mourning with the word “they”.

“They came in their thousands (long pause), from villages and towns (long pause), from mountains and river valleys long pause). They were there to mourn the passing of an extraordinary man. Jerome Finkelburger was the world’s foremost speed eater (long pause). He died after eating seventy-nine Big Macs in the space of fifteen minutes (long pause). They knew that they would not see his like again.”

It’s getting to the point where whenever I see a shot of crowds, I shout THEY! at the TV. And sure enough, off we go. A They story. At which point I usually step into the garden for a walk in order to avoid inflicting grievous bodily harm on the TV. When I return, my wife hands me a Prozac and we settle down to watch something else.

There are also times when I think we’ve agreed to watch one of our favourite series. I sink into the couch for an hour of murder and mayhem. I then notice the mysterious absence of my other half. It turns out that she’s finishing something. Booking a holiday in France five years from now, perhaps. So rather than sit mesmerised by the frozen screen that precedes the protests in Timisoara and Martin Rauch’s attempt to squeeze out of another tight spot in the glorious Deutschland 89, I put on some other programme that looks interesting.

On such an occasion last night, I went briefly to a show about dogs behaving badly, but decided that I really didn’t have the patience to see how the dog trainer managed to tame a snarling staffie that kills anything that crosses its path. Then I happened upon Master of Photography, in which a bunch of wannabe professional photographers spend two days in Sicily looking to take the best travel photo. Now I love a good photo, even though I know nothing about the art and technique that goes into creating them. What made the show irresistible was that they were in Ragusa, which serves as Inspector Montalbano‘s home town in one of my favourite Italian TV series.

So I, and eventually we, got stuck into watching these young people wandering around the town, sticking their expensive cameras up the noses of bemused locals in an attempt to produce compelling, atmospheric and emotional pictures that might serve to lure the world to this stunning town, as if any incentive for this Montalbano lover was needed.

It was interesting, even though the photography jargon was a baffling as the acronyms fired like bullets by the cast of Line of Duty. But then we came to the moment of judgement, when it became obvious that we were heading for a finale beloved of reality TV contests, in which a panel of experts dissect each offering with relentless rigour. The tension mounts as we wait for the winning photo. Headshots of nervous contestants. And then it becomes clear that the purpose of the exercise was not to find a winner. It was a decimation. An exercise in cruelty. One person was due for the chop. And it therefore became clear that this was one of a series, like so many other series, in which the contestants get whittled down to a short list of potential winners, one of whom is crowned in a grand finale.

And I thought to myself, why end a perfectly enjoyable show with the humiliation of a young woman who has to sit there while these experts tell her what a crap photographer she is? It’s what I call the Quivering Lip moment, beloved of all the other shows that feature ritual decapitation. The poor girl’s face fills the screen as she hovers on the verge of tears. Are you not entertained, as Maximus asks the slavering crowd in Gladiator?

God knows how many other shows are currently available using exactly the same time-worn format. Cake makers, ballroom dancers, interior designers, chefs and celebrities who have to endure pits full of bugs. Big Brother has much to answer for. For all I know there might be pest exterminators, undertakers and landscape gardeners queuing up in search of fame and fortune. Perhaps would-be porn stars even. Imagine all those well-endowed men and women going through their paces in front of juries of sex experts who dissect every grind of the hip and digital exploration in search of the perfect act of procreation or wanton pleasure.

Yes, I know that the only way to dispose of this stream of derivative garbage is simply not to consume it. And generally, I don’t, except by accident. But if we must have reality TV, surely it’s not too much to ask that they spare us the Quivering Lip moments? Are our programme makers so desperately unimaginative that they not only flog the dead horse but render it, recycle it and turn it into inedible steak haché?

Would it not be nice to see the weakest contestant taken on a journey in which they’re mentored, coached and nurtured into transforming themselves from the worst to the best? Probably not, because that wouldn’t involve blood. If these shows have a unifying proposition, it’s the survival of the fittest. And that’s what life is all about, isn’t it? Well no, actually, unless you happen to be a Nazi.

