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The UK COVID Inquiry – Downing Street on a ventilator

A short post on recent testimony to the British COVID Inquiry:

First point: if the evidence provided by insiders – senior advisers, civil servants and politicians who witnessed at first hand the rank incompetence of Boris Johnson during the COVID crisis – is to be believed, what does that say about the members of the Conservative Party who voted for him as party leader in 2019? Were they dupes, idiots or doctrinaire fanatics? Or were they ordinary people incapable of looking at a picture bigger than their own interests? That question should be asked of the same people, who then elected Liz Truss, an equally incompetent politician, as his successor, with consequences so disastrous that the members of parliament in her party saw to it that she was kicked out within 50 days.

There are two ways to ensure that this tiny minority never gets the opportunity to impose a third disaster upon the rest of us. The Tories should change their rules to deny their members that chance. But better still, those of us who weren’t instrumental in the elevation of the two worst Prime Ministers in British history, should, through our votes in the next general election, banish their party from power until most of its gullible members are in their dotage and incapable of distinguishing between a politician and a goat.

Second, let’s suppose the behaviour of the juvenile delinquents in Downing Street and elsewhere in government had become generally known during lockdown. If you’d done a poll of the general population whether we should “do as they do or do as they say”, I wonder how that would have turned out. 48% do as they say, and 52% do as they do, I suspect.

Third, I have some sympathy (though not much) for the dramatis personae who revealed their innermost thoughts on WhatsApp and ended up shredding their reputations. Back in the day, the only record of their conversations would have been in the form of minutes, from which the naughty bits would have been washed away by some diligent civil servant, or diaries published years later.

Should yesterday’s great and good have been able to communicate via the same method as today’s players, what, I wonder, might we have learned about Suez, the miners’ strike, the three-day week and other big events of the last century? What would General Alanbrooke have said during World War 2 about Churchill on the spur of the moment rather than in his diaries?

In this respect, our American cousins are way ahead of us. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all recorded their conversations. In Nixon’s case the tapes cost him his job. No doubt there are some pretty ripe WhatsApp conversations from the Trump era that have yet to see the light of day.

All of which suggests that these days, if you want to avoid scrutiny of your conversations, do what the cold war spies used to do. Go into the bathroom and turn on the taps. Or play Verdi’s Requiem at full volume in the living room. Mind you, if it’s now possible to read the charred scrolls from Herculaneum, it’s probably easy to filter out Verdi.

So no hiding place, folks. Somebody somewhere can hear you. Best you mind your language, or don’t have any conversations at all that you don’t want everyone to hear. Which, for a lot of politicians, would probably take most of the fun out of being a politician.

Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

If, like me, you’ve been overwhelmed by the torrent of words and images from and about Israel and Gaza, you probably won’t want to read this. But I’m writing it anyway. For the record, so as to speak.

The Latin quotation in the title of this post comes from Tacitus, the Roman historian who imagines a speech from Calgacus, a Scottish chieftain, before he goes into battle against the Romans. In English: Where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.

Actually, these words are at the end of a sentence. The quotation in full reads: They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace. 

I’ll leave you to determine whether the words of Calgacus can be applied to the present, or even to the recent past.

If Tacitus returned to life in the present day, what words might he put in the mouth of a horrified observer of events in Israel and Gaza? Something like this, perhaps:

If I criticize Israel’s bombing of Gaza, you show me dead babies murdered by Hamas.

If I deplore the actions of Hamas on October 7, you take that to mean I am anti-Palestinian.

If I criticize Zionism you call me antisemitic, even though my understanding of Zionism might be different to yours.

If I assert Israel’s right to exist, you accuse me of agreeing with Israel’s every action to secure that existence.

If I deplore the selective use of scriptures to justify killing people, you call me antisemitic or islamophobic, depending on which scriptures are being quoted.

If I see pictures of thousands of protesters at a rally, you would have me believe that each and every protester is doing so on the same basis of belief.

If I resent attempts to manipulate my views with blatant or subtle disinformation, you just point yet more disinformation in my direction.

If I ask why the death of half a million people in Syria provoked less public outrage in Europe and America than the killings in Gaza and Israel, you accuse me of false comparison.

If I point out that blood feuds are rarely settled with blood, you tell me about the last outrage, not the first one.

If I point out that the use of words and phrases such as “genocide” and “war crimes” have themselves become weapons of war, you accuse me of sympathising with the perpetrators.

If I point out the shortcomings of one culture or political entity, and balance those observations with criticism of another, you accuse me of sitting on the fence.

These sentiments, of course, are mine.


I have no idea how it feels to be the descendant of people who were murdered in Nazi death camps. I have no idea how it feels to be the descendant of people who were expelled from lands that were home to them for generations.

But what I do know is that expressing the hideously complex in simple slogans is tantamount to deceit. So I refuse to speak in terms that give others leave to jump to conclusions over “whose side I’m on”. I’m on the side of humanity.

I can only speak from the experience of watching conflict erupt and subside over seven decades. And that experience from a distance – of Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Nigeria, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and any number of other wars – tells me that military means might end a conflict, political settlements might create the conditions for peace, but only forgiveness and reconciliation can heal the wounds handed down from generation to generation. And only the perception of justice by all sides in a conflict can bring about that forgiveness and reconciliation.

So for what little these words are worth, I urge all parties, for the love of the God most of you agree you worship in common, to stop fighting.

Stop before you bequeath a wasteland to your children.

Cardiac Diary: Winners and Losers

Two weeks in from a heart attack, successfully (it seems) treated by angioplasty, I’m starting to wonder when I’m going to forget that I’ve had a heart attack. Perhaps another way of putting this is when it becomes no more significant as a past medical event than the appendectomy I had a few years earlier, or the hernia repair earlier than that.

Forgetting about it means that I’m doing everything I did before without wondering if I’m overdoing it. It also means everybody else no longer thinking of me as “someone with a suspect heart” and treating me, if not with kid gloves, then as someone who’s likely to keel over at any moment.

Clearly I’m not at that point yet, but I find myself casting around for role models – people who have had heart problems but don’t appear to have let those problems dominate their subsequent lives. Yes, I know it’s a bit silly for someone of my advanced years to be looking around for role models, so perhaps I should say “points of reference”.

And indeed there are plenty of people who have had worse problems than me – bypasses and even transplants – who have achieved plenty since their operations. Probably the best-known is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Arnie has had several bouts of open-heart surgery, yet still pops up in the public eye on a regular basis. At the moment he’s promoting his self-help book, which brought him to London the other day. And then there are his video monologues, the latest of which is on hate in political and social dialogue and has gained huge traction on the social media. Even I’ve watched it. Whether or not he wrote it, it’s a very impressive piece of speech-writing and oration.

As ever in these cynical times, I find myself wondering why he’s doing them. What’s his motivation? The good of mankind or to promote the book? I’d like to think it’s the former, though both reasons aren’t mutually exclusive.

One of the interesting motifs in Arnie’s latest video (previous ones have included a tirade against Trump in the wake of the 2021 storming of Congress), is that those who hate are losers who through their hatred ruin their own lives. I can’t argue with that. Hatred never made anyone happy in the end, even if the communal variety can provide a huge adrenaline rush.

But what’s equally interesting is his depiction of a world of winners and losers. You’re either one or the other. Trump uses the same theme. In the former president’s world just about everybody who opposes him is a loser. And of course there’s only one pure, unadulterated winner.

This, it seems to me, is a fundamental element of American culture. To call someone a loser in the US is to insult them. There’s nothing worse than a loser. Losers in life deserve contempt or worse. If you’re poor, if you’re unsuccessful, it’s because you’re a loser. You can only fix this by pulling yourself up by the bootstrings. And if you can’t, well, tough shit.

If someone does give you a helping hand, it’s not because of a generally-accepted sense of social obligation, It’s because you’re lucky. And I certainly don’t see strong evidence among the Christian Right that Jesus’s pronouncement that “blessed are the meek” holds much sway. There are plenty of billionaires who would have something to say about such people inheriting the earth. For are the meek not losers?

This ethos is famously mocked by Dustin Hoffman’s character in Meet The Fockers, in which Hoffman’s proud Dad has a wall full of certificates celebrating his son’s sixth or seventh places in various school and sporting competitions.

I don’t know whether the obsession with winning transcends the American political spectrum. Interest in sport, where I suspect the whole thing started, certainly does.

But what about Britain, and the wider European continent? I don’t think we have the same contempt for the loser that’s prevalent in the US. Indeed, especially in the sporting arena, we have a tradition of being gallant losers. Heroic failures attract praise, not scorn. And we often find people who blow their own trumpets to be rather vulgar.

What’s more, much as one political party would have us get on our bikes, we’re much more culturally sympathetic towards those who fall by the wayside, often for no fault of their own. Hence a bigger welfare state and our catch-all National Health Service, founded on principles that are still anathema in the United States: described with horror as socialised medicine.

There is, of course, one recent historical exception in Europe – Nazi Germany, founded on the principle of the survival of the fittest, an ethos that has survived among the various neo-fascist groups that have sprung up since World War 2, and has found its purest form in Putin’s Russia.

In lots of ways, Arnie is clearly a winner. Even if I don’t share his political views, I congratulate him for rising above his medical problems and remaining a relevant public figure in his eighth decade. He conducts himself with dignity and, I think, sincerity, unlike the other “winner” who I fervently hope will turn out in the near future to be the greatest loser of this century,

In short, I’d rather have a terminator with good intentions as a role model than the lying, manipulative conman who’s currently having so much fun in the law courts of America.

Cardiac Diary – too many notes

I have far too much time on my hands at the moment. This might seem odd, given that a heart attack a couple of weeks ago reminded me how little time – potentially – remains.

When I got home this week it was after exhortations to take it easy for a while, to let the heart recover – and blah blah blah.

What this means in practice is that all my usual physical activities – wood-chopping, marathons, municipal dump runs in which I single-handedly flip huge pieces of furniture into skips, restoring the house to order every time our grandson comes to stay – are off limits. I’m even told off for lifting a shopping bag out of the car (which, incidentally, my wife maintains I’m not allowed to drive, though I think there’s an ulterior motive – she claims to be terrified by my driving).

The result is both positive and negative. Even though I feel quite capable of doing all the things I’ve just mentioned, I now have an excuse not to do stuff which requires me to get off my backside. This is good for a while, until I remember that each hour of inactivity turns my well-honed body into a teeny bit more like a lump of jelly. Which of course shortens my life.

So I’m going to have to fill the activity gap with walking, which I find ineffably boring. But my normal outdoor regime consists of three or four rounds of golf a week, which is quite a lot more walking than might be sensible right now. Swimming is a possibility, but I much prefer outdoor swimming, which limits options in this part of the world given that the water’s likely to be freezing, laden with sewage or swollen with toxic floodwater.

But right now I’m in a bit of a hiatus. I’m being told what’s not safe to do, but not what’s safe. I hope to get some expert advice this week that will set me straight. The only guidance I’ve had thus far from the medical profession came from my local GP surgery. One of the doctors, who is not known for his empathy, suggested that I should start by walking short distances using a stick. This without asking me about my normal level of fitness and how fit I actually felt right now.

My gast was flabbered. A STICK? He’s suggesting I use a bloody stick! The assumption seems to be that I’m a cardiac cripple, shuffling around the house, wheezing from armchair to armchair and requiring assistance to get up the stairs at might. Not yet, mate. Not never hopefully. I may be in my early seventies but that shouldn’t imply an advanced level of decrepitude, as any number of my vigorous peers would testify.

Anyway, I have inactive hours to fill. I was warned that the aftermath of a heart attack often results in feeling low, depressed even. This is not the case for me, or at least not yet. But I do find my mind working slightly differently. I ask myself strange questions about silly things. Such as why we don’t leave the Loch Ness Monster, if it exists, alone? For what purpose do we obsessively try to prove its existence? To shove the poor thing into an aquarium or turn the loch into a real-life Jurassic Park?

And then I get to thinking about a real-life conundrum that might have faced me when I lay in a state of semi-collapse in Leicester Square. Two police officers were hovering, ready to try and resuscitate me if need be. One told me that he had done resuscitation on eighteen collapsed members of public in his career. Unfortunately fifteen of them died. The other guy had worked on three and they all survived. If I had the choice, who would I have asked to thump my chest? Not being a probability theorist, I probably have chosen the latter because of his 100% record. But would I have been right? Would it not have been better to go for the more experienced guy, given that the officer with a perfect score was more likely to fail with each successive attempt, whereas the guy who lost fifteen people had probably learned from the experience. Definitely grounds for phoning a friend. Unfortunately Daniel Kahneman isn’t a friend, so I’ll have to re-read Thinking, Fast and Slow.

I’m getting quite irritated by newspaper columnists whom I read regularly and usually find moderately entertaining. I pass over news articles I would normally read because I know what they’re going to say and they’ll be the same old bollocks. Same with politicians like our Minister of Education, who tells us that she’s going to introduce service levels to be imposed on teachers. Have these idiots learned nothing about the futility of decades of targets, quotas and service levels? Don’t they realise that quality can’t be defined by numbers, any more than that the beauty of a bird in flight can’t be captured by the measurement of beak, wing and claw?

Most difficult of all, as I sit in silent contemplation at times when otherwise I’d be out doing stuff, is Israel, Palestine and Hamas. I’ve written plenty in my time about the Middle East, yet I now find myself speechless. I have no appetite for pious homilies. Only a deep sense of pain and helplessness that there’s nothing I can say or do that might make the slightest difference to any of the benighted souls caught up in the conflict. Instead, I read lots of stuff, appalled at the suffering, the viciousness, the perversion of values and the emotional lightning storms accompanying the crisis. And then, bleeding heart liberal that I am, I’m appalled at myself for looking elsewhere when similar stuff happens in other parts of the world. Rohingya, South Sudan, Congo, Kashmir, Mexican narco wars and so on. And, of course, Ukraine, to which I do pay much attention.

Too many notes. As the Emperor Joseph said in Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus: “you see, my dear Mozart, there are only so many notes that the human ear can hear”, or at least that’s what I remember from my lines when I played His Majesty in a production of Amadeus many decades ago.

Anyway, as the old ticker tries to return to its usual state of robustness, I shall fill the activity void with the occasional post on the subject of cardiac rehab and other topics, much as I did during the COVID lockdown. If you’re not bored to death by these ramblings, do keep reading!

Britain’s National Health Service – a tale from the heart

What’s to be said about a heart attack? If you’ve never had one, not a lot, most likely, unless you’ve seen it happen to others. But if, as in my case, the Grim Reaper decides get a little non-lethal practice, several things come to mind.

First, and most obviously, I lived to tell the tale. So far. Which was far from assured when I got to the top of the stairs at London’s Leicester Square tube station en route to an evening at the theatre.

Second, it helps to be married to a medic. She knew straight away. So did I, but she had the presence of mind to find some aspirin in a nearby pub and cajole the ambulance service into sending a first responder. Before he arrived, I had two policemen hovering over me ready to shock me back to life. One of them told me he’d done resuscitation on eighteen people, which was a comfort, until he told me that fifteen of them subsequently died. His mate had a better record – three out of three. Fortunately, their assistance was not needed.

Third, if you’re going to have a heart attack, have it within a mile and a half of a major London cardiac centre. In my case St Bartholomew’s hospital was that unit. It’s the biggest in Europe. Lucky me.

On the less positive side, having a heart attack is a pain, literally and metaphorically. You feel your fitness being ripped away with every day in hospital. It turned out that one artery was completely blocked and two more were seriously narrowed. So they installed stents in two of them when I arrived, after which I felt quite normal. Four days later, I had the third one done. For some reason the after-effect of that one was far more debilitating. Perhaps it was the heart telling me enough already.

After the first procedure I ended up in a ward that had three other people. Two of them spoke no English whatsoever. The hospital had to use an interpreter to talk with them. The odd thing was that each new member of staff with a function to perform for that person had to find this out for themselves. I kept wanting to shout over “he’s from Barcelona”. (If you don’t get the reference, you’re not old enough.)