As our lamentable pandemic has surely taught us, like is about survival, adaptation, learning, creativity, improvement and kindness. Much as I enjoy watching people contorting themselves into impossible positions in a beautiful town in search of the perfect picture, the cruelty of the ending ruined everything. Perhaps I should have stayed with the story of how a bloodthirsty staffie became an acceptable member of the doggie race.

That, at least, would have been an uplifting story of improvement and redemption, even though the older I get the less I understand the reason for dogs. Or humans, for that matter.

Britain’s latest invasive species – the flag fetish

About forty-five years ago, during my relatively short career in the music business, I managed a loud, high-energy rock band called the Mean Street Dealers. Unlike the punk bands that at the time were getting record deals on the strength of their ability to handle a hairbrush, they were proper musicians with experience gained way before the era of Sid Vicious. A bit like The Police in that respect, but ultimately less successful.

One day we did a gig at Bangor University in North Wales. It went fine, but one or two people voiced their objections to the fact that the keyboard player had a Union Jack draped over his Hammond organ. The flag was an innocent style affectation from our point of view. I guess it was a nod towards the mods of a decade earlier, and particularly The Who, who often used such symbols in their sixties record artwork.

What we had failed to notice was that the Union Jack was fast becoming the rallying flag for far right organisations like the National Front. We also forgot to take into account that Welsh separatist sentiment was strong in North Wales at the time. Second homes belonging to English people were being set on fire on a regular basis.

After Bangor, we retired the flag. It took a while for the Union Jack to rid itself of its association with the neo-Nazis of the time. In later decades, another flag served a similar purpose. The Cross of St George became the emblem not only of marauding England football fans abroad, but of the National Front’s successor organisations, such as the English Defence League. The Union Jack went on to become the symbol of patriotism during the Falklands war. During the London Olympics, Britain celebrated as it was raised in tribute to the unprecedented number of medal winners from these islands.

But by and large, we don’t use flags as icons of patriotism, and certainly not (far right groups excepted) as badges of political affiliation. We don’t salute them. We don’t raise them in front of every home. We don’t swear oaths in front of them, apart from those of the profane kind.

Until now. Or, to be more precise, until our flag walked away from the 27 other flags of European Union member states and stood proudly on its own. Or to be even more precise, since Boris Johnson’s government took office. Since then we seem to have developed a flag fetish. Or at least, the most influential group of Members of Parliament, who were most aggressive in promoting Brexit and now seem to have an ideological stranglehold over a government which seems to have brought the thinking of Enoch Powell into the mainstream, have created the fetish.

No self-respecting minister or Conservative MP fails to have a Union Jack in the background when speaking from their offices or even at home. The Labour Party, with some embarrassment, falls into line because it thinks that only by reaching out to the Brexity, nationalist tendency will it win back the seats it lost in the last election.

We even have the extraordinary spectacle of an MP asking the new head of the BBC in a Select Committee meeting why there were no flags in its last annual report. A cynic might say that this person, who then posted a video of his question on Twitter, is heading for high office. It’s ironic that while the government, in a deliberate act of policy, is splattering the union flag every which where, the union itself is in greater danger of falling apart than at any time since its formation three hundred years ago. Only economic concerns, I suspect, will prevent Scotland going its own way, with Wales quite possibly following in its wake.

You surely have to be utterly naïve to think that a stripy, multi-coloured symbol is going to contribute in any significant way to the preservation of a political entity. But that appears to be the mindset behind the proliferation of flags in our current political space.

What I most appreciate about my country is that we don’t need national flags to trumpet our identity. I find the flag-fetish in the United States deeply alien. It’s one of the reasons why I never mistake America for a cousin of the country from which it won independence two-and-a-half centuries ago. And I’ve always appreciated that a better reflection of nationality is often to be seen on stamps, coins and bank notes, where flags are rarely featured and designs, often superbly imaginative, reflect the times we live in even if they also serve as propaganda.