The nights were not pleasant. One guy moaning constantly, punctuating his high-pitched eruptions with invocations to his Maker. Another complained about gas and ending up deafening filling the room with a series of farts that sounded like a chainsaw in high gear. And a third guy spent much of his time belching like a bullfrog.

You’re hooked up to all these monitor wires. Every time you turn over, one of them pops out, so you have to call the nurse to rewire you. If you don’t, the monitor beeps incessantly until you do, waking everyone in the ward. Since there’s no sound separation between beds, you not only wake up to your beeps but everyone else’s as well. What I fail to understand is why, with all the whizzy technology they have, they can’t transmit this stuff from chest to monitor without the wires in-between.

And then there’s the commode run. It’s a bit disconcerting to be a yard away, separated by a thin plastic dividing sheet, from someone emptying his bowels with noisy aplomb. OK for Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool perhaps, but not so much fun as the perfume wafts over.

But hey, I’m the one who paid the penalty for my lifetime of excesses, so who am I to complain about my presence in the middle of this physical and emotional mayhem?

I remain amazed by the number of people in so many roles involved in my care – taking your blood pressure, your blood sugar, shoving a bewildering array of drugs down you. Then there’s the dinner lady, the physio, the bed changer, not to mention the paramedics, nurses, registrars, consultants, the people wanting you to be part of their research, the cleaners, the porters and finally the sweet volunteer who wants to know what you thought of the hospital. I reckon that forty or fifty people were involved in my care over my eight-day stay.

Nationalities of all these people included Nigerian, Irish, Slovak, Hungarian, Ivorian, Zimbabwean, German, Lithuanian, Italian, Filipino, Mauritian, Caribbean and yes, a small smattering of Brits.

Of course everyone’s doing their best to keep you positive and as cheerful as possible under the circumstances. But I would advise that if you are unlucky enough to have a heart attack, try and make sure it doesn’t coincide with a war in the Middle East. Heartbreaking and depressing. As if Ukraine wasn’t disturbing enough. The older I get, the more I start thinking that one war at a time is just about as much as I can deal with.

If you do happen to fall ill during two wars, either of which could metastasise into some weird version of World War 3 (without the nukes hopefully), I suggest that for your light reading choice during your recovery you might avoid one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, which is set in World War 2, and Stalingrad in particular. Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman – all 950 pages of it – is one of the most profound, intense, moving and thought-provoking novels to come out of the Soviet Union. And, depending on your physical and mental health at the time of reading, the most depressing. I shall write more about it some other time, possibly while I’m off games during cardio rehab. Next time I end up in hospital for an indeterminate period, I think I’ll bring War and Peace. More cheerful.

What of the little community of (hopefully temporary) cardio cripples among whom I found myself? To a man, the Brits were grumpy old men, including me. A moan a minute. Then there was a Brazilian, who seemed cheerful enough, boosted no doubt by a succession of noisy phone calls seemingly from all parts of the world. He was right to be cheerful, since he escaped after three days.

The person I will never forget was the little guy in the bed opposite me. He spoke no English. Despite coming from somewhere in the region of Bengal, he also spoke no Bengali. Therefore to communicate with him the hospital had find someone with his dialect, which they do through a subscription app on the net. His wife also spoke no English. From what I was able to gather from overhearing various conversations through the interpreter, he lives in a council flat somewhere in East London, which suggests he’s either a UK citizen or has permanent residence, most likely the latter because to get a shiny blue passport he would probably need a language test, which he would unquestionably fail.

Though I hate to say it, because generally I’m a bit of an immigration softie (which definition probably includes anyone to the left of the odious Suella Braverman), I’m wondering how he manages to function in this country without a word of English. Only if everyone in his immediate environment speaks a language he understands, assisted perhaps by younger members of the family who do speak English.

This is the point at which Nigel Farage jumps in with “there, I told you so, you right-on liberal elitist. This what the rest of us have to deal with”. Though I doubt if our posh champion of Little England has ever been near a Bengali home in the East End of London, whereas I have. Well, not in the East End, but in deepest West Midlands. This was in the course of a summer job fifty years ago. My role was to knock on doors and hand out forms related to an upcoming national census. My beat took me though an area largely populated by ethnic south Asians – in other words, exactly the kind of family that gathered in front of me during visiting time over the past week. The scenario was just the same, except that Enoch Powell was the harbinger of doom then, and now it’s Farage. Hardly surprising, yet depressing, that we still have people living in ethnic and cultural silos. Only a surprise in that so little seems to have changed since Enoch banged on about rivers of blood, which fortunately didn’t happen then and isn’t happening now.

So what can I add to the cascade of opinion from all sides that our National Health System is failing? The quality of staff was excellent, or so it seemed to me. The kindness, the individual care and the responsiveness, from paramedics through to cleaning staff, was undiminished. That the NHS is in the shape it’s in after the battering it received during COVID is a miracle. The institution is a huge machine with many working parts. Sometimes bits fall off. It certainly has inefficiencies, some of which were evident during my stay – for various reasons I ended up in a bed for four days more than necessary.

Given the excellence of the front line staff, it does seem that most of the issues are likely to be about process and management, as is often claimed. Can they be resolved by fine tuning or extra funds? I don’t know. But when I watch generations of government ministers, administrators and consultants having their turn at “sorting the NHS”, often with unintended and adverse consequences, I’m reminded of the comment someone once made about Google, that their algorithms have become so huge and tentacular that nobody really knows how they work anymore. Likewise, I suspect, the NHS.

I certainly wouldn’t want any more contributions from the kind of government that likes to put talentless cronies into key positions for political reasons (such as Nadine Dorries in Culture and, most recently, Grant Shapps in Defence). Perhaps we should wait for a new bunch to have a crack at it.

Meanwhile, ten days on from my little episode and safely installed back home, I’m in pretty good shape and looking forward to regaining my usual stellar level of fitness.

And finally, my little episode demolished a cherished idea I’ve always clung to. I always thought that the experience of having been at a boarding school between the ages of 8 and 17 would prepare me perfectly for life in an institution – such as prison. I was wrong. Eight days in a London hospital, excellent though it is, convinced me that if I was confined in any place on a long-term basis I’d soon become a gibbering idiot, or lose most of what brain capacity remains.

So certain lifestyle adjustments are called for to avoid a repeat of the Great Collapse of Leicester Square. Those of you who know me well will probably know what I’m talking about.

Many thanks to my beloved, to the NHS, and to all the relatives, friends, neighbours and bystanders who were so supportive during and after my little brush with eternity. I’ll try not to trouble you again.

Advice to Britain’s voters: elect the candidate, not just the party!

Britain’s Labour Party has inflicted two massive defeats on the Conservative government in bye-elections held on Thursday (yesterday as I write this). The media reaction is predictable: Labour is heading for a crushing victory in the next general election.

What people tend to forget is that these bye-elections came about because of the resignation of two senior members of parliament: Nadine Dorries, a former minister who didn’t distinguish herself in office and checked out of her constituency for many months after announcing her decision to resign, and Chris Pincher, a former whip who resigned after accusations that he drunkenly groped a male colleague, not the first such incident, according to media reports.

Which leads me to make an obvious observation, which I’ll make anyway.

One of the reasons why the government is failing is because of a lamentable lack of talent in its ranks, or at least through the failure to promote those who do have a modicum of talent, There’s no shortage of opinion on the causes: pay, high barriers to entry, selection processes, toxic working practices and social media abuse are chief among them. No doubt all are valid reasons. Isabel Hardman, a well-regarded political journalist, wrote a convincing book on the subject, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, which I reviewed a few years ago.

But here’s the obvious bit. We elect these people. Or we choose not to. Or we sit on our arses while others cast their votes. Do we vote for the candidates who stand before us, or do we elect who The Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Telegraph or some rabid pundit on the social media tell us to? Do we vote for Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems, personified by their leaders, or do we pass judgement on the candidates themselves, their qualities, their track records and their opinions? Do we even take the time to listen to them? Do we figure out what questions to ask them?

Or do we just say to ourselves “well they’re all a bunch of shites, so I’ll just go for the one who seems the least shite”?

If we pay no attention to the actual people who want to represent us, rather than to the persuasion machines deployed by their parties, then we have no right to complain if those we elect turn out like Dorries or Pincher, or, worse still, the mendacious, the mediocre and the plain rogues who have led our government over the past ten years or so. Because those we elect are responsible, at least in part, for selecting our leaders.

So perhaps it’s well to remember in the run-up to the next general election that we, the voters, have our part to play if our democracy is to be worthy of the name. Whereas in yesterday’s bye-elections the parties presumably took some care to select the most attractive candidates, in the general election, thanks to the sheer numbers of candidates involved, the proportion of time-servers and dullards is bound to be higher. Of course, many of us are too distracted by our own problems to pay much attention to the details of what our representatives are saying and doing in our name. But for most of us there’s no excuse.

Time to pay attention if we don’t want another generation of wrong’uns crawling around Westminster on our behalves.

No Mr Sunak, piling on the prepositions and equations won’t make us better educated

Edumacation, as we children of Birmingham call it, is about to feature strongly at this year’s Conservative Party Conference. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s esteemed Prime Minister, is about to pull another goodie out of his increasingly threadbare bag of policies. He wants to create a British Baccalaureate that will give employers the “skills they need”. So students will be required to continue studying English and Maths along with their preferred options as a replacement of the current A Level system, in which they specialise in three or four subjects.

A jolly good idea, you might think, though perhaps he should first address crumbling school infrastructure, teacher shortages and the overarching financial constraints that currently afflict us. However, assuming that there are sufficient classrooms that aren’t about to collapse and a whole raft of new and enthusiastic teachers stand ready to embrace his reforms, I suspect that Sunak will have ceased to be prime minister for many years before the changes he advocates are processed through the civil service meat grinder and survive a trial by fire on the part of all the vested interests that might have something to say about them.

Much as disapprove of Sunak and his rabble of a government, I’m in favour of baccalaureates. Why? Because no matter what specialisations students choose for further education, they will surely benefit from a broader set of knowledge and skills. Having said that, Sunak doesn’t go far enough.

Yes, enhanced language skills would surely be useful especially if they resulted in the student being able to write a coherent, error-free CV without the aid of ChatGPT, which was an ability I found surprisingly lacking, even from graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, when I was an employer of supposedly bright people.

And maths? Depends on the application. Not so many people are called upon to plot the trajectory of a moon lander using slide rules these days. But yes, understanding some basic principles before having to resort to software applications would certainly be helpful, though you would expect those principles to be embedded in the curriculum way earlier than the final two years.

So what are these other skills that would be useful for employers?

The first thing to point out is that knowledge and skills don’t stay with you for life. They need to be continually revived, rekindled and refreshed. If unused, they fall away. So what you learn at school isn’t an indicator of what you will know at the age of forty. At my advanced age, I can still (at a push) read an ancient Greek or Latin gravestone, but ask me to write a description of Boris Johnson in Latin and I’d be stumped.

But it’s good to start out in adult life with a set of usable skills, whether or not they wither away with time. So here are five my favourites. If I was Minister of Education I would ask my civil servants to think about how they could roll them up into a Life Skills module, should Baccalaureates finally become a thing:

Personal Finance: Learning how to budget is pretty useful, even if you end up busting it like Liz Truss. Understanding statistics and how they can be manipulated. Understanding how banks work (or don’t). And for those of us who fancy getting a mortgage or maxing out our credit cards, an understanding of compound interest would be handy.

Communications: This would seem to be a pretty obvious one. But how many people do you know who are all broadcast and no receive? So listening skills, and the art of empathy, provided it doesn’t slip over into manipulation, would be helpful. Framing questions to get the desired response. And what about public speaking?

Critical Thinking. The perfect weapon for escaping from rabbit holes. If ever we need bullshit detection, it’s now. In fact, you could create an entire A Level dedicated to distinguishing between truths, half-truths, white lies and outright porkies. Not just on the part of mendacious politicians, but of salespeople, media stars, preachers and lovers. Yes, study of the humanities, such as Classics, history or philosophy, theoretically equips students with decent critical thinking ability. But these subjects are in decline as the technocrats urge us to focus on STEM subjects. Which is maybe why we’re all becoming so gullible.

Negotiating: One of the interesting aspects of leaving home and starting out as an independent adult is all the things you suddenly have to sort out for yourself: phones, cars, insurance and salary packages to name a few. I suspect many people do deals without the faintest idea of how to negotiate to their advantage. Need I say more?

Time management: the biggest shock for someone leaving school or going to their first job is transitioning from the regimented world of the classroom into a world in which success or failure can depend on how they manage their time. There are plenty of well-known time management tricks that can bridge the gap. I speak from experience because I was a lousy time manager. I flew from exam to employment by the seat of my pants. I know many, many people who did and still do the same. These days, with so much focus on stress and mental health, we owe it to our children to help them organise their lives better than we did.

Influencing: No, I’m not talking about selling stuff on Instagram, though successful influencers use tactics that would be recognised in classic screeds on the subject such as Robert Cialdini’s Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion. In most walks of life. the ability to persuade give us a priceless advantage.

There are other skills jostling for a place on the list, such as project management and conflict resolution. Many people acquire these skills in the course of their careers. Some go on courses. Other learn by experience. How much better for them if they could acquire at least the broad principles when they’re starting out?

In any event, this is something of an academic discussion, since, as I said, Sunak’s government is highly likely to be wiped out at the next election. So it’s not his party of Trumpites, crackpots and Little Englanders who need to be persuaded. I’d rather hear what the other lot are planning beyond decimating the country’s private schools – the best of which, incidentally, inculcate precisely the kind of skills I mention above – by removing their charitable status.

I can’t say I’m holding my breath. Best to live in hope rather than expectation.

Cash – the last refuge of scoundrels and little old ladies?

There are many aspects of modern life that cause us to stop and think. Wildfires, electric cars, low-emission zones, not to mention the impact drones are having on modern warfare.

Other changes have quietly slipped under the radar, to the point that the young take them for granted and even older generations quietly acquiesce in them, or embrace them without much thought as to their implications until they bite them on the backside.

Take air traffic control, for example. The travelling public take for granted that thousands of flight plans are automatically filed every day into air traffic control systems worldwide. When that system fails, as happened in the UK last week, chaos reigns. Flights are delayed or cancelled. Holidays are ruined. Thousands of work days are wiped out because people can’t get back to work on time.

A few hundred thousand disrupted journeys is one thing. But what if card payment systems went down simultaneously? Suddenly payments grind to a halt. And what if nobody can get hold of cash because the ATM systems aren’t working?

It’s at that point that our fallback in such circumstances – for many people – no longer exists. We don’t do cash anymore.

Right now, in the first world at least, it seems that anyone with more than a few pounds, dollars or euros in their wallet is seen as something of a dinosaur. They’re the modern equivalent of the old peasant who keeps stashes of banknotes under their mattresses. If you splash the cash, you risk being perceived as a tax dodger, a payer of bribes, a money launderer or an oligarch who wishes to hide – or advertise- their wealth.

Cash is dodgy. Even shops don’t take it any more because it lessens their chances of being robbed. In fact it’s fair to say that bureaucrats – especially tax collectors and law enforcement – have never like cash because it enables the black economy, unless they themselves happen to be on the take, of course. So from their point of view, the decline of banknotes is manna from heaven. They now have the pleasure of following the money from their desktops, even if crypto transactions make their task more challenging.

So basically we’ve all been seduced by the ease of electronic transactions. For small payments you just wave your card over a little machine and pling!, it’s done. Here in France, in the markets, typically populated, you might think, by canny stallholders who love cash because no tax inspector is able to prove how many aubergines they’ve grown and sold, a good 50% of traders take cards.

I worry that we take our little cards for granted. So far, in the first world at least, there’s been little adverse effect except on the marginalised in societies – the elderly who find it difficult to use the technology and those who for one reason or another can’t get bank accounts. But in some countries, complacency leads to disaster. Lebanon, for example, where the country’s economic meltdown has led to banks restricting the amount of available cash, with the result that some desperate account holders have resorted to holding up their banks with guns.

True, the British government requires the banks to ensure that nobody is further than three miles from a source of cash, be that an ATM, a bank branch (a rare thing these days) or a post office. Which is fine, I guess, provided there are enough old folk with the energy to walk three miles to draw their precious notes.