On my screensaver I have a succession of photos chosen by Microsoft showing different parts of the world – mostly landscapes. I can instantly spot a picture from Britain, be it from the Lake District, the highlands of Scotland, the wetlands of Norfolk or the cliffs of Cornwall. It’s not a question of preferring one view over another. I equally appreciate the landscapes of France, China, India or Sicily. It’s just a matter of recognition. It’s home. No better or worse than any other home. But look at a landscape, and you recognise that it long precedes us and will, unless it’s irreparably marked by climate change, be there long after we transient creatures, and the flags we choose to identify us, are gone.

That’s the only consolation I take from the cynically manipulated, small-minded obsession that seems to have invaded our shores. Like the grey squirrels, giant hogweed, murder hornets and coronavirus particles that have also arrived from elsewhere before them, you can’t see malignant clusters of Union Jacks – and saltires and dragons for that matter – from a few thousand feet above.

Britain’s police – damned if they do and damned if they don’t

Heavy-handed policing of a vigil for Sarah Everard. Nazi salutes and restraint at an anti-lockdown demo. Broken bones, fireworks and burning police vehicles at a riot in Bristol. Not a day seems to pass when the police are not framed one way or another. As oppressors, thin blue line and victims. If you exclude all evidence to the contrary, Britain, you might think, is boiling over.

Here’s the thing about the British police: everyone has their own opinion. They may be institutionally racist. They may also be a swamp of misogyny. These are perceptions, not facts, because we can’t easily read hearts and minds. But perhaps equally striking is that so many of their senior people come over as rather dim. Again, that’s unproven, but when I watch people like the commander at the Metropolitan Police who acted as spokesperson after Sarah Everard’s disappearance I’m not filled with confidence that the best minds have reached the top.

He was clearly nervous. His words lacked the slightest hint of spontaneity. Like so many of his colleagues when they’re called upon to speak to the media, his delivery was stilted, and his language full of strangulated polysyllables. For all I know, he might be the brightest of the bright, but his demeanour didn’t give the impression of a keen and agile mind. Lower down the ranks, in less formal situations, you do see officers behaving less robotically. Every day, their communication skills prevent escalation into violence and disorder.

But when police at Sarah’s wake, while clearly acting within the law, chose to wade in and haul away women who were there to pay tribute to someone who appears to have been murdered by a serving police officer, their action appeared insensitive and heavy-handed. There’s always a line to be drawn between enforcement that is likely to provoke a greater offence than that which it’s designed to address, and using empathy and common sense by standing back.

Perhaps we’ve come to expect our police to be behave with the mercurial determination of the Line of Duty team, or the nuanced thoughtfulness of Cassie and Sunny in The Unforgotten. But they’re actors, and those whom we see doing their jobs in true crime TV shows come over as far more mundane characters. Is that because they are more mundane, or is it because they can’t afford to display their more distinctive character traits for fear of being accused of showboating?

I’d certainly be surprised if senior officers who come over so stiff and stern on camera return to their offices and start shrieking imprecations like DCS Hastings in Line of Duty. But equally, I like to think that they didn’t rise up the ranks because they were risk-averse, time-serving automata.

I’ve met a few senior police officers in my time, but only after they’ve retired. My favourite is witty, charismatic and kind. The sort of person you’d describe as a born leader. The one I admired least, whom I no longer come across, was pompous, puffed up and self-important. The rest are somewhere between the two. Some are extrovert, others not. If they have a common characteristic, it’s that they volunteer for stuff. Whether it’s serving on a golf club committee or running a jazz band, they get involved. Perhaps that’s a natural consequence of their being allowed to retire with decent pensions in their fifties. At that stage of life, there’s less inclination simply to sit on your backside doing nothing significant for the rest of your life.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that with the exception of the pompous one, these are ordinary people, in the sense that you wouldn’t be able to spot them as retired police officers from a mile off. They don’t talk about their careers unless you ask them.

So why is it that the ordinary people who form our present-day police come in for so much flack? Is it an inward-looking culture with its own rules, norms of behaviour and attitudes? Is it the demands of an increasingly authoritarian and often erratic state that makes increasing and sometimes contradictory demands on them? Is it the decentralised structure of policing that creates inconsistent approaches from one police force to another? Is it a creaking criminal justice system that causes unacceptable delays between investigation and prosecution? Is it chronic under-manning that leaves them incapable of responding to humdrum yet distressing crimes like burglary and petty theft?

Is it what politicians call the optics: the image of the average officer as a beast of burden, loaded up with tech paraphernalia, often overweight, incapable of agility and relying on being mob-handed for effective action? Or as heavily armed Roman legionaries beating off lightly armed barbarians on the streets?

Should we look to failures of leadership – not only among the police but within the Home Office and Ministry of Justice – to find the root cause of public lack of confidence? Or is it, as Paul Newman’s character says in Cool Hand Luke, that what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate?

What we definitely have here is a surveillance culture that sometimes accidentally catches out those who do the surveillance. Self-incriminating police cameras, citizens with mobile phones, CCTV and photojournalists sometimes cast police actions in the most dubious light. Before you know it, videos of the police at work, often shorn of context, hit the social media and enhance the perception of an overbearing, thuggish and inflexible institution.

Hence we see aggression before we recognise forbearance, intervention before restraint. The actions of the few taint the whole. When mistakes occur, they do so in the full glare of public attention. And they result in instant judgements. Such was the case when the police cleared a crowd of women around the bandstand in Clapham Common after the vigil for Sarah Everard. The optics were bad. Almost immediately there were calls from all manner of sources including senior politicians for Cressida Dick, the head of the Metropolitan Police, to resign.

I’m glad she didn’t, for more than one reason. First, insensitive enforcement of the law is not a crime. Nor is it gross misconduct, which would normally be grounds for dismissal. Second, asking her to step down would have sent a message that senior police officers should never have the opportunity to reflect on events, learn from them and fix what is broken. And third, even if she went, would there have been any assurance that the person who replaced her would be any more effective? We should also recognise that there are circumstances when the police are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Perhaps we also sometimes forget that our police are not just in the business of law enforcement. To an extent, they’re like Janus, the two-faced Roman god (above) who looks to the future and the past at the same time. Not only are they tasked with responding to crimes that have been committed, but they are there to keep us safe. We often tend to forget that when a road traffic accident happens, the police are often first to the scene, providing first aid and sympathy to the injured and making sure that oncoming traffic slows down. We also don’t appreciate their role in counter-terrorism, as they work with the security service to pre-empt attacks. And more recently, when armed response teams deploy quickly to limit casualties of shootings and knife crimes.

When they fail to keep us safe, as happened at Hillsborough football stadium in 1989, or when an innocent Brazilian electrician was mistakenly identified as a terrorist and shot in 2005, there are massive outcries. Yet every day people have cause to be grateful for acts of kindness and courage by ordinary police officers that go uncelebrated.

Which way was Janus looking when hundreds of people, with barely a facemask in sight, took to the streets to protest against the lockdown, and when groups of protesters, masked and hooded, went on the offensive against the police in Bristol? Were they responding to crimes committed, protecting the public or caught in a circular dance in which the need to enforce and protect stemmed directly from their own presence?

My favourite former police officer will probably be looking on with a wry smile. He will remember the protests of the seventies, the IRA, the Angry Brigade and the miner’s strike. Nothing new under the sun, he might say. I’m not speaking for him, but he might also reflect that the police are often as not the fall guys, made to look like the baddies by laws passed not by them, but by politicians who are happy to talk the talk but are conspicuously absent from the places where their decisions are implemented. Boris Johnson might be happy to exhibit himself at vaccination centres, but you won’t find Priti Patel, our Home Secretary, locked down in a police station where Kill the Bill protesters are breaking the windows.

Back in my days of relative innocence, when I was a student, about the same age as some of the people who rioted in Bristol, the main bugbear within the police among my peers, for reasons that should be obvious, was the drug squad. Then, as the seventies grew darker, the strikes grew more aggressive, the bombs ripped through pubs and the decade ended with a winter of discontent, the dynamics and priorities of law enforcement changed.