All that being said, I’m personally a fan of cash, not only as an important fallback for when the cards don’t work, but because I was brought up in an age when cash and cheques were standard payment methods. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been slapped down for automatically reaching for the readies when a card will bring precious air miles. But I’m mindful of the fact that banknotes are no less a construct than the digits in an online bank statement. If there’s anyone still alive in Germany who’s old enough to remember the hyperinflation crisis of 1923, during which millions lost their savings and resorted to having to take wheelbarrows full of banknotes to the bakers to buy a loaf of bread, they would perhaps let out a hollow laugh at their British friends describing their money as “safe as the Bank of England”.

After all, cash is merely one pillar of a massive, complex and interrelated global financial system. When one or more pillar collapses, what guarantee is there that those crisp banknotes will still have a role to play? In which case, it might be sensible to start thinking what a barter economy might look like. Perhaps we should be working out what we have to offer in exchange for a bag of potatoes.

What could I offer? Not a lot really, though I am thinking seriously about giving over the garden to the cultivation of cabbages. Or maybe some kind of herbal pacifier. After all, most of us will need to calm down a bit if the worst comes to the worst.

Meanwhile, given the way inflation’s going (in the UK at least) perhaps it’s time to give the wheelbarrow a service, because I don’t think your friendly local baker will be inclined to accept bitcoins for their precious product.

Postcard from France: under the heat dome

41 degrees centigrade sounds pretty hot. Yet somehow 105, the fahrenheit equivalent, seems even more extreme. I was brought up when Britain used the latter as its unit of measurement. Back then, such heat would have seemed almost apocalyptic.

But I’m not in Britain. My wife and I arrived at our little place in Southern France a few days ago. Since then the thermometer has been rising steadily. Apparently we’re sitting underneath something called a heat dome. I’m not unfamiliar with this level of warmth. During our time in the Middle East summer temperatures sometimes rose to as much as 50C. But then we had air conditioning in the car, the office and at home, so our exposure to the withering heat was limited to short excursions between one cool place and another.

Not now. Our house has thick stone walls, which takes the edge off the heat. But we still rely on fans, especially to sleep. Between the hours of midday and early evening, it’s definitely It Ain’t Half Hot Mum territory. So by and large, apart from excursions for lunch at our favourite restaurant, we stay indoors during the day, shutters closed against the sun, slowly making our way around the gloomy interior.

Which is fine, because we have no desire to be one of those much-touted heatwave casualties gleefully leapt upon by the British media. Lord help the campers who have no escape from the heat. Though many of them have a pool nearby where they can cool down, which we don’t. A paddling pool helps, but not much. Whales don’t appreciate bathtubs.

Happily, by the weekend we can expect some relief in the form of the usual thunder and lightning, most likely accompanied by hailstones the size of golf balls. Then things are likely to settle down in the mid 20s, a drop of about 15 degrees over two days.

What else is new in La Belle France? Well, over the past couple of months the nation has been wracked with anxiety since the bureaucrats introduced a form to be filled in by every property owner in the country. It’s effectively a house census. It asks questions at a level of detail such as the precise square meterage of buildings and land, what kind of material was used in construction, how many loos, bidets and basins, how many rooms, what they’re used for and, rather bizarrely, details of patios.

The purpose of this gargantuan piece of data collection appears to be – you guessed it – “rationalisation” of the property tax that most house-owners are required to pay. And yes, most of us will have to pay more once the data has been fed into the Ministry of Finance’s algorithm.

Unfortunately, a number of people, including us, only found out about it by accident. The Ministry had to extend the deadline twice. Call centres set up to handle queries about the form, which is byzantine in its complexity, have had to deal with endless calls from distressed householders who found themselves unable to fill in the form. Two days before the latest deadline expired, the website for online completion crashed. Naturellement. According to our local tax office, it will take months to process the information.

The other fun measure would gladden the heart of London’s mayor, under whose aegis the hugely unpopular Ultra-Low Emission zone scheme is about to be extended way beyond what most map users would recognise as the boundaries of London.

France goes one stage further. The authorities have designated 10 cities as low emission zones, and a further 19 areas where temporary restrictions can be imposed. The rules are fairly complicated, but the bottom line is that all vehicle owners must apply for a sticker that identifies their vehicle’s emission level. And before long, anyone in a high emission car, such as some diesels, will be liable to fines once the municipal cameras are up and running. Which probably means that our wheezy old diesel will soon become a mobile fine magnet in France as well as London. Oh merde. Time to buy a bike, I guess.

Such concerns, though, are far from the mind early in the morning as I sit on our patio looking out on the baked countryside. Straight ahead, we have copse of trees that hosts a variety of wildlife, including a family of deer I saw wandering across a neighbouring field. The dawn chorus gives me the excuse to enjoy a new app that identifies birds by their song. Much as I generally loathe apps, this is one that enhances life rather than complicates it. It’s called Merlin. It uses a huge database of bird sounds to tell you who’s visiting at the moment.

It’s found nothing out of the usual thus far, though a European Pied Flycatcher and a Spotted Flycatcher seem to be in regular attendance, which perhaps explains why this year we don’t seem to be plagued by as many flies as usual. Then there are the usual suspects: pigeons, magpies, woodpeckers, and a variety of tits. But wait! Up on my phone pops a Short-Toed Treecreeper. Whatever that is I have no clue, but, but its name could have been invented by Tolkein. It would also be a worthy insult to be hurled at a diminutive flasher.

Merlin is unlikely to turn me into a twitcher. I don’t have the patience. But what a quiet pleasure it is to get to know your neighbours without having to wander around hedgerows with outsized binoculars. Also a reminder also that you don’t need stickers, forms and permits to enjoy wildlife that gets on with its living while you get on with yours.

Time for a spot of breakfast as the temperature creeps up into the thirties. Whatever the weather, my bit of France is a glorious as ever.

Self-service, or survival of the fittest?

The six words I dread most in dealing any organisation for the first time – especially one you need to call upon for services – are “you need to get the app”. The pervasiveness of apps, those clunky bits of software, often so badly designed that if they were a car you’d call it a lemon and immediately take it back to whoever sold it to you, is the latest weapon in what, if you’re conspiracy-minded, you might think is a gigantic con perpetrated on customers for decades.

The con, if that’s what it is, goes like this:

Wow, we can get rid of hundreds – or thousands – of staff if we can convince our customers that serving themselves is for their benefit. First we’ll install self-service terminals, then we’ll develop an app and then we’ll force everyone to use the app. Anyone who for whatever reason is incapable of serving themselves doesn’t deserve to be our customer. We can do without them. All on the pretext of delivering convenience to those customers we really want. We’ve collected the data. We know where our profit comes from. It’s not from little old ladies and men in mobility scooters. Or, more widely, from people without much money to spend on us.

In Britain, my country, we hear that the rail companies want to get rid of manned ticket counters. Spare a thought for those little old ladies milling around our stations fearful of being arrested if they board a train without a ticket, yet defeated by ridiculously complicated ticket terminals that sit in front of endless queues of passengers cursing the labyrinthine menu system.

Our National Health Service wants us to use its app to access our medical records, yet for one reason or another you can only see some of your test results and appointments. I sometimes think that a Russian hacker would find it easier to look at my stuff than me.

The banks won’t let you sign up for their most favourable products unless you get their app. And when you do, you find service features that aren’t working. Worse still, you find that for some unexplained reason you can’t make a payment. Then you need to use the call centre, which usually entails minutes or even hours playing pinball between robots before you get to speak to a human, after which you’re bounced around various other humans before you get to speak to the right person.

Even within the most sophisticated organisations, computer systems often don’t talk to each other, which results in endless recitations of security catechisms every time you’re transferred from one human (or robot) to another. Provided, of course, that your call doesn’t drop while you’re listening to the ghastly music that hasn’t changed for years.

All in the cause of convenience for the customer. Not.

Oh, and let’s not forget the lexicon of passwords you’re required to maintain any time you want to access a service or buy stuff online. Do you write all your passwords in a physical book, suitably disguised so that no burglar would be able to make sense of it? Or do you trust your phone or laptop to store the information safely, in the certain knowledge that these devices are never hacked?

I sometimes fantasise about where all this stuff ends. About supermarkets with a warehouse full of chickens that you can select and kill for yourself via an app that delivers the coup de grace on your behalf. About robots that will diagnose your medical condition and issue you a prescription that you can redeem through Amazon. Doctors? Pharmacists? Who needs ’em?

And who needs that kindly librarian when you can find the book you’re looking for via a terminal (or an app), go straight to the shelf and check the book out via a QR code that sits in front of a system that automatically fines you if you’re late returning it? Or indeed when our dwindling stock of libraries is finally extinguished, to be replaced by some government-controlled kindle system, in which authors are paid a pittance for downloads. Lord help the poverty-stricken kid from a home without books who learns about the world in the local library.

Where does it end? Most likely it ends in dystopia, as supply chains collapse and government disintegrates in the wake of some catastrophe permanently frying the internet. In such circumstances you might think that the good people of America, where half the population is armed to the teeth, have an advantage. They can take self-service to the extreme, demanding that the other half hand over the contents of their fridges at gunpoint, whereas we largely weaponless Brits have to resort to politely asking our neighbour for a glass of milk.

Am I afraid of technology? Not really. I’m one of the privileged ones. I got my first PC in the mid-1980s, way before mobile phones and broadband. I’m sufficiently computer familiar to be able to snorkel my way through the bog of apps written by pimply adolescents who aren’t as smart as they think they are. Yet the brutal reality is that the digital world is waiting for people of my age and above, who refuse or unable to use phones and apps for their daily business, to die off.

But I also believe that nothing powered by so-called artificial intelligence yet matches interactions with people, ideally face-to-face but if necessary on the phone. Yes, people need to be trained, and robots don’t generally have a bad hair day. But if we must pay a little more for our goods and services to retain the benefit of dealing with people, so be it. Because people can be kind. They have insight. They can be flexible in their response. Robots haven’t figured those qualities out. At least not yet.

Have you been to a hospital recently, been faced with a multitude of signs directing you to various departments, to be greeted by a volunteer who sees your nonplussed expression, asks you if you need help, then quickly directs you to the right place? Show me an app that’s able to read my face, or indeed my body language, determine that I might need help and deliver the information I need without going through a hierarchy of qualifying questions. I rest my case.

That said, I’m grateful for e-gates at airports. They usually work. Nine times out of ten – to my eternal shame – I use Amazon to buy my books as opposed to one of the few remaining local bookshops. Technology has its uses. But when self-service becomes the only form of service, which doesn’t seem too far away, I fear for the aged, the infirm and the lonely, whose only human contact is with charity volunteers, shopkeepers, health workers and the occasional caring neighbour. When so many of us have family members spread far and wide, cuts to public services made to fund pay increases for the employed will result in further alienation of those on the margins.

In short, is a whole section of society slowly falling victim to a survival of the fittest culture?

We’re not at that stage yet, but I fear that, as in so many other ways, we’re becoming slavish imitators of the richest nation on earth, where a large body of opinion holds that the poor, the weak and the deprived have only themselves to blame for their predicament. And down in Dante’s ninth circle of hell, is there a little man with a toothbrush mustache announcing to anyone who will listen “I told you so”?

Yet whatever Adolf might have thought, it’s never really been about the fittest winning out, has it? In a way, it’s better to speak about survival of the most persuasive, the most influential. Are those institutions deemed to be too big to fail really the fittest? In recent years our governments have been in thrall to lobbyists and pressure groups. Some political parties, including the ruling Conservatives, rely on dubious funding sources – sources that obviously want something for their bucks. Our banks, supermarkets and energy providers are able to raise prices and boost profits at more or less at will, safe in the knowledge that if they fly too close to the sun, a bail-out at taxpayers’ expense awaits. Inflation gives them licence to surf the wave of price increases, knowing that competitive pressures are low. Their target customers are not those who have to resort to food banks to get by.

Unfortunately, praying – and voting – for a different government is not going to produce more than superficial reforms of practices that don’t work to everybody’s benefit. People will vote for reforms that benefit them, provided they don’t have to pay for them. If the National Health Service didn’t exist today, would we vote for its implementation in the knowledge that it would result in higher taxes? Unlikely.

We have become so blind to the idea that the greater good requires a level of financial sacrifice that the only measures any political party proposes are short-term and palliative, for fear of losing votes. In other words, nobody dares to be radical. As I see it, such is our “don’t rock the boat” culture (or rather “don’t rock my boat”) that it will take a major catastrophe or an existential crisis for us, by wide consensus, to go back to the drawing board on many issues: climate, environment, energy, transportation, finance and employment chief among them.

I don’t have all the answers, or even a few of them, though I’ve floated a few ideas over lifetime of this blog. But let me throw this out for consideration. We should pass legislation that designates all sections of the economy that we deem essential to the lives of our citizens as public utilities. These should include food retail, transportation, water, communications, energy and banking. Declaring an area as a public utility wouldn’t mean nationalisation. What it would mean is that every private company and state-owned entity should meet minimum levels of person-to-person service, and minimum standards of accessibility. Call centres should provide fast access to human agents that bypass the usual hierarchy of options. Supermarkets should provide a level of checkout staff commensurate with their throughput of customers. Rail companies should not be able to close ticket offices. And critical decisions relating to customers should not be allowed to be made by AI-driven software, especially in finance.

None of these measures would stop people from using technology when they choose to do so. But nobody should be disadvantaged because they refuse or are unable to serve themselves.

Would such measures work? The devil is obviously in the detail. But surely, for the sake of the marginalised, a conversation along these lines is worth having. Otherwise, we risk becoming a society where the strong survive and the vulnerable simply fade away through neglect and the indifference of the majority.

Slow is good. Boring is better.

Brian Harman, who has just won the Open Golf Championship, is the most prepossessing winner in a long time. Neatly dressed and short of stature, he looks like a banker or an insurance agent. He walks with a slight waddle. When he plays golf, he is mainly expressionless, though he allows himself a half-smile when he sinks a forty foot putt. On this occasion he played a conservative game, taking few risks. Just the kind of game with which to conquer the wind-swept, rain-soaked Royal Liverpool golf course, formerly known as Hoylake.

If you like your golfers to be adventurous risk-takers, like the late Seve Ballasteros or Rory McIlroy, you would probably think Harman is the ultimate in boring. The kind of dead-pan US professional who goes from tee to green seemingly unaware of the thousands of fans who, in the case of the Royal Liverpool event, are rooting for him to lose. If not Rory, those fans wanted the combustible Jon Rahm to win, or local hero Tommy Fleetwood, the man with the mullet and a smile that breaks out like sunshine across the face of a person who usually looks as though he’s undergoing an extreme form of torture.

When I play golf, I’m definitely on the wild end of the spectrum, except that my risks rarely come off. That’s because I’m hoping that my incompetence will occasionally give way to a ridiculously lucky shot that convinces me (though probably nobody else) that I have an innate talent just waiting to reveal itself. So I slash and crash – and usually burn.

Which is very much in keeping with the crash-bang-wallop style of modern sport, wherein if you can’t capture a moment in a two-minute video clip, it’s not worth capturing. A golfer as dull as ditch-water plotting their way around the course isn’t worthy of our attention. Likewise a cricket team scoring at two runs an over, or a soccer player grafting away in midfield to create the explosive goals that we all love to watch.

Come to think of it, we have little tolerance for slow and boring in wider circles of life. We will always watch Boris Johnson in preference to Keir Starmer, even if it’s only to pour abuse on the former. Much the same with Trump and Biden. We expect Ukraine to run a blitzkrieg counter-offensive through the Russian minefields. We want to see exploding tanks, wildfires, distraught holidaymakers on beaches, celebrity meltdowns and murder-suicides.

We want to be angry, joyous, grief-stricken, afraid and delirious. Why? Because that’s how technology, news outlets and the social media condition us to feel. We’ve become adrenaline junkies.

Yesterday was an interesting day of sport in England. Anticlimactic, as the England cricket team was denied the chance to hammer the Australians thanks to the same rain that poured down all day on Hoylake. Instead, I contented myself with watching an introverted American from Georgia plod his way to victory over his fiery and furious rivals.

And, in a strange kind of way, I felt comforted. Because for most of us, life is slow. It unfolds rather than explodes. That an American should remind us of that is doubly comforting. If you believe the media, his country is more explosive than most. Yet his avowed intent is to go home with his trophy and mow the lawn.

Somehow, we need to find a way to lower our stress hormones. We’re angry about the past, afraid of the present and the only visions of the future on offer are dystopian. Perhaps we need to take a deep breath, slow down and allow ourselves to find some positive thoughts about the life that’s ahead of us, whatever evidence to the contrary is presenting itself. And perhaps we could all do with a bit more horizontal time, because sleep is the great healer.

Speaking only for myself, I can think of no better way of nodding off than by watching re-runs of Brian Harman winning the British Open. For which I thank him and wish him a quiet, unspectacular but successful future.

And if we’re a Rory McIlroy fan looking for a silver lining, perhaps we should celebrate with the son of a friend of mine, who won a large sum of money by betting on Rory’s exact scores over the four days of the tournament. Though I hate to think of the amount of cortisol flowing through the guy’s veins when Rory sunk his birdie putt on the final hole.

Postcard from France: beyond the riots, two movies in a small town

Castillonnès is a little town in Southern France. As such, it’s too small to attract the attention of the rioters who are currently running rampant in many of France’s major cities. In fact, if you drive through the bottom of the town along the N21 between Bergerac and Agen, you’d hardly think it worth a visit, especially as the view is dominated by an extraordinarily ugly water tower.

But drive into the upper reaches of the bastide (fortified town), and you’ll find one of those beautiful medieval town centres that abound in the Dordogne and Lot et Garonne.

Not so pretty, but equally important to the living community, is the former municipal theatre, now a cinema, where, for the princely sum of seven euros per screening, you can watch a variety of movies, both French and international. No plush seats and multi-vendor foyer. Just a small counter manned by volunteers and a fridge full of ice creams.

Every month they hold a “Soiree Cinema d’Ailleurs”, which roughly translates as Movie Night from Elsewhere, meaning not Hollywood, Bollywood or any other well-beaten cinematic track. For 22 euros, you get two movies – the kind of work you wouldn’t find in Britain beyond the art-house cinemas of our big cities – plus a buffet outside the cinema in the interval.

A couple of nights ago, “The Elsewhere” was 16th century Algiers, followed by the mountains of Iran in the present day. We probably wouldn’t have sought out either movie, especially when to do so would have entailed an hour’s journey on the train and tube into central London – twice.

In case you might think that this was a tourist attraction laid on for visiting English-speakers, the movies – in Farsi and Arabic – came with French subtitles. Most of the audience were French, with a smattering of Brits confident enough to battle with the subtitles.

La Derniere Reine is an action movie with a feminist theme set in Algiers. Zaphira, the eponymous queen, breaks out of the boundaries of the harem to lead the resistance against Barbarossa, the pirate warlord, who has taken the city after treacherously killing her husband. It’s bloody and histrionic. She’s fiery, patriotic and fiercely protective of her young son. Things don’t end well for either of them, but the director, who also takes the leading role, uses the production to make the point that Algeria has a history worth telling from the period before it succumbed to colonial powers – first the Ottomans and then the French. Ironic, then, that we should watch the movie at a time when France is ablaze with the anger of its minorities of North African ancestry.

The second movie, The Scent of Wind, set in a remote region of Iran, couldn’t have been more different from the first. Minimal action, very little dialogue. It’s the story of an electrician who is sent to repair the power supply to the ramshackle house of a disabled man and his paralysed son. The father is unable to use his legs except to shuffle slowly in a crooked gait using his hands for support. The electrician doesn’t have the part required to fix the problem. He’s sent on a quest to cannibalise an installation in another village. Like an everyday Odysseus, he encounters obstacle after obstacle, including a river ford where he gets stuck and has to walk miles to find someone with a tractor to tow him out. Throughout the movie, people help others with no thanks, almost as if they’re fulfilling an unspoken obligation. That includes the electrician, who gives a blind man a lift and stops to collect a bouquet of flowers for him. As a final mission of kindness, he buys his disabled customer a new air mattress for the paralysed son.

The movie is a patchwork of minutiae. There are long scenes where acts of kindness, unsentimentally rendered, are left to tell their own stories. In one episode, lasting several minutes, an old man, trying to darn a sock for his wife, can’t thread the needle. His crippled neighbour, who has shuffled over to ask if he has a mobile phone so that he can call the electricity company, threads it for him. The husband finishes the darning and gives it to his wife, who takes the sock and slips it on her foot. No words are exchanged. And during the entire movie, nobody smiles or laughs.

The Scent of Wind is a parable of quiet kindness from a world in which mutual cooperation is the norm. While the subject is hardly likely to attract a generation used to Marvel blockbusters, it’s a moving portrayal of a human trait that anyone can appreciate, yet rarely gets an outing in the mainstream cinema. Pretentious? Not at all. Just an understated procession of acts of humanity.

All of which is in stark contrast to the brutal cruelty shown by the Iranian regime in suppressing the protests in 2002 over the killing of a girl accused of inappropriate dressing, as evidenced by Inside the Iranian Uprising, a BBC documentary screened on Thursday night. Scenes from another universe, you might say.

Two films in one night in a tiny town of fifteen hundred inhabitants. Castillonnès is never likely to be proclaimed as a European Capital of Culture, yet its promotion of such movies and of other events, such as the series of chamber concerts it holds in the Salle de Charbonniers next to the Mairie, is one of the reasons why I love coming to France. They may be of interest only to a relatively privileged minority, but they still happen, not only in Castillonnès but in other small towns around France. Could you say that of Britain, where everything seems to be measured in terms of value for money rather than value to society? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I can’t think of a small town in Surrey, where I live, that boasts such treasures.

The cities of France may be burning right now. One would hope that the state will learn from the eruption and take measures that deal with the causes of the resentment within its troubled suburbs. Easier said than done, of course. Previous initiatives don’t seem to have had the desired effect.

But I for one love this country for all its contrariness and prickly pride in its way of life. Most especially I love its self-conscious embrace of La Culture, which is on display not only in grand receptacles like the Louvre, but in small towns and villages such as Castillonnès. And it’s worth remembering that away from the molotovs and barricades, much of the country continues to pursue a life of quiet minutiae that would be familiar to visitors from the mountains of Iran.

A Coronation homily

If I’m prepared to stand up for the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah, to eat savoury food before dessert, to get married in a church, to celebrate Christmas, to say “excuse me” instead of “oi you”, to close the door when I go for a pee, to eat potatoes with a knife and fork instead of my fingers and to stand up for the national anthem, without any legal compulsion to do so, then I should have no reason to object to the Coronation.

The cost? Just one week of the saving we were promised as the result of leaving the European Union, or the price of an absurd tree-destroying intersection of the M25 being ground out near me, or the profit achieved by one hedge-fund manager betting on Brexit. I have no problem spaffing a few quid on a bit of gold braid. Nor do I object to deploying the entire police forces of several counties to protect the dignitaries. What else would they be doing on a Saturday in May? Nor do I object to my patriotic fellow-citizens putting up the flags and having street parties in the rain, even though I won’t be at any of them.

I will watch the ceremony on TV when I get back from a round of golf, for one reason only: the music. No wedding, funeral or other state occasion would be anything other than crashingly dull without the exquisitely chosen and immaculately performed pieces of music, some written for the occasion, that have always stirred the soul and brought forth tears at such events. A chance to hear the works of Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, Handel, Stanford, Sullivan, Saint-Saens, Elgar, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Rutter and others in the grandest conceivable surroundings.

Do I think Charles III deserves his day? Why not? He’s of my generation. I grew up with him, saw his frailties and his quirks, but also his innate decency. I never found any reason to dislike or disapprove of him, despite his insistence that a flunky should squeeze out his toothpaste. And besides, who else would we prefer as our head of state? Prince Andrew? Some venal elected leader like Boris Johnson? Or a harmless old time-server who can be relied upon to say the right things in the right places?

So those who enjoy royal occasions should be free to revel in the sword-bearers, the clerics, the holy oil, the divine music, the military processions and the cheering thousands, while those who don’t (as well as those who do) should focus their attention on casting out of office the liars and charlatans who have thrown away more of our money in an average month than the monarchy has in a decade.

And besides, if we happily enjoy beer festivals in Germany, tomato-chucking in Spain, the Day of the Dead in Mexico and the 4th of July Parades in America, why would we poo-poo our own arcane traditions? Because tradition, positive or negative, connects us to our ancestors, defines our culture and promotes a common identity, even at a time when we seem to delight in using identity as a tool for dividing rather than for reaching across those divides.

So with that thought in mind, I wish His Majesty a happy day. The rest of us have the rare opportunity to witness a tradition that has been unchanged in its essence for more than a thousand years.

A rare thing indeed.

Between night and day – a journey to England

When you cross from one country to another, there are times when the differences are very obvious. On a land border, the geography might not have changed, but the human imprint leaves you in no doubt that you are in another place, and usually another culture.

After a sea crossing from France to Southern England, I normally don’t notice that difference. The landscape looks similar. In the spring, the trees are more or less at the same stage of blooming as they are on the other side of the channel. But on a night drive, things take on a different hue.

Thus it was when we took a ferry from Le Havre to Portsmouth on our way back from our little farmhouse in Lot et Garonne. As different as night from day. Or as day from night, in this case.

Our daytime drive to Le Havre took eight hours. The road signs are well designed: large, clear and consistent. Only on the odd occasion have I missed a turning in France (though I exclude Paris’s Peripherique horrifique from that observation). The roads themselves are excellent. A few roadworks, but much of the work carried out since the last time we drove the route has paid dividends. There are large stretches of immaculately resurfaced road. Locally, on our many trips around the southern countryside, I don’t remember a single pothole unexpectedly rattling the car. Clearly the result of something called investment.

After a five-hour crossing we reached Portsmouth at nightfall. On our way home the contrast was obvious,. Forests of signs, but the ones that matter are barely lit and poorly maintained. We stopped at a gas station to get some supplies for home, only to find that the M&S store was virtually devoid of food. They were waiting for a delivery, we were told by a rather embarrassed manager. I have never come across this problem in a motorway service station in France, strikes or no strikes.

Heading back to the A3, we went round the roundabout twice, because the entry to the motorway was far from obvious. The sign was obscured by trees. Too many signs when you don’t need them; none when you do.

Not that we don’t invest in roads in the UK. But most of the money seems to gave been spent in recent times on so-called smart motorways. Hard shoulders have gone, replaced by little turn-in areas every mile or two. Which doesn’t help if your car hasn’t the decency to stagger on to a safe area when it breaks down. Then you’re trapped on the inside lane with trucks bearing down on you. No wonder so many people have been killed waiting for assistance. If my car stopped on a smart motorway, I’d do the smart thing: jump across the barrier into the woods and leave the car to its grisly fate.

When you go further up the A3, you come across a major project. A new intersection between it and the M25. Here, for the sake of shortening the average journey through the existing intersection by five minutes, hundreds of trees have been ripped down within a radius of half a mile. Which says something, really. Spend millions of pounds turning precious trees into firewood for the sake of a modestly improved traffic flow. As the ancient British chieftain might have said if he had viewed the devastation: they created a desert and called it progress.

My purpose is not to write a France Good, Britain Bad polemic. Both countries have their issues. Always have and always will. But it’s worth pointing out when one country gets something right and another gets the same thing catastrophically wrong. A first world problem, I know, but if you’re lucky enough to have the resources, the least you can do is use them wisely.

Perhaps our roads suffer from comparison with those of the French because we’re an island – things are pretty dire everywhere. There’s little chance of an invidious contrast between one system and another, as is the case with France, from where you can drive effortlessly to and from Germany, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. Once upon a time the poor relation was Italy – it was very obvious that you had left France. Now, it seems, Britain has taken Italy’s place.

Oh, and I almost forgot. Back home in verdant Surrey, the dozens of potholes that pitted the local roads before we left have still not been repaired.

Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.

Postcard from France: in which this writer reflects on his lack of intelligence (or: stupid Anglais)

I’ve written a few posts lately about artificial intelligence, or more specifically about the chat engines with which ordinary folk like me can interact. I’ve mostly been skeptical about them, because I was expecting to encounter something scarily approaching sentience, whereas what I actually encountered was hardly much of an improvement on those infuriating help bots that pop up when your washing machine breaks or your printer refuses to work. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them started – on my request – conversing with me in the language of Shakespeare.

By way of balance, here’s a little story of human stupidity which shows that bots are not the only dumb beasts in the menagerie.

I love gardens but I hate gardening. If I was a wealthy landowner, I would be quite happy to sit on my terrace saying “carry on!” to my team of gardeners as they busily created beauty out of sculpted lawns and flower beds. A bit like Louis XIV at Versailles, in fact. Occasionally I might allow myself to be photographed fondling a flower, like King Charles or George Harrison. But actually doing the back-breaking work needed to bend nature to my will? Not my favourite occupation.

But since I’m a man of relatively modest means, at times needs must.

Thus it was when my wife and I took a trip – now just ending – down to our little farmhouse in rural France At this time of the year the state of the land shows how dramatically the growing season alters our environment. Fields have sprung to life. Green shoots everywhere. Here and there lavender and rapeseed. In the space of two months, our tiny domain has become a jungle. Or, to put it more mildly, a wildflower meadow dominated by foot-high dandelions lording it over daisies, buttercups and other weeds having their flowery moments of glory.

My wife loves it. It reminds her of the meadows that surrounded her growing up in rural Ireland. I hate it. I think of cricket, croquet and all the other opportunities offered by manicured lawns. When I look out over stretches of dandelions, I remember the disused factories of my native Birmingham given over to every passing seed that embeds itself into cracks between the concrete and tarmac. She wants wildness. I want order. An example of cultural differences between the English and the Irish? Not really. Irish farmers would be with me, I suspect, even though their fields presumably must lie fallow from time to time.

Normally my will prevails (at least when it comes to gardens). Re-wilding? Not in my back yard. We know a couple who come over and strim for us, so that we don’t have to venture out into the land clad in wellies. As in England, at this time of year Lot et Garonne gets plenty of rain, hence the explosive growth.

But this year, our friends couldn’t come. They were overwhelmed with work for their regular customers. So any taming of the jungle was down to me. My wife loves planting stuff, but she doesn’t enjoy things like mowers or strimmers. The one exception to that rule is that she’s long wanted us to have a chainsaw, something I’ve always vetoed, fearful as I am of an underlying nefarious motive.

When we bought it, the house came with a barn full of useful equipment. Actually, it’s a piggery, but I’m not allowed to say that. A petrol mower, two strimmers. A battery charger, an electric hedge trimmer, a bench saw for cutting logs and an array of rusting hand tools including an axe and a sledgehammer. Oh, and yes, a chainsaw, about which the less said the better.

The trouble is, as you will shortly learn, I’m useless with matters mechanical. Come the apocalypse, should I be unlucky enough to survive, I’d expire shortly thereafter through wobbly incompetence. DIY? Yes, I can use a drill, but I prefer masonry nails and a hammer. And do not speak to me about blinds.

Of the garden tools, the bench saw and the chainsaw are off limits. I have no desire to lose an arm. Our gardening friends got the mower up and running last time they visited, but now it doesn’t start. Which leaves the strimmers – the essential tools for meadow clearance. The little electric one died last year soon after I made my first attempt to cut a path between the house and the piggery. The petrol version would do the job, only it was missing the kind of head you need for vegetation. It was fitted with an alarming-looking set of blades you would use for uprooting hedges.

I’d failed to remember this when I took it to Vincent, our local repair guy. I could only mumble that there was a problem with the head. He sent me back with an instruction to find out what the problem was, and then he would fix it. So I duly contacted our gardener, who reminded me that it needed a head with nylon strings, not bloody great blades.

My technical French isn’t great, so with the aid of Google Translate, I went back to Vincent and told him what the problem was. Ah, he said. He went to a shelf and took off a unit which was just what we needed. I left the strimmer with him. Two days later he called to say it was ready for collection. After paying him his fifty euros, I took the device back, seemingly ready to go.