We are living through a similar, if not more extreme, time. As in the seventies, the police are struggling to keep up with the changes in society, because they are not the masters. For that reason, they will always be behind the curve. There may be many areas in which they can bring themselves closer to the leading edge. It might be trite to suggest that if they ever get there it will be because we’ve become a police state. You could also argue that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently going through Parliament takes us closer to that point by further limiting the circumstances under which we’re free to protest. But nobody who has lived in a police state, as I have, would argue that we’re close to that point today.

Earlier in this post, I listed a number of possible reasons why the British police are not currently held in the highest esteem. The truth is that they will never please or satisfy everybody. But perhaps it would help if for a moment we considered life without them. And instead of shouting, bludgeoning and demanding resignations, perhaps we should be more vocal in expressing appreciation when it’s due, and more objective when demanding improvements, not just from the police themselves, but from their political masters.

The last thing we need is an embattled subculture whose loyalties are principally to their own, because for policing to work, there needs to be a mutual dependence, wherein we rely on them and they on us. Or better than that, a common purpose that transcends the them and us and binds us together in a time of crisis.

Chance would be a fine thing, I guess, but not a bad objective to keep in mind.

When two tribes go to war

Goodness, I’m worried about writing what follows, because I’m bound to upset someone and I would prefer not to. If, like Piers Morgan, I made it my business to upset people, I would probably have more readers. But actually I don’t care too much about having more readers, so there you go. A deep breath then.

Poor Sarah Everard was clearly much loved. Just one of thousands of women of her age who walk through London on a regular basis. Her death sends a shudder through me, as the father of another woman of a similar age who also walks regularly through London. It’s a city that thanks to congestion charges, punitive parking rates and the explosion of delivery vans has become a hostile zone for cars and car ownership. If Sarah had taken an Uber, or owned a car of her own and chosen to drive it that night, she would still be with us today. Unknown to most of us, but still alive.

If, if, if. That little word might precede so many thoughts going through the minds of those who loved her.

But I have another “if” that might not slip out so easily. If Sarah had been a black woman, murdered by some random creep, would her story have been across the front pages of all the newspapers? Only after she had been found dead, I suspect, and only for twenty-four hours. After that, she would have become a statistic.

Would that be evidence that we’re a racist society, or merely that we have a racist media? If you believe the Black Lives Matter narrative, it’s the former. If you listen to Meghan, it might be the latter.

But wait. Did we grieve so much for Amelie Delagrange, one of Levi Bellfield’s victims, who was French? What of Nahid Almanea, a thirty-one-year-old Saudi woman who was stabbed to death in Essex? Neither was black, but where were the floral tributes and vigils after their deaths?

It’s no more tenable to deny that we have racists among us, and that many institutions are tinged by racism – be it conscious or unconscious – than to claim that our climate isn’t warming up. But here’s a question. Would the difference between media coverage of murders of black people and the killing of a young white woman lie in the perception that Sarah, from the perspective of white consumers of the media, was one of “our tribe”? And that what motivates much of the racism in our society can actually be described as tribalism?

Is there a difference between racism and tribalism? Of course. You could argue that most racism is tribal, but not necessarily that all tribalism is racist. Hence, Hindu extremists in India attacking Muslims and Sikhs would probably deny that they’re racist. Likewise Hutus who massacred Tutsis in Rwanda. These acts of violence don’t seem to be based on ethnic origin or skin colour. You could also argue that political factions, religious sectarianism, and even football fanbases are tribal. And when tribal sentiments lead to violence, are they more or less worthy of condemnation than racist sentiments?

I don’t wish to play down the evil of racism, but I think we should remember that it’s a part of a much bigger problem. Which is that if we’re encouraged to do so, we, whoever we are, are naturally inclined to discriminate against people who don’t look like us, don’t speak like us, don’t behave like us, don’t believe in the same god, don’t listen to the same music, don’t admire the same leaders and don’t follow the same football teams. And when that discrimination becomes active, you have the basis for violence, sometimes deadly. What’s more, when a tribe is threatened, be it physically, economically, environmentally or mentally, it’s more likely to turn in on itself and attack other tribes as a form of defence.