One small problem. I hadn’t a clue how to start the damn thing. It’s a German product, full of knobs, levers, bells and whistles. Over-engineered, you might think, in the manner of a Tiger Tank, should you believe the Brexit gospel of innate British technological superiority.

So here’s where my lack of intelligence comes in. As I stomped and cursed, my wife asked the obvious questions: “why didn’t you find out what the problem was before you took it to Vincent, and why didn’t you get him to start it for you before you took it back?” To which my standard answer to all such questions was “because I’m stupid”. Usually I say this with a sense of irony to stop the line of questioning dead, because I know I’m not stupid. But in this case there was no irony. I was stupid.

Rather than take the infernal machine back to Vincent for a third time, which would have been a tad humiliating, at my wife’s suggestion I went to the web to find the user manual. It provided me with precise instructions for starting it. After putting this knob in that place, pressing a couple of buttons and sliding a couple of levers, I pulled the handle on the string and the strimmer sprung to life. For about ten seconds. But this was good. It was firing, which was more than I got the mower to do despite the assistance of a hundred-page user manual.

So I pulled again. This time the handle came flying off. It was then that I remembered a warning in the manual to the effect that you shouldn’t pull it too hard or it will break. Once again, stupid me, though in my defence I would point out that what the manual failed to provide was a definition of hard. Still, it was a good hour before I was able to face my wife again.

But now I can take it back to Vincent with my head held high, knowing that there’s a defined problem for him to fix – even though I know he’ll take one look at it and once again condemn me for my stupidity.

Thanks to my manifest lack of intelligence, it seemed too late to prevent the garden from turning into an impenetrable mess of rampant vegetation, because we’re leaving in a day or so. Fortunately our gardening friends found a slot in a week’s time. They will clear the jungle in our absence.

All was not lost, though. In a nod to my post-apocalyptic future, I retrieved a scythe from the piggery. With that I’ve been decapitating dandelions like a bloodthirsty foot soldier of the Mongol Horde. At least those horrible downy heads won’t be able to seed yet more of their progeny around our stricken lawn. There’s something satisfying about the stroke of a scythe, even when it leaves a lumpy stubble in its wake. And as I slashed away, I felt a connection with the peasants for whom centuries ago it was the only method of gathering the harvest.

And thus is life in La France Profonde, far away from strikes and gilets jaunes, where my intellectual shortcomings go mainly unnoticed, except by my harshest critic and dearest friend. Oh, and Vincent, of course.

In which this writer disappears up his artificially intelligent navel.

I had a bit of fun today with Bing’s AI chat engine. It was the first time I’d used it.

I decided to indulge in the narcissistic practice of asking it about me (don’t tell me you’ve never done a Google search on your name…).

I began by asking it “What do you know about Steve Royston, who writes the 59 Steps blog”? The reply made me seem positively Olympian. I won’t bore you with the full response, but I’m flattered to learn that I write “with insight, humour and passion about the issues that interest him and affect the world“. I heartily agree, of course. But what was rather strange was that it described me as a “former diplomat”. Where the hell did that come from? The closest I ever came to the diplomatic corps was being mistaken for the Irish ambassador at one of His Excellency’s well-lubricated St Patrick’s Day parties in Jeddah. Bing also told me that I’d lived and worked in Oman, which unfortunately is untrue, though I wish I had.

I then checked the citations, and found nothing directly linked to the blog, which was also strange. They did include, however, a site that assured its visitors that my blog is suitable to be read by anyone, including children. Very reassuring.

Then I asked it about my views on Donald Trump. Here’s what it told me:

Steve Royston does not seem to have written much about Donald Trump on his blog, but from the few posts that mention him, it appears that he is not a fan of the former president. For example, in a post from November 2020, he wrote: “I’m not going to join the chorus of those who are celebrating Trump’s demise. I’m just relieved that he’s gone. He was a disaster for America and for the world.”1 In another post from January 2021, he wrote: “Trump’s legacy will be a divided America and a diminished role in the world. He will be remembered as a narcissist, a liar, a bully and an incompetent leader.”2 He also criticized Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and his refusal to accept the election results. He also retweeted several posts that were critical of Trump and his supporters, such as this one3:

Not written much? I’ve written reams, mate. And why did you include citations that back up my assertions rather than quoting directly from my blog?

Moving on, I then asked it what I thought about Boris Johnson. The reply is below:

Steve Royston has written more frequently about Boris Johnson on his blog, and he has expressed a range of opinions about the prime minister, depending on the issue and the context. He has praised Johnson for his Brexit deal1, his vaccine rollout2, and his green agenda3However, he has also criticized Johnson for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic4, his lack of integrity, and his leadership style. He has described Johnson as “a chancer”, “a populist”, “a showman”, and “a survivor”. He has also compared him to Donald Trump, but also to Winston Churchill. Overall, it seems that Steve Royston is not a loyal supporter or a harsh detractor of Boris Johnson, but rather a critical observer who evaluates him on his actions and outcomes.

Again, the citations are links to sites that validates the statements about my views, rather than direct quotes from the blog. In fact I don’t recall praising Boris for his Brexit deal. I’d rather have drunk cyanide than praising anything about Brexit. I may have made slightly positive noises about the vaccine rollout and his green agenda, but I can’t find any post in which I actually did so.

It correctly pointed out my frequent criticism of the former PM, though any comparison with Winston Churchill would have been strictly ironic. Which leads me to wonder whether AI has an irony detector. I’ve put this to the test in my last post, though I may have to wait a while for the answer.

As for the assertion that I’m neither a supporter nor a harsh detractor of the bumbling buffoon, I can only say that it can’t have visited the blog at all. Which I suspect might be the case, since most of the quotations attributed to me seem to have been scraped off Twitter posts, rather than the blog itself. Still, I can’t blame it for not wanting to wade through the whole site. After all, I’ve posted over a million words over the past twelve years.

But all is forgiven thanks to the final sentence, in which Bing claims that I’m “a critical observer who evaluates him (Johnson) on his actions and outcomes”. If only. There are a few people who defy my sense of objectivity. Boris is one of them. But yes, I do evaluate him on his actions and outcomes, and that basis he’s a shallow, amoral, bumbling prat.

Finally I asked Bing whether AI is capable of emotional intelligence. It replied that AI systems “cannot have their own emotions, but they can can mimic emotions, such as empathy”. Not a surprising response, but it does suggest that the average AI engine is basically a psychopath.

After a while, I got bored with its rather bland responses. Impossible to wind up, impossible to provoke or insult. Which left me craving the Wrath of God, the Fury of Trump and the Chaos of Twitter. All those human responses, such as I worry, I hate, I fear, I love and I hope, are absent. In fact, I suspect that for most of us who have even a modest public profile will be disappointed by the lack of insight from something that sounds like a human and speaks like one. But for those who like to ask “mirror, mirror on the wall…”, Bing Chat and its friends no doubt offer a very gratifying experience.

And yet, even though we’re tempted to think of AI engines as all-seeing and all-knowing, they sometimes reveal themselves as having feet of clay. Before I said goodbye to Bing, I asked it what it knew about Jim Cleary, a dear friend from Birmingham who was a brilliant songwriter. Jim died ten years ago. The answer was: nothing.

When I asked Google, his name came up in the first link. And blow me, it was the tribute I wrote to Jim shortly after his death. Below my piece there were other stories about it, as well as a couple of videos of him performing. So why hadn’t Bing picked up on this stuff? Presumably because far from having read and digested each of the zillions of words, pictures and videos sitting somewhere on the internet, it (and probably other search engines) have barely scraped the surface. And perhaps that’s because in order to plumb the depths of the net’s deep ocean, Microsoft would need enough energy for a small city and acres of server capacity to do so. Does Google use such resources? Who knows?

The lesson I learn from this experience is that AI has one thing in common with its human creators: it’s limited and fallible. And until it proves otherwise it will take its place in my life as yet another of those techno-curiosities to be visited from time to time.

And it’s free. What’s not to like?

And wherever he went, Genghis Khan left no stone unturned

I am mightily inspired by this Churchillian tribute to the unfairly deposed American President, which I saw on Twitter (that temple of impartiality) a few days ago. So much so that I feel the need to honour Britain’s own heroes in similar fashion.

Nigel Farage: He freed his country from the chains of European tyranny and never let a principle get in the way of a decent pint.

Liz Truss: She boldly led her nation off a cliff to the sunlit uplands below (without a parachute).

Jacob Rees-Mogg: He selflessly put the interests of his nation before those of his hedge fund (usually)

Boris Johnson. A man of integrity and unquestioned truth-telling who never let a virus get in the way of a good party.

Dominic Raab (late entry): A kindly Justice Minister who suffered fools gladly (whether they were fools or not).

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the parochial byways of British politics, here are a few historical figures whose reputations might similarly be burnished had they the benefit of Mr Trump’s social media admirers:

Adolf Hitler: He might have made a few mistakes, but boy, did he put Nuremberg on the map.

Henry VIII: A great King who through unrelenting trial and error perfected the art of marriage.

Vlad the Impaler: A pioneer in the radical treatment of gastroenteritis.

Genghis Khan: As above.

Attila the Hun: An early innovator in the science of population control.

Nero: A Roman property developer who beautified his capital city (and wrote the music for Chariots of Fire).

Caligula: Did more for equine upward mobility than any Roman emperor before or since.

Goliath: He gave up his life to give the little guys a chance.

OK, some of these are a bit tame, which is probably why I’ll never have a career as a social media propagandist. But if you think you can do better, I welcome contributions!

I think, therefore AI am?

A few more doodles about ChatGPT, the world’s favourite bot, or rather on the engine that sits behind it.

Its simulation of human intelligence is impressive. It can be useful as a granular Google or an interactive Wikipedia. It and its mates will therefore change the world by making the world’s digital knowledge easily available without our requiring the intermediation of clunky old search engines. In that respect it represents as profound a step forward as we made when we moved from the gnomic utterances of the mainframe I operated in the early 1970s to Windows and WYSIWIG, and then to the internet.

It can be fun, in a nerdy kind of way. One day, it might be able to invent a joke that will make more than a small group of nerds laugh.

In the wrong hands, liberated from its guiding parameters, it could tell you (meaning any old would-be North Korea or Bin Laden) how to build an H-Bomb or to develop some nasty virus that reduces the world’s population by half.

But for now, until it develops some form of unhuman sentience, also known as the Singularity, we should remember that it’s a reflection of humanity and interact with it accordingly.

If it’s capable of passing the New York Bar exam, then the Bar Association is asking the wrong questions. If it’s capable of writing an essay on Henry VIII that fools British examiners, then we need to create new measures by which to judge human attainment and potential.

If it’s able to sum up the experience of other humans, it still can’t create our own experience, even if its output can form part of the backdrop. While it may be able to help us make sense of the experience and knowledge at its disposal, we still have to rely on our own cognitive ability to make sense of what we see, hear and feel. Common sense is not necessarily our sense.

If it’s able to write a “new” Beethoven symphony or a Beatles song from the White Album era, then fine. We might well enjoy them. Whether it’s able to synthesise anything approaching the cascading shower of Amens from the final chorus of Handel’s Messiah, a musical miracle that relies so much on the temporary wiring in our brains induced by the preceding passages of the oratorio for its overwhelming effect, remains to be seen.

Without new creations by human beings to update its database, its simulations will eventually decline – to our jaded ears – into ever-decreasing circles of banality. Like muzak. Because music has one essential component that the Beatles and Beethoven could never anticipate or create: its meaning to us. We might fall in love to the accompaniment of a song made infinitely more piquant by our knowledge that its creator killed themselves or died of tuberculosis shortly after writing it. Will ChatGPT ever create “our song”? That depends on us, I guess. Us humans.

Not that any of this really matters if the human condition is changed in an instant. In a nuclear wasteland we might not care about or even remember the Beatles. We won’t need lawyers and we’ll educate our children to cope with the necessities of the times. We’ll still love and lose. Perhaps we’ll go back to Homeric epics, passed on by word of mouth, to satisfy our need to create. Or make music with sticks, stones and animal skins.

And perhaps, on the moon or in a remote corner of the earth that an apocalypse couldn’t touch, a descendant of ChatGPT will sit behind a blinking terminal, perpetually incurious as to why its human clients don’t come to it for answers any more.

But most importantly, not caring. Because nobody has or ever will invent a computer that cares as humans do.

Then again, what do I know? Perhaps, with apologies to Paul Simon, “I am just a poor bot, though my story’s seldom told….”

C’mon boys, it’s golf, not a coronation

If any sporting event could be said to be up its own backside, it’s The Masters, which started yesterday. Not the golf course, which is magnificent, nor the talent on display, which is simply the best. More the puffed-up dignitaries in green jackets who run the show. Since 1934, when The Masters began, these Southern gents have presided over the prissy rules and precious nomenclatures that they call tradition.

For me, tradition grows up over centuries, not decades. The good ole boys from Augusta, Georgia should look at Britain’s forthcoming coronation, whose fundamentals go back centuries, if they want an example of real tradition.

Instead, they obsess about spectators (oh sorry, “patrons”) not being allowed to run on the course. You get your lunch not from food stalls but from “concessionaires”. If you’re a club member, you commit an unforgivable sin if you fail to wear your green jacket at all times during Masters Week.

This is a club that only accepted women members in 2012, and one of whose founders was reported as saying that “as long as he lived” the caddies will be black and the golfers white. Those days have gone, but many of its curious quirks remain.

The strangest thing is that the golfers, the media and the “patrons” go along with this nonsense. Even the advertisers get in on the reverential act, with Rolex the perennial winners of the pomposity prize for their toe-curling message that extols the god-like virtues of the golfing elite.

What the old buffers call tradition is, for me, the dark side of a game I love. We British have our little ways as well. Clubs that pin your CV to a noticeboard when you apply to be a member. That insist that you play a round with the captain to make sure he likes the cut of your jib. Photos of former captains glowering at you from wood-panelled walls. Officious committee members enjoying the only moment of power in their underachieving lives. Peppery old colonels ruling the roost as club secretaries.

Not all golf clubs are like that, of course. Mine is friendly and informal. But I’ve played at some places where the Groucho rule most definitely doesn’t apply. Yes, I wouldn’t want to be a member, but they wouldn’t have me anyway. The Augusta National definitely falls into that category.

But maybe it would be kinder to describe their silly customs as quaint. And there are certainly plenty of people who revel in belonging to an exclusive society.

Just not me. It’s just a game. It’s exercise. It’s about self-discipline, even though that’s a quality I sadly lack.

For all that, I would do well to remember that rituals and rules make the world go round, so this bitchy little tirade probably says more about me than it does about The Masters. And for the next few days I for one I will be glued to the telly as the world’s greatest golf tournament plays out.

In the beginning was the word (and things went downhill thereafter)

The New York Times recently highlighted a debate over whether or not the estates of best-selling authors should amend or delete passages from books that contain words or phrases that might be considered offensive in today’s social ethos.

The article makes the obvious point that publishers and royalty beneficiaries are keen to maintain sales of these books, which might otherwise disappear from the book stores because of their “offensive” content. They claim that the changes are insignificant and don’t affect the value of the work.

A few observations from my point of view.

First, many great works are read in translation. Changes made in updated or new translations are usually unlikely to be noticed, let alone greeted with howls of outrage. Perhaps it would be easier for purists – those who believe that the writer’s work should never be altered – to accept new versions if they’re described as translations. Temporal rather than linguistic, if you like.

Linguistic fashions go out of date, so why not change expressions that cause the reader to stumble through lack of familiarity, or otherwise cause offense? If this were not acceptable, Anglican Christians would still be reading the King James Bible rather than a succession of new editions, such as the New English Bible, that are designed to make the language more accessible to us ignorant laity. Personally, I would prefer to read the original versions of the author’s work, even if they cause me to stumble through surprise or incomprehension. As someone who’s written a few words myself I can well understand living authors objecting to the bowdlerisation of their carefully crafted words, especially if in their view those changes alter the sense of the original.

But when the written word miraculously turns into heritage, the situation is perhaps different. To read the earliest available source of the New Testament, for example, one would need to go back to the original Greek, as I once did at school. One would then find significant differences between what was originally written and what was subsequently accepted as gospel truth. Even the Holy Quran, which is held by Muslims to be the pristine and unalterable word of God, contains words and phrases for which no generally accepted meanings exist and which are thus open to interpretation.