The triggers for racism, on the surface, are obvious. The most common perception is that it’s about differences in physical characteristics, most notably skin colour. Tribalism is messier and more insidious. Two tribes might go to war without there being any visible difference between them. Protestants in Northern Ireland don’t dress differently from Catholics. In the UK, in which tolerance has been raised over the past century to a national virtue, not so long ago Jews were not admitted to certain golf clubs and landlords were allowed to put signs outside their properties specifying “no Irish”. David Baddiel, in his book Jews Don’t Count, contends that anti-Semitic sentiment is racist, but often discounted because it doesn’t conform to popular perceptions of what racism means. But you can just as easily argue that it’s tribal. So is an attitude easier to denounce when it’s racist? And should we not equally be denouncing the malign effects of tribalism?

And what of violence towards women? Is that tribal too? Yes, inasmuch as many tribes have members whose attitudes towards women derive from common values, sometimes shared even among female members. Such values can include Belief in the subordinate role of women, in the distinction between family and non-family, and between women as mothers and sisters as opposed to sex objects.

It seems to me that you can criminalise and drive racist behaviour under cover, but unless you also address the latent tribalism within societies, you will not stamp it out. It will simply lie in waiting for an opportunity to express itself without penalty.

And how do you mitigate tribalism? Much more complicated, as Americans are discovering. It’s perhaps significant that Joe Biden’s American Recovery Plan has met with widespread support beyond partisan boundaries, even though not a single Republican voted for the Stimulus Bill in Congress.

The easy answer is that you can mitigate the effects of tribalism but you can’t eradicate the phenomenon itself. It’s built into the human condition, whether it shows itself as rival groups of hunter gatherers competing for the same prey or as Sunni and Shia competing for dominance in Iraq.

But here’s the thing about tribes. They’re fluid. They overlap. They evolve. Sometimes people pay allegiance to more than one tribe at the same time. How otherwise has the United States (despite Trump’s best efforts) absorbed whole communities of Arab Muslims who declare themselves to be staunchly American? And how come so many migrants who in the 50’s and 60’s arrived in Britain from the Asian subcontinent consider themselves to be more British than those of us who were born here?

Tribalism also comes in different strengths, depending on the bonds that link people together. There’s a difference between national separatist sentiment and supporters of one football club who chant insults at the Jewish supporters of another.

It seems to me that the lubricants that allow different tribes to rub along together are firstly values – behavioural norms that people hold dear – and secondly what we usually refer to as culture, which as I define as values translated into actual behaviour: how we do things around here. Culture is what drives members of a tribe to regulate the actions of fellow members, through praise, disapproval, reward and punishment. Culture in action is when a builder up a scaffold in a busy street catcalls a woman walking below, and his colleagues tell him to shut the hell up.

Culture does evolve, and so do tribes. Read How Was It For You, Virginia Nicholson’s social history of the 1960s from a woman’s perspective. It tracks the evolution of women in society during that period: from being patronised, protected, oppressed and marginalised to sexual liberation (of a sort); from gaining meaningful footholds in higher education and public life to the formation of influential Women’s Liberation movements at the end of the decade. These changes didn’t happen of their own accord. They were helped along by legislation that banned forms of sexual discrimination, which themselves were the result of a groundswell of discontent caused by changing values.

So it was with racism. In Britain, Boris Johnson’s government, for all its many failings, is the most racially diverse in history. But yet again, tribalism complicates the picture. Two of his cabinet ministers, Rishi Sunak and Kwesi Kwarteng, are products of elite private schools (Winchester and Eton respectively). Is their success the result of a diversity policy or because they happen to be talented members of the dominant political tribe? Ironically, one of his Cabinet Ministers, Priti Patel, is among the most enthusiastic promoters of laws that curb further immigration, despite having been a personal beneficiary of more tolerant immigration policies in previous decades.

That said, racial discrimination laws have made it impossible for TV comedies mocking bigotry, such as Till Death Us Do Part, to be shown on TV, let alone commissioned. The same laws have made overt acts of racism, such as the landlord’s sign which indicated that, in addition to Irish tenants, no blacks would be welcome, unthinkable.