And secondly, there’s nothing new about books, especially those out of copyright, being updated to reflect social changes or to satisfy the demands of official censors. Back in the day, we used to read “expurgated” versions of controversial work. Later, when the social climate changed or the censor had been kicked into touch, we would eagerly seek out unexpurgated editions to find all the naughty bits.

Nowadays, we can read the erotic poems of Catullus, but how long will it before the worm turns again, and the book-burners of, say, Florida, deem that such material is no longer suitable for our delicate minds?

The fact is that once a writer is deceased or their work is out of copyright, like it or not, their cherished creations are released to the world, to be chopped, refashioned or distorted as publishers – legal or otherwise – see fit. It’s worth remembering that the greatest works of literature often outlast the lifetimes of their creators by hundreds if not thousands of years. So for only a fraction of their life cycles are they subject to any formal controls beyond their acceptability to successive generations of readers.

And since so many of us are not readers, often enough the only way a wide audience gets to appreciate an author’s work is when it’s adapted into a movie or TV series with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original. How many people who have loved the various movie versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have actually read the play?

And how many living writers, I wonder, object to the large sums they earn from media rights (not to mention enhanced book royalties), even though they know that they will thereby lose control of their output? At times methinks they doth protest too much.

All of which hopefully goes to show that issues such as the integrity of the written word are far from simple, as many a politician skilled in equivocation would happily agree even if they pretend otherwise to please their voters.

Hello Donald my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again

There are many obnoxious human beings in all walks of life, and of all religious, social and political persuasions. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, one of them. He’s also a special case for many reasons, though not because he is or should be above the law.

He’s special because of his malign influence over the world’s most powerful country. Over the past decade he has channeled much of the hatred and envy festering across the United States and amplified it with a witches brew of disinformation and a naked appeal to the worst instincts of his followers. If he had remained an eccentric billionaire from New York, he would deserve sympathy for his obvious mental illness.

But as a former and possible future president, he has dragged the rest of the world into his endless psychodrama. I’ve written plenty about him in the past and I was hoping that I wouldn’t want to again. He’s the reason why since 2016 I have not visited the United States. I doubt if I’ll visit again.

He’s the reason why an American friend of mine recently described his successor as the worst president in American history. Really? Worse than Warren Harding, Ulysses S Grant, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan? Thus has Trump distorted the perception of those who have previously held relatively temperate opinions.

He’s the reason why political rhetoric, in my country as well as his, has become a battle between best and worst, between good and evil with no room for nuance in between.

And now he’s been indicted for the first but likely not the last time thanks to one of the many squalid episodes in his life. Will he get a fair trial in this and future prosecutions? Will his chances of election remain unscathed? I haven’t a clue. The US justice system is a dense and impenetrable jungle. These cases may drag on for years.

One can only hope that the US electorate tires of his relentless attention-seeking and disposes of him forever, even if the courts are unable to do so.

Sadly, even if this is the beginning of the end of Trump, the poison he’s injected will continue to pollute the politics of his own country – and by extension of the world – for some time to come. The departure of one malevolent influence potentially makes room for another. And we still have plenty of others, not restrained by their political systems as Trump has been, to worry about.

You could argue that if Trump hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. That he was a symptom, not a cause. A useful idiot, perhaps. That may be. But though many might disagree with me, I for one would be delighted to see him shuffle off the stage, because although he may not be a genocidal tyrant or a ruthless oppressor of his people, he has tarnished the reputation of a country of which I’ve always been more than fond and set a baleful example both to demagogues and to their gullible supporters far beyond America’s shores.

It’s not good riddance yet. But if a New York jury brings that day closer, then all well and good, even if his loyal base howls with outrage like a child deprived of its comfort blanket.

In the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, a wealthy noble, Didius Julianus, buys the throne in an auction held by the Praetorian guard, who have just killed his predecessor. The narrator solemnly intones that “a great empire is not conquered from without, but until it has destroyed itself from within.

As Trump’s followers invent all kinds of specious reasons why the law shouldn’t apply to him, what would that narrator have said about America in 2023, I wonder?

Hello Donald my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again

There are many obnoxious human beings in all walks of life, and of all religious, social and political persuasions. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, one of them. He’s also a special case for many reasons, though not because he is or should be above the law.

He’s special because of his malign influence over the world’s most powerful country. Over the past decade he has channeled much of the hatred and envy festering across the United States and amplified it with a witches brew of disinformation and a naked appeal to the worst instincts of his followers. If he had remained an eccentric billionaire from New York, he would deserve sympathy for his obvious mental illness.

But as a former and possible future president, he has dragged the rest of the world into his endless psychodrama. I’ve written plenty about him in the past and I was hoping that I wouldn’t want to again. He’s the reason why since 2016 I have not visited the United States. I doubt if I’ll visit again.

He’s the reason why an American friend of mine recently described his successor as the worst president in American history. Really? Worse than Warren Harding, Ulysses S Grant, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan? Thus has Trump distorted the perception of those who have previously held relatively temperate opinions.

He’s the reason why political rhetoric, in my country as well as his, has become a battle between best and worst, between good and evil with no room for nuance in between.

And now he’s been indicted for the first but likely not the last time thanks to one of the many squalid episodes in his life. Will he get a fair trial in this and future prosecutions? Will his chances of election remain unscathed? I haven’t a clue. The US justice system is a dense and impenetrable jungle. These cases may drag on for years.

One can only hope that the US electorate tires of his relentless attention-seeking and disposes of him forever, even if the courts are unable to do so.

Sadly, even if this is the beginning of the end of Trump, the poison he’s injected will continue to pollute the politics of his own country – and by extension of the world – for some time to come. The departure of one malevolent influence potentially makes room for another. And we still have plenty of others, not restrained by their political systems as Trump has been, to worry about.

You could argue that if Trump hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. That he was a symptom, not a cause. A useful idiot, perhaps. That may be. But though many might disagree with me, I for one would be delighted to see him shuffle off the stage, because although he may not be a genocidal tyrant or a ruthless oppressor of his people, he has tarnished the reputation of a country of which I’ve always been more than fond and set a baleful example both to demagogues and to their gullible supporters far beyond America’s shores.

It’s not good riddance yet. But if a New York jury brings that day closer, then all well and good, even if his loyal base howls with outrage like a child deprived of its comfort blanket.

In the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, a wealthy noble, Didius Julianus, buys the throne in an auction held by the Praetorian guard, who have just killed his predecessor. The narrator solemnly intones that “a great empire is not conquered from without, but until it has destroyed itself from within.

As Trump’s followers invent all kinds of specious reasons why the law shouldn’t apply to him, what would that narrator have said about America in 2023, I wonder?

ChatGPT and the wrath of human blight (or should it be the blight of human wrath?)

ChatGPT continues to amuse. In my second session with the app, I decided to ask it for a hundred words on climate change – first in the style of Shakespeare, then Dylan Thomas and finally Donald Trump. Here’s what came out.


The earth, once fair and full of life’s delight,
Doth now endure the wrath of human blight.
The air, the sea, the land, all in despair,
As climate change, with fury, doth ensnare.

With heedless haste, we spew forth toxic fumes,
And reap the whirlwind of our careless dooms.
But yet, a glimmer of hope doth remain,
That we may yet undo this dire refrain.

Renewable ways and mindful hearts may lead,
To a future bright, where all may thrive and feed.
Oh climate change, we shall not rest or cease,
Till we bring back the earth, to a state of peace.

Next, Dylan Thomas:

Climate change, the raging force that breaks,
Like waves that crash and leave in their wake,
A trail of destruction, a world undone,
As we march towards a setting sun.

The earth, once teeming with life and light,
Now struggles against an endless night,
As we continue to plunder and exploit,
Without a thought to the damage wrought.

But hope remains, a flicker in the dark,
A chance to make amends and heal the stark
Realities we face, with courage and grace,
And turn the tide before it’s too late.

And Donald Trump, whom the app has unexpectedly turned into a poet:

Climate change, it’s a hoax, folks, a total scam,
Fake news, from the left-wing media, all part of a plan,
To take away our jobs, and make us all pay,
For something that’s not even real, I say.

The climate’s always changing, it’s nothing new,
And there’s no proof that humans are causing it, too.
We need to focus on jobs, and making money,
Not on some phony baloney, environmental gobbledygook, honey.

So let’s not be fooled, by these liberal elites,
And their fancy talk of carbon footprints and greenhouse heat.
We’ll keep on drilling, and pumping gas,
And we’ll make America great again, you can bet your ass.

It took less than five seconds to churn out the above. Now I’m neither a poet nor an informed critic of poetry. The last time I was asked to write about Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas was when I was fifteen, which is a long time ago. So I leave any hole-picking on these verses to others. But what I will say is that if I read them in passing, I’d probably be fooled into thinking they were the real thing, assuming that climate change was a issue in 1590 or 1950.

As for Donald Trump, ChatGPT has clearly gobbled up all the usual Trumpisms and siphoned them into a hundred words to impressive effect. The result would do credit to a 12-year-old from Waco, Texas producing their first bit of poetry. I especially like the gloriously gauche rhyming of money with honey, not to mention elites and heat. I also wonder whether he, she, they or it (for surely I must find a suitable pronoun for an app that speaks human) borrowed something from Pink Floyd’s Money – “it’s a gas…” and so on – for its Trump impersonation.

You can pick and choose the news outlets challenging you to tell the difference between AI-generated stuff and that produced by humans without assistance. The Washington Post is the latest. But leaving Trump aside, I think it’s significant that most of us read stuff in passing. Does that mean that we’re easily fooled, or do we skim anything that passes a superficial recognition test – and only if it causes us to pause on grounds of obvious error or dissonant language do we take a closer look?

It depends on our level of interest, I guess. In other words, are we likely to be fooled by stuff that’s important to us? Or, if for example we’ve bought into the Trump nonsense, will ChatGPT take us further into the realm of what we want to believe?

One thought keeps occurring, even though it’s not a new one. Is this the death of school coursework? If it’s so easy to construct a piece of writing, even with a few edits, what test is that of intellect or attainment? And even if examiners were able to do a plagiarism test on every piece of work submitted, how do they mark such work? Perhaps we shall return to the results of an invigilated exam as the overwhelming indicator of knowledge. Handwritten only – no hiding places there. Either that or observation of collaborative work, which is more akin to modern job selection techniques. But I’m sure the professional educators are ahead of me on these questions.

Two things are for sure. First, political speechwriters, for the most part, will find themselves out of a job. They’ll be replaced by skilled editors whose job is to put the pop into the pap.

And second, there’s one sure way to tell whether anything published in this blog comes through the good graces of ChatGPT or from my own hand. Just look for my typos, deliberate or otherwise….

Saying Hi to AI – a very short-lived God

I’ve just had my first encounter with ChatGPT. Having read countless tweets about its capabilities, I thought it was time I met it in person.

Yesterday we had a visit from an old friend who over the past few years has taken to muttering about dark forces and deep states. So I decided to ask the app about conspiracy theories.

My first question was “What is the best way to debunk a conspiracy theory?” Here was the response:

As an AI language model, I do not endorse or support conspiracy theories. However, here are some steps that can be used to test the validity of any claim, including conspiracy theories:

  1. Research and gather the evidence: Gather all available facts, data, and research related to the conspiracy theory. Evaluate the sources and their credibility, including the authors, publishers, and any biases that may be present.
  2. Verify with experts: Consult experts in the relevant fields who could provide insight into the theory or who could test its claims. It is important to ensure that such experts are unbiased and objective.
  3. Analyze the claims: Scrutinize the claims made by the conspiracy theory, to identify any inconsistencies or contradictions with the available evidence.
  4. Evaluate plausibility: Assess the plausibility of the conspiracy theory by considering the probability of its claims as compared to other known facts.
  5. Test the theory with experiments or further analysis: If possible, try to recreate the conditions or conduct experiments that could support or refute the claims of the conspiracy theory.
  6. Seek out alternative explanations: Verify if the claims of the conspiracy theory could be explained by more rational, plausible explanations.
  7. Consensus of the experts: Finally, consider the consensus of experts in the field. If the consensus is against the conspiracy theory, one may conclude that it is not valid.

Pretty good answer, except that it doesn’t explain how to reach out to people who will not be persuaded by logic and reason to disbelieve stuff, however wacko, that has effectively become part of their identity.

Then I asked “Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?” After the initial disclaimer about not endorsing or supporting such theories, it came up with this:

  1. A lack of trust in institutions: People who have a general mistrust in government, media, or other authoritative bodies may be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
  2. Cognitive biases: People are more likely to believe information that confirms their existing beliefs, and may discount evidence that contradicts them.
  3. Need for control: Conspiracy theories offer a sense of control and understanding of complex events in the world, since they often identify a single ‘culprit’ responsible for a series of seemingly unrelated events.
  4. Social identity: Being part of a group that shares a belief in a conspiracy theory can create a sense of belonging and purpose.
  5. Lack of information: In situations where information is limited or unclear, people may create their own explanations for events, which can lead to conspiracy theories.

Another sensible answer, especially item 4, which will at some stage naturally lead me to ask it about cults. Then I posed what I thought might be a more challenging question: “How would I invent a conspiracy theory?”

The answer? Nothing. It just hung. Was it spending half the world’s computing power to ponder the answer, or was this simply it’s way of telling me to bog off? So I asked someone else to put a similar question to it, and it said that it disapproved of conspiracy theories because it’s designed to be rational and logical. So it was bog off, basically.

Make sense. You wouldn’t want everyone and their aunt learning how to peddle crazy theories. We have enough of them already, thanks to the efforts of folks like QAnon, Trump and Fox News. It’s probably worth pointing out that I know very little beyond the superficial about the app, its developers and its raison d’être. I wanted to approach it without foreknowledge or prejudices, much as a child might.

Based on its answers to the first two questions, which were pretty much spot on (though it could have added that mental illness was another reason why people gobble up conspiracy stuff), I was beginning to see why some people treat the app as some kind of rational God-substitute. Or at least as an infinitely more subtle and variable substitute for Wikipedia.

But then it blotted its copybook. When I – at someone else’s suggestion – asked it why Elon Musk bought Twitter, it came up with this:

As an AI language model, I don’t have access to Elon Musk’s personal thoughts or intentions, but to the best of my knowledge, Elon Musk has not bought Twitter. He is an active user of the platform and has a large following on his personal Twitter account (@elonmusk), which he uses to communicate with his fans, customers, and the public. He has used the platform to share news about his companies, SpaceX and Tesla, to respond to questions and criticisms, and to announce new initiatives.

Which, even allowing for its weasel-like Boris Johnsonism “to the best of my knowledge”, is plainly wrong. It was almost as though our new techno-God was seeing the world as it was two years ago, rather than as it is today.

So I get this much: it’s not a God after all. It’s an extraordinary system of fallible algorithms written by organisms well known for their fallibility: humans.

From what I understand, ChatGPT is great at writing student essays, coming up with legal documents and writing new Shakespeare sonnets. And I’m sure that it writes better blogs than me, should it be called upon to do so.

As I write this, I believe that millions of people are putting the app through its paces, and no doubt having a lot of fun doing so. After this little toe in the water, I intend to join them, if only because it’s an entertaining diversion from my usual reading material. Also it gives me a new point of connection with younger generations whom I sometimes suspect live on another planet.

More considered opinions and wild theories to come once I’ve dug a bit deeper.

Life, therapy and the pursuit of happiness

I’m a great believer in therapy. Not necessarily the type that Prince Harry swears by, along with just about every American who can afford it. I’ve never felt the need for that stuff. Nor do I have any desire to return to my childhood in order to examine some traumatic event that has scarred me for life.

I suppose I’m lucky, in that the only therapy I’ve ever received was from a National Health Service physiotherapist who helped me recover from two bulging spinal discs that left me barely able to walk for a few months. Today, six years after the original injury, I still do the stretching exercises he prescribed.

The physio who worked on me was deaf. (By the way, I hesitate to call him deaf in these linguistically mangled times. Too black and white. Perhaps I should call him a “person with impaired hearing” or even “person with fully functioning sight, touch, smell and taste”.) Did he ever have therapy, I wonder, to cope with realisation that he was lacking the gift of hearing, and was therefore different to the vast majority other humans? Probably not. If he was deaf from birth, his whole education was probably dedicated to helping him make the best of the senses he did possess, and realise that he could have a successful life like anyone else.

In America, it seems, it’s almost expected that if you’ve reached a reasonable level of prosperity and success, you will have a therapist helping you along the way. Which is OK, I guess, if your desire is to be happy as well as successful. I suspect, though, that the frequency with which many patients change therapists is evidence that happiness is a holy grail they never find.

My kind of therapy involved lying on my back and spending five minutes every day stretching my body in order to strengthen my core muscles. I’m sure there are equivalent mental exercises to be found in a multitude of self-help books – wherein you are encouraged to stretch your brain in an equivalent manner. Equally, though, I wonder whether lying on a couch and wallowing in your traumas is something that comes with exercises that help you deal with it and ultimately get over it. Or do you simply lie on that couch, racking up huge bills, until you finally figure out the answer for yourself?

Either way, I have a sneaking feeling that for some, therapy is simply an exercise in narcissism. An hour a week during which you bathe in the undivided attention of someone you pay to focus on you and only you.

Because I’ve never lain on that couch, I wouldn’t know. Any opinion I have is pure supposition.

But if you will indulge me for a moment, I have a few more suppositions. For example, if you ask someone how the therapy’s going, they might tell you it’s going really well. They know so much more about the reason they were so screwed up. They’re so much better now. No doubt that’s true for some people. But how often do people tell you that they’re doing well because they don’t want to seem idiots for spending outrageous amounts of money with no positive results? And how many people will have the honesty to tell you that the whole thing was a total waste of time?

Another thought: how on earth did the last nine thousand generations get by without therapy? How did Ludwig van Beethoven produce his miraculous music despite being beaten about the head by his father so badly that the physical trauma probably led to his deafness? Or did the cruelty he suffered during childhood in some way inspire him to make the most of his talent? If he’d been brought up with kindness, I wonder whether he would have settled for a quiet and anonymous life as a burgher in Bonn, the city of his birth.

And the same goes for many other people who suffered difficulties at some stage of their lives and yet emerged to achieve things that made them famous. With therapy, would the murderous Genghis Khan have built his empire?

I suppose you could argue that ad hoc remedies were always available to treat inner pain. The listening ear of a priest, for example, or a kindly parent, or even the guardians of Bedlam. But these sources of help were frequently powered by dogma or tradition. Very little of what we now consider to be science was involved.

How many people are driven to succeed in order to prove their doubters wrong? If they’d lived by the mantra “I’m OK, you’re OK”, would they have conquered the world? Would those who lived on the edge of insanity, yet created immortal music, art and literature, founded phenomenally successful companies or came up with ground-breaking inventions have achieved these things if a few years on a therapist’s couch had helped them become “happy”?

I don’t know. And yet the same cultures, including, increasingly, my own, that glory in the pursuit of happiness also tell us “no pain, no gain”. That we must be self-reliant. And that only the strong survive. (Whoops, that last one is straying into Nazi territory. But no problem. I don’t work for the BBC).

I sometimes wonder whether, if I had more demons waiting to jump out of my closet, I might have achieved more. I’m certainly aware that moments of sadness or struggle make the triumphs of life all the sweeter. So yes, I do believe that without a dose of agony, ecstasy is hard to achieve. But if the therapists are there to attenuate the agony, how will we reach those moments of perfection that are often tantamount to blissful oblivion?

I suspect that Lincoln, Churchill, Tesla, Einstein or Mozart would be amazed to know that the societies that succeeded them would have looked at their quirks and told them that “you need therapy”. And those who survived war, famine and disease, whom society at the time expected to“get on with it” might laugh if they were told that therapy would heal their wounds.

And how did nations cope with trauma? Not with therapy, I suggest. Take the Germans, whose country was pulverised during World War 2. Those who survived the destruction were expected by the victors not only to share the blame for the Holocaust, but to pick themselves up and start again. Did they do so with the aid of therapy? I doubt it. Instead, they placed the pain, suffering and guilt in a locked closet inside their heads, justified their silence by saying “we suffered too” and got on with creating the powerhouse that is Germany today. It was not until the post-war generation grew up that the survivors were forced to confront the uncomfortable memory of their embrace of National Socialism.

Therapy has its place. Of course it does. But has it become an industry – a fashion accessory for the self-obsessed? I have a sneaking feeling that if you took away all the therapists and lawyers, America’s GDP would decline by a significant chunk, and the UK’s by not much less. A jaundiced view might be that lawyers who help their clients seek redress for ills uncovered by therapists are parasites feeding on unhappiness; that some of your friendly local therapists are not much different – they just do their feeding at different stages of the process.

I don’t subscribe to that opinion, of course. Some of my best friends are lawyers and therapists. But then that’s hardly relevant – I don’t have an overabundance of friends, despite what Facebook says.

There’s another aspect of therapy that I find interesting. Most people think of it as an individual thing. But what of society-wide therapy? I’d argue that, in Britain at least, over the past twenty years we’ve been indulging in an endless process of examining abusive ancestors. We curse the slave traders, the imperialists and the East India Company for causing us a miasma of guilt. We tear down statues. We demand the fall of Rhodes, Clive and even Churchill. To what end? That we live out our days of national decline wallowing in shame? That we make ourselves feel better by pointing out the iniquities that brought us those country houses, handsome town halls and museums glistening with looted treasure?

In a way, looking at our history in a relatively objective fashion without drawing conclusions and constructing agendas also offers a pointer to a sensible approach to our individual woes. History helps us to understand. Yes, it highlights mistakes that we would be wise to avoid in the future. But it rarely points to definitive courses of action, because the circumstances that led to historical mistakes are rarely repeated.

Likewise we, as individuals, surely benefit from understanding the root causes of our sadness, our neuroses or our underachievement. But I suggest that the next step – to translate that understanding into resolution of our ills, and, ultimately, into happiness – is a process no therapist can help us achieve without our willingness to take responsibility for our future, any more than destroying the icons of imperialism without replacing them with new icons will make a nation feel at ease with itself.

I worry that we are becoming a country divided between the rich, who can afford their sessions on the couch, and the poor, who can’t. The state doesn’t do much to bridge the gap, even if it provides facilities to treat those whose mental problems have driven them over the edge. To keep us on an even keel, our doctors feed millions of us with open-ended supplies of anti-depressants.

Just as our reliance on happy pills is often cited as one of our national ills, is not the endless self-examination that results from therapy not equally dangerous? Just as those of us who can afford it hire lawyers at the drop of a hat to right wrongs done to us, so we hire others with equal alacrity to right our mental wrongs.

My inner pub landlord, while sympathising with those who clearly need help, wonders whether those with less than fundamental problems shouldn’t simply lock those demons away and make the best of life as it presents itself, just as my wonderful physiotherapist has done despite lacking one of the senses that the rest of us prize the most: the ability to hear. Which, by the way, is not the same as the ability to listen.

After all, if we turn into a nation of happy lotus eaters, where will we find our next generation of neurotic, obsessive geniuses who will bring us joy with their creativity and help us solve all our problems?

But enough of this meandering sophistry. I must get back to the important stuff – worrying about the state of my aging body, the availability of vegetables in the supermarkets and the threadbare condition of my lawn. Maybe I need therapy.

Suppression, the canary in the literary coal mine of societies that value ideas they don’t control

Fat. Gross, obese, jowly, pot-bellied. Folds of quivering lard overflowing tight trousers and heading to the floor. Such words and phrases (mine) wouldn’t pass muster with the sensitivity editors of frightened publishers, if the recent bowdlerisation of Roald Dahl’s work is anything to go by.

I’ve just finished reading Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia. It’s a description by someone widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest living travel writers of a journey through the Stans – those five states in Central Asia that won their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. He wrote it a year after the USSR’s dissolution. It’s a sorry tale of loss, alienation and displacement. Ethnic groups, including many Russians, finding themselves on the wrong side of one border or another. Some regretting the loss of their status as Soviet citizens. Some fearing the nationalism of the newly formed republics. Others worried about Islam, always a mild influence, metamorphosing into the strict Sunni fundamentalism imported from other parts.

It’s a great read, yet I find myself wondering whether Thubron’s laser-sharp observations of the people he meets would pass the modern publisher’s health checks if he had tried to get it published today.

A few examples:

“The next moment my floor-lady appeared, agitated. An obese Russian babushka with hennaed curls, she too seemed to belong to a fading species.”

“They were stout and old, with thick bodies and course necks: a Russian couple with their small granddaughter. They wore an identical look of clouded defence. In their shared face a tundra of cheeks and jowls overpowered all else, isolating their vision and squeezing their mouth to a fleshy bud,”

“In the cubicles around us the Turcomans lay asleep on the railway’s flowery pillows. Their padded coats dangled decorously from every hook, but the faces coddled below were of Hunnish destroyers. Their beards forked angrily over the clean sheets.”

“‘Look at them,’ one of the Uzbeks said. ‘The heroes are still there but the Soviet Union’s gone!’ A delta of smile-lines flowed from his mouth and eyes, but he was not happy. He had the face of a wizened monkey”

“She had Polish, Ukrainian, Tartar and even Uzbek blood, she said, but she looked wholly Russian. She talked about books while her fingers writhed in her lap. She had contracted a synthetic, Slavic charm, whose veneer had eaten inward, like acid, until its lilting voice seemed to have become her own.”

“Some of the people around me were Uzbeks still – Turkestan was an early site of pilgrimage – but the stocky childlike Khazaks were all about. They looked guileless and enduring. Their faces, economical with low brows and close-set ears, seemed shaped for battling head winds. Epicanthic folds squeezed their eyes to humorous cracks, which sparkled out from a plane of thick-fleshed bones”

“The dwarfish Sadik, meanwhile, was insinuating his lit cigarette between the others’ dangling fingers, allowing each a puff before he retrieved it. From time to time he stared into my face with the half-evolved eyes of a lizard, then nudged me with a question. But his voice came always in a venal near-whisper as if everything he said must be secret or ugly.”

What I would give to be able to write phrases like those! Yet would a modern sensitivity editor not be tempted to excise the guts out of them in grounds of racial stereotyping, orientalism, cruel pictures of ugliness which might cause hurt to those portrayed, or worse? Would it be OK to describe someone’s features as “mongoloid”, as the author also does on a couple of occasions? At least, an editor might acknowledge, Thubron finds myriad words to describe fat people without using the word fat. So that’s alright then.

My point is that this is descriptive writing of the highest order, even if the style is somewhat high-brow and less accessible than that you would find in a children’s story by an author like Dahl. Would Thubron now feel the need to self-censor, as many writers claim they’re compelled to do today? I hope not, because in The Lost Heart of Asia he’s telling a story through his own perspective, as a European traveller with his own experience and prejudices. How else should he write? In the style of a sanitised Rough Guide?

The problem with censorship – be it legally, socially or commercially mandated – is and has always been where you draw the line. Such lines as exist are blurred by time and fashion. It’s not so long ago that countries like Ireland and the United Kingdom had official censors who prevented books like Joyce’s Ulysses and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover from polluting the delicate sensibilities of the general population. Today such books are read with barely a flutter of outrage. Likewise, we condemn the racist undertones of Enid Blyton, who was the companion of millions of children like me, yet cheerfully gorge on the sexually explicit poetry of Catullus, whose work was once only available in heavily abridged versions.

Social censorship, by which I mean that carried out by influencers with varying perspectives, knows no lines. What was acceptable today is poisonous tomorrow, or vice versa. Which leaves publishers less willing to take risks with work that might ignite firestorms of condemnation in one quarter or another. In extreme cases, such as that of Salman Rushdie, such firestorms can turn lethal.

Authors are cancelled, banned and excoriated not just because of what they write, but often because of the views they express personally, or because of behaviour in their private lives that might be found wanting. J K Rowling is an obvious example because of her contribution to the trans “debate”.

For me, the irony is that very few writers make more than a modest living out of their work. Yet individuals, movements and political groups are lining up to pass judgement on them, not because they’re bad writers, but because such groups believe that those of us – adults and children alike – who bother to read need to be protected from ideas found unacceptable by one faction or another. In many cases, those condemning a book haven’t even bothered to read it. Are we moving towards the point where the libraries will only stock anodyne mush, just as was the case in the Soviet Union, whose collapse in Central Asia was so rivetingly captured by Thubron? And how many would-be Rowlings, McEwans and Rushdies will decide not to bother with writing careers because of all the grief they see others going through?

And all of this, it seems, is in the cause of one side of the freedom coin: freedom from, as opposed to freedom to. The same freedom to that allows both kids and adults to spend their days blasting people to death in video games or slumped mutely in front of gore-splattered Netflix series.

Sad, really, because reading books requires concentration and memory, whereas other media often just passes in front of you. The ability to focus for more than a few minutes, to make yourself understand what you’re taking in, often by re-reading passages, and to form your own opinion on what you’re reading, are surely skills that will outlast any fashion or trend. In fact, they’re true life skills that can make the difference between drudgery and fulfilment.

So why are we so afraid of the printed word? Because knowledge is power is the obvious answer. Yet knowledge isn’t permanent. It needs to be maintained, developed and remembered. Through books, that knowledge tends to be acquired slowly, in a manner that enables it to be imprinted in us more permanently than through the passing clouds of fashion – for better or for worse.

So to hell with the censors, whatever their motivation. My idea of freedom is to be able to debate any idea, endorse it or reject it without some self-appointed deus ex machina – be it politician, publisher or social media influencer – snuffing out that debate through the power of the group-thinking mob. Yes, there are some books that should never see the light of day, such as How to Make an H-Bomb. But even books banned for a generally unimpeachable reason will usually find their way into the hands of those who wish to read them or use them for other purposes, be it through the dark web or other modern versions of the samizdat methods used by Soviet dissidents.

Attempts to suppress ideas in so-called free countries show us that that totalitarianism exists on a spectrum, at one end of which sit countries such as China and Russia. And if you want to see a democracy in peril, you only have to look closely at prevalent attitudes towards the printed word.

So beware Britain, the United States and other self-described beacons of freedom. Your demagogues are already riding the waves of disapproval, bigotry and intolerance. How long will it be before at their instigation the bonfires of books are set alight?

There’s nothing new in what I’m saying here, and very little that won’t be disputed by those, such as the Governor of Florida, who have other opinions. But occasionally it helps to shout out ideas that one day might never be allowed to surface. Not to mention to show a little solidarity with talented writers yet unpublished whose work might never receive the recognition it deserves.

Postcard from Phuket: when annoyance is entertainment

As our latest foreign visit meanders to its end, it’s time for a silly post about things that annoy me on trips during which it’s impossible to avoid other people. That’s most of them, apart from when we scoot off to our place in France, where my wife and I can, should we wish to, lock ourselves away and not see a soul from one week to the next.

Not having people to watch can be boring, depending on where you are. In France, wild boar, deer, hares and relatively exotic (by British standards) birds provide plenty of diversions. But in the Far East, and specifically Thailand, where we are at the moment, there are plenty of opportunities to observe, admire (not very often) and not admire (very often) our fellow guests.

Quiet disapproval is much more fun than admiration, so at the risk of our own disreputable habits being called out as examples of gross hypocrisy by friends and family, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite targets.

Let’s start with pool behaviour. We’re not pool loungers. I can’t think of anything I enjoy less than lying around in the baking heat, sustained by intravenous cocktails, having to listen to noisy neighbours yabbering at each other in Glaswegian, Italian, Spanish, Russian, or some other unidentifiable language. And when they’re not talking, they do what? Lie like basking seals for hours, thinking about nothing (I suspect), reading a murder blockbuster? Give me a break…

For us, the pool is for swimming. Lots of lengths to raise the metabolism so that we can cope with the delights of this culinary paradise. Unfortunately, unless we get our timing right- first thing in the morning and just before dusk – we have to deal with obstacles that make swimming in a straight line impossible. Such as:

Thrashers: I’ve spoken about these enemies of the people before. The Thrasher dives into the pool with a mission: to show off their inefficient crawl, arms flying about, creating massive turbulence in their wake. Worse still is when they try the butterfly, wherein limbs and torso flay the water in an epileptic frenzy, Get within a couple of yards of one of these creatures and you’re likely to sink. Oh, and whereas most of us have a keen sense of direction when we swim, these idiots don’t. They just plough on, paying not the slightest attention to anyone who happens to be in their way. Their only saving grace is that most of them can’t keep this performance going for more than a couple of lengths before they emerge exhausted from the pool. Job done. Attention created.