Yet laws can dictate what the hand does, but not what the heart feels. Values and culture do that. Look also at Ireland, where people will tell you today that the nation was suffocated until recent decades by the dominant role of the Catholic hierarchy. Not so much today, after the Church was discredited for its attitude towards child abuse by the clergy, its treatment of unmarried mothers and its overbearing dominance of social policy on issues such as divorce and abortion.

Can we hope that Britain, with its multiplicity of tribes, including those that are tinged with racism, will similarly evolve? Will racism largely dissolve as barriers between tribes become eased by common understanding and aspirations? Not so easily, I fear.

We are a nation under stress. Battered socially and economically by the pandemic. Divided and potentially diminished by Brexit. The opportunity to escape from poverty stunted by new economic models built around the gig economy. Encouraged by the social media to be querulous and bitter. We fear for the future. Under such circumstances tribes look inward, and seek to protect their own interests at the expense of others.

Yet for all the evidence to the contrary, I see reasons for optimism. In the wake of the pandemic, we have cause to reflect on what sort of society we want to become. We’ve struggled against a virus that, all things being equal, doesn’t distinguish between tribe or race. But all things aren’t equal, and it does prey disproportionately on the poor, the unhealthy and the elderly. This in turn has exposed more starkly the vulnerability of marginalised communities. We’ve seen how much we rely for our health on doctors and nurses from Croatia, Zimbabwe, Iraq and Bangladesh. We’ve seen Sikhs organising delivery of free food to local communities, regardless of race or tribe. We agree that black lives matter. We’re horrified at the murder of Sarah Everard; the groundswell of protest at the treatment of women on our streets may well lead to legislation that criminalises casual abuse. We recognise the damage that can be caused by online bullying, and that current legislation doesn’t do enough to deter anonymous trolls. And we recognise that laws are not enough – that we need to change our way of thinking.

But who are the we I’m referring to above? By we, do I really mean me? Or am I speaking for one tribe: affluent, white, male, middle-aged people who are comfortably insulated from more arduous realities? Not really. Even among that tribe there is no unanimity.

One sign of a culture changing is when the meaning of expressions change. Gay, cancel, progressive, liberal, have all evolved. Sometimes new expressions come to life. One such was genocide, which was coined at Nuremberg to describe the actions of Nazi leaders before and during World War 2. If you asked someone in Britain a hundred years ago what a tribe was, they might tell you that Caesar conquered the tribes of Gaul, or that Africa was continent populated by tribes. Suggest that tribes exist in their country and they would question your sanity.

Today, perhaps it’s time to think of tribalism in a different way. To recognise that discrimination, expressions of hatred and acts of violence between large groups of people on grounds of identity are as unacceptable as those taking place against women and the traditional victims of racism. If the law needs to be tweaked to make that distinction, so be it.

We will never eliminate hatred between individuals or groups. But perhaps if we create an expression that bundles racism with a host of other behaviours that threaten the cohesiveness of our society, we will popularise the idea that violence against women, against gay people and against ethnic minorities are part of the same phenomenon.

Call it tribalism, groupthink, intercommunity hatred or whatever other slick phrase we can come up with, the consciousness that we need to raise is that racism, misogyny and homophobia are not the only social problems that we need to address if we want the post-COVID era to be one of an uplifting sea change rather than an accelerated decline.

Joining the Genarians

Reaching 70, as I did the other day, is an interesting experience.

Making it through the last decade brings to mind the astronauts in Interstellar as they go through the wormhole and come out on the other side into a distant galaxy, only to find planets that are superficially familiar to earth yet profoundly hostile to human life.

Or, to put it another way, you’re entering sniper’s alley. Around every corner lurks a deadly threat – any number of ailments that will kill you quickly or inflict a wound that will eventually bring you down. Add to the usual suspects COVID, which is less like a sniper and more like an invading army.

Yet I also feel a sense of relief at having lived through my sixties when others of my generation – including ridiculously talented people such as David Bowie and Alan Rickman – didn’t.

Anyway, time to glance down the mountain, look up again and and keep climbing. By reaching three score years and ten I’ve joined a new club. I call it the Genarians, I am now a septuagenarian. At some stage I might become an octogenarian. Though it’s unlikely and I might not even be aware of it by then, I could even turn into a nonagenarian. We Genarians are normally described thus when we achieve things that by rights we shouldn’t be able to do. Septuagenarian athletes, octogenarian inventors or nonagenarian hill farmers.

Once we become 70, the rest of society expects us to have retired. To be incapable of energetic action or creative thought. We are decomposing. Bits drop off us. If we’re lucky, we succumb to graceful degradation. Some of us moulder on in the public gaze, like ancient comedians and US senators who were first elected in 1958. We get told how wonderful we are if we defy our years and do something outstanding. But most of us quietly fade away, becoming ever more mellow because we don’t care any more, or cranky and bitter because the scales have fallen off our eyes too late for anyone to pay any attention when we point out all the things in the world that need fixing. Joe Biden and David Attenborough are modern-day exceptions who prove the rule

No, 70 isn’t the new 50. It’s an age when, if we’re famous, we add a few notches to our Wikipedia profiles without feeling an obligation to do so. If, on the other hand, we’re malignant narcissists, we want to go out in a blaze of glory, wrecking everything in our wake. You know who I’m talking about. The rest of us become steadily less relevant to the younger generations, unless, of course, they want our money.

But then we Genarians discover over time that much of what we used to get het up about is no longer important, because we can’t do a thing to influence stuff one way or another. And anyway, such serious shit as happens will probably come to full fruition after we’ve snuffed it So some of us try and focus on what we can influence. It might be the future of our kids and grandkids. It might be volunteering within local communities. Or it might be spitting venom in a parish council Zoom meeting. The ability to comment sagely from a great height about events over which we have no control is usually described by our juniors as wisdom. And when we get querulous and stubborn, we get a free pass, just like squalling infants. Is it any wonder that when Britain voted to leave the European Union, the Genarians responded more enthusiastically than any other demographic group to the notion that we should “take back control”?

We do still matter politically, at least in Britain, because every five years we get to vote for yet another reactionary government that has courted us, bribed us and pandered to our prejudices on a regular basis. And then, once we’ve voted, we return to irrelevance. The younger ones get on with screwing up the country.

But all is not gloom and doom. We Genarians have plenty of scope for community spirit. We men can compare notes with each other in car parks about the state of our prostates, if we still have them. The women of the species can complain about their husbands abandoning all the norms of civilised behaviour, wandering around with their flies undone, farting with abandon and decorating their clothes with soup. We can celebrate the small triumphs of our friends over the ravages of time, though often with envious asides. In normal times we can go to funerals, lots of them. And we can read obituaries, lots of them, taking note of whether they lived longer than us and reading between the lines of the obituary writer’s hints about the subject’s dark side.

Eventually, as we inch towards the nether reaches of our lives, and more bits drop off, our world shrinks. If we’re lucky enough to retain our capacity to think and communicate, we can still live meaningful lives, to us at least, even if visits from our offspring are reduced to acts of duty, charity and, if we’re still capable of altering our wills, cupidity. Not that I anticipate such motives on the part of my own beloved children, I hasten to add.

But I’m some way away from that level of decline. As a newly-anointed Genarian, I intend continue with my favourite activities. To laugh at myself, curse politicians spouting bullshit on TV, to pontificate on matters on which I’m not qualified to comment, to wish hell and damnation on Donald Trump in case he shows signs of reanimating, to glory in travel, food, cricket, music, drama and history. To love my wife for all her faults, and try and persuade her to keep loving me despite my much more serious ones. To love my kids and their offspring without obvious judgement. And to try and keep relationships alight with relatives and friends, even as their candles grow dimmer or our paths diverge.

Finally, I shall continue to reflect on how lucky we Genarians are to reach an age that in just about every generation before us was attainable only by a small minority. In the words of Tom Hanks’ character in Saving Private Ryan, as he lay dying in a Normandy village after finding the sole survivor of four combatant brothers and whispered his final exhortation in the ear of the eponymous Ryan, I shall do my best to “earn it”.

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