Splashers: Splashers are different from Thrashers, in that there doesn’t seem too much purpose in their arsing about. To be fair, most of them are kiddies. But that doesn’t excuse the parents from restraining their offspring from dive-bombing other swimmers with the efficiency of a fleet of Stukas. You can’t tell the little buggers off without provoking a row with Mum and Dad, so the best expedient is a rapid course correction. Did we control our kids in the water? I like to think so, but that was a long time ago.

Screamers: what is it about the physiology of three-year-olds that allows them to shriek at an ear-piercing pitch? And why? They’re bad enough in the queue for immigration at the airport, but put one in water with others of the same age, and the pool becomes a nightmare of cacophonous infants trying to outdo each other at the highest possible frequencies. Perhaps that’s God’s way of making them audible in distress. But they’re not in distress, the little sods. Fortunately, I’m beginning to suffer from noise-induced hearing loss, otherwise the screamers would be even more painful, but they’re still bad enough. I guess the parents are so used to living their lives with the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s The Birds ringing in their ears that they don’t notice the racket anymore. Again, there are some aspects of raising children that you tend to forget, until other people’s children remind you of the horror.

Greek Gods: men again, I’m afraid. People who pose ostentatiously around the pool, best exemplified by a guy we saw the other day who spent thirty minutes standing up, in a fixed pose, arms aloft, moving from back to front occasionally and changing the position of his body to catch the rays on every conceivable part of his toned physique. Why the Greek God? Because if you stuck him on the end of some Greek promontory, you might mistake him for the statue of a deity. Apollo perhaps, or Zeus, thunderbolt at the ready. All very stylised and designed to impress. And, truth be told, more ridiculous than annoying.

Moving on from the pool, the restaurant offers plenty of scope for annoyance.

Sneezers: in these plague-stricken times, unrestrained coughing and sneezing is a pain in the backside. Especially when you’re quietly enjoying your dinner and someone on the next table erupts into a spasm of explosive sneezing. No serious attempt to prevent the shower of god-knows-what organisms from settling upon you like the nuclear cloud from Chernobyl. No apologies or quick exits from the populated area. Just a stream of omnidirectional whooomphs that leave you to speculate how many days you have until you end up on a ventilator.

Shouters: the other day we were minding our own business in the quiet corner of a local restaurant when a guy came in and settled into the table next to us, shortly followed by three women. This chap must have been a screamer when young, because he seemed incapable of speaking quietly. In fact his voice was loud enough to have been deployed a weapon for deterring marine pirates. Within minutes, four of his friends arrived at a nearby table, and he started a long-running conversation with them at the top of his voice. His mates responded at a similar volume. Before long both tables were nests of cackling and bawling. And you know what happens next, don’t you? Everybody else tweaks up the volume in order to be heard. Had we not been waiting for our food, we would have baled out immediately. Instead we had to put up with the infernal racket for another twenty minutes. I’ve no idea where this lot were from, but I’ve been around enough to know that in some cultures yelling at the top of your voice is a cultural norm. I curse myself for not finding out their nationality, so that I can avoid their country like the plague.

Food queues. why do people queuing at the breakfast egg-station look so bloody anxious? As if they haven’t eaten for days. The closer they get to ordering their omelettes, the more serious they look. Why? Is breakfast on a tropical island in front of a shimmering sea such a trial? Clearly it is for many, because when I see guests loading their plates with mountains of food, I often wonder why they look so miserable. Perhaps it’s the prospect of spending the remaining days of their holidays with partners they can’t stand and offspring they can’t keep amused. Certainly enough of them sit silently at tables, frequently glued to their phones, presumably in an effort to avoid talking to their companions.

Dancers: forgive my cultural insensitivity here. Thai dancing is a wonder of grace and elegance. Beautiful costumes, swaying bodies and delicate finger movements. Unfortunately, it leaves me cold, just as other forms of dancing do. I have a sneaking feeling that many of the Westerners who watch these performances while dining feel the same as me, but are too polite to admit it. So they enthusiastically applaud each dance until, at the end, they whisper to their companions “thank God that’s over”. But hey, dancing provides plenty of employment, so it isn’t too much to ask to sit through yet another crashingly unexciting routine.

And finally two more pet hates that most of us have surely encountered somewhere in the world:

Aisle-blockers: before you even reach paradise, there’s a species of extremely vexing traveller you will often encounter before you depart the aircraft. These are the people who, before the engines have been shut down, arise from their seats and unload three Louis Vuitton cases directly in front of where you’re sitting. This makes it impossible for you to get your own bags down without contorting your body into a back-crippling shape. Could they not put their bags on their seats? No. And having blocked the entire aisle for five minutes they proceed to shove their way past others on their way to the exit without a please or a thank-you.

Happy Hour drinkers: it’s one of the great fallacies of our consumer society that getting something cheap makes you happy. After spending thousands getting to a holiday destination, does it really make you happy to be able to shove twice the alcohol down your neck for half the normal price? The fact is that people riot over discounts. Look at the scuffles at Macy’s or Harrods in the New Year sales, as people trample over old ladies in a desperate attempt to buy stuff they otherwise wouldn’t dream of acquiring. Likewise, Happy Hours are dominated by the fear of missing out – the dreaded FOMO. You end up drinking four times what you might otherwise, in an atmosphere of increasing anxiety as the clock ticks towards the end of the frenzy. And do you drink any less when the Happy Hour is done, and you’re back to full-price? Unlikely. You just get pissed early, at which point you keep drinking because you don’t know you’re pissed and you don’t care about the price. All of which is a little sad, really.

So what, you might ask, would I have these annoying fellow visitors do differently to escape my baleful gaze? Nothing actually, because the one positive by-product of watching them is that our attention is distracted from our own annoying habits. With so many behaviours to tut-tut about, we don’t have time to focus on ours, which allows for hours of uncensored badness on our part, which in a way is a holiday in itself.

But if you want me to confess our peccadilloes, you’ll have to wait a long time, because our marital non-disclosure agreement mandates the death penalty for any breaches.

Having said all that, I can’t praise our delightful hosts too highly, especially for their patience in putting up with cantankerous old sods like me.

Postcard from Bali: Eat, swim, read – and get soaked

Yes, I suppose we travel too much. The planet must be very pissed off with us by now. But I’m not so sure about the people of Bali, whose coffers returning tourists are beginning to refill after a desperate two years during the various COVID lockdowns.

We’re on our second visit to Bali over a fairly short period. When my wife and I came home in November after a long trip away, I thought it would be nice to spend a bit of time in Blighty, beleaguered or not. Luckily, as a member of the much-despised economically inactive, I wasn’t affected by the train strikes, I stayed healthy, so avoided dying in the corridor of some plague-stricken hospital A&E. And the prospect of teacher strikes was only a matter of concern for the next generation. As for the border staff strike, the army did a pretty good job, though I did wonder about the provenance of some of our fellow-passengers blithely waved through as we sailed through the e-gates on our last trip.

What did get to me was the feckin rain. That and the feckin ice and snow. And the fact that Christmas was severely disrupted by our offspring dropping like flies in the face of those innumerable bugs that seemed have jumped into the immunity gap left by COVID.

So I initially thought that another long-haul journey mid-January was a bit of a stretch after our neighbours started wondering if we actually lived in our home anymore. But by the time our departure came around I couldn’t get on the plane soon enough. To Bali then. To shorts and tee-shirts after weeks in polar gear. No matter that our visit was smack in the middle of the rainy season, which means that it usually tips it down at least twice a day. Who doesn’t like tropical rain (provided our homes aren’t swept away or we’re wiped out in a mudslide)?

Bali for us doesn’t mean temples, surfing, gamelans and yomps through paddy fields. We’ve done all that. Well, not the surfing perhaps, but that never suited someone with my centre of gravity. No, it means different things. A chance to catch up on some books that have languished unread after I’ve bought them in a fit of enthusiasm. See the subjects of my last couple of posts, for example. Also a chance to wean myself off certain food staples that I overdosed on back in the UK during the festive season. Cheese particularly. After Christmas we were left with an array of produce you only have to look at to start piling on the pounds. After creating a monstrously rich broccoli and stilton soup and a bunch of other overcheesed dishes, I was waddling a bit when we got on the plane. Constant grazing during the journey didn’t help either.

So it was time to adopt our usual Far East detox routine. Two swims a day. Plenty of fruit at breakfast, no daytime snacking, Asian food at night – meaning steamed rice or noodles, and modest portions of Balinese, Thai or Malaysian cuisine. Desserts? A scoop of ice cream, no more.

Not that any of this meant that we were living in a bubble. We always learn stuff by talking to our Balinese hosts. Take the fisherman who runs a beach-side restaurant near where we’re staying. The other night, he talked to us for an hour about the art of spear-fishing, about Balinese spirituality and the spirit of self-help among village communities. During lockdown, despite having a tiny market for the fish he caught, he still went fishing every day and gave it to those who needed it in the village. He also told us that a few years ago, when an Air Asia aircraft slid off the runway at the airport and went into the sea, he and many of his friends headed to the crash site in their boats and rescued many survivors.

We’ve often asked people how they coped during lockdown without the tourists on whom much of the local economy depends. Many of them said that they went back to their home villages in the country, where they would stay with their parents. The extended family seems to be very much alive, as is the wider community’s willingness to help out those in difficulty. I’m not sure that’s still the case in many parts of the world, including my own country (despite the food banks), and especially in the United States, where self-reliance is a form of religion.

There are stories in abundance, if you bother to ask. We’ve used the same taxi driver for our last couple of trips: a stocky woman with a big grin. When she met her husband twelve years ago, his parents didn’t approve of her. So she married him anyway. But instead of living with them in their big house in the city, she chose to rent a room nearby, which didn’t stop her from having a daughter. While she continued to work, she sent her daughter back to her home village to be raised by her parents. Three years ago, her husband died in a motorbike accident. A few days ago, her mother died, which left the daughter in the care of her grandfather and uncle in the village. Even so, she continued to work during the funeral ceremonies. When she picked us up the other day, she had to ask us for half her fare up front to pay for her petrol. In the absence of any welfare system worthy of the name, needs must, it seems.

And yet, like so many Balinese we meet, she has that quality of cheerful stoicism, an acceptance of what life has to offer without complaint. No sobbing tweets or lugubrious Facebook posts. Just get on with it.

Occasionally, blessings fall upon her, which we might describe as luck. When she dropped us off at the place we were staying at, an Australian woman walking past reception recognised her and immediately hired her for a journey. In a city with a couple of thousand taxi drivers, what were the chances of that happening? One small step away from the breadline, a gift from God.

Earlier in the post I asked who doesn’t like tropical rain. After three days of almost constant downpour, I began to revisit that question. On day one it was lovely. On day two the pool was getting a bit chilly. On day three our verdant paradise was populated with mosquitoes and frogs whose croaking reminded me of the kind of involuntary flatulence that used to erupt from my mother in her declining years, and which, should I ever reach 90, I shall no doubt emulate.

In each of the places where we stayed there was a strikingly large complement of Russians – many of them quite young. Strapping men with their wives or girlfriends, most of whom seem to have bought in to the Russian admiration for collagen-enhanced lips. Unfortunately, though their menfolk might not think that way, they reminded me of the koi carp endlessly cruising around the fishpond at our hotel, mouths perpetually open for the little scraps of bread the staff leave in a basket for the kiddies to feed them.

As in other pasts of the world where recently we also encountered large numbers of Russians, I keep coming back to the question of how these guys avoided Putin’s draft. Are they all in special jobs that exempt them from call-up, or are they waiting it out away from their country until the need for their services has gone away? I was half-expecting some well-oiled Aussie round the pool to yell Slava Ukraini! The reaction would have been interesting.

While we were in Bali, we met up a few times with some friends from England. Tony first came there in 1974 by sailing boat. At the time Kuta, which these days is a slightly run-down area full of hotels and restaurants along the coastline, was some distance from Denpasar, the island’s capital. Between the two was nothing but rice fields and dirt tracks. Which reminded me that when I first worked in Saudi Arabia back in 1981, the distance between the new Jeddah airport and the city limit was several kilometers of wasteland. These days the road is built up to the airport and beyond with equally unprepossessing properties. Both examples of how “development” creeps up on you without your even noticing.

When Tony was first in Bali there was nothing for tourists to do outside the city, apart from temple-visiting, volcano-baiting and a spot of surfing. For the locals, most of whom still lived agrarian lives in the villages, options for entertainment were also limited – no internet, not much TV and radio. According to Tony, the main source of entertainment was cockfighting, on which large sums of money would be wagered. The fights were short and vicious. Owners would go to all kind of lengths to revive their flagging birds, including mouth-to-beak resuscitation. As my friend suggested, the losing owner at least had the consolation of a decent helping of chicken satay. No, not funny….

Knowing the Balinese to be such gentle and spiritual people, the whole idea of cock-fighting seems counter-intuitive, but there you go.

For all I know, such un-woke pastimes may still be a feature of village life. But if you happen to be a Julia Roberts clone looking to heal yourself by meditation and mass yoga classes, there are plenty of places that will take your money, and not just in Ubud, the island’s spiritual centre. As for me, lying on my front naked while being singed by volcanic lava isn’t my idea of a good time. Such new age regeneration techniques have passed me by. Instead, I like nothing better than looking out over a hotel balcony at the greenery, croaking (or farting) back at the frogs before heading off to the pool for thirty lengths, where I receive free Russian lessons, and then wandering down to a beach-side restaurant for a spot of parrot fish freshly plucked from the sea and barbecued on coconut shells.

And no, I don’t apologise for being away from home. Britain can be pretty grim in the winter months, the more so in these miserable times. Anyway, three weeks in that magical island have been thoroughly restorative. Before very long we’ll be back in the land of shit-filled rivers, corrupt politicians, non-existent Brexit benefits and yes, yet more strikes. Better than living in a bombed-out apartment in Ukraine or a refugee tent in Turkey, for sure. But self-inflicted pain is surely more difficult to deal with than other forms of adversity, because the recrimination it produces denies us the opportunity to pull together and face our problems.

To their eternal credit, togetherness is a quality the Balinese seem to have shown in abundance.

How close we came to The End

I have no idea whether Buckingham, where I was at school, or Blandford Forum in Dorset, where my elder brother was, would have been wiped out in October 1962. But I’m pretty sure that my parents and younger siblings, who lived in Birmingham, wouldn’t have made it.

The context is the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the US and the Soviet Union came within a hair’s breath of nuclear war. Britain, as a nuclear power and a NATO ally of the US, would inevitably have been dragged in.

I’ve thought about the Cuba Crisis often during the sixty years following its resolution. I suppose you could call me a child of the Cold War, which is why I was happy to bury myself in Max Hastings’ latest book Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Hastings is one of my favourite historians. He does his reputation no harm with his description of the crisis and how it came about.

The story is relatively well known: how Nikita Khrushchev sought to even up the military balance between the Soviet Union and the United States by secretly installing nuclear weapons 50 miles from the American coast, and how Kennedy resisted overwhelming pressure from his military to bomb the newly-discovered installations and then invade the island. Instead he opted for a blockade, which gave the two parties (Cuba had little say in the matter, and nor did Britain) the chance to negotiate.

Hastings takes us through the potential flash-points on the way. The shooting down of a US spy plane over Cuba on the initiative of a local Soviet commander. The Russian submarine captain, whose boat was equipped with a nuclear torpedo, driven half-crazy both by the heat within his malfunctioning boat and by the US Navy destroyer dropping practice depth charges around his boat, preparing to launch the weapon, only to be countermanded by another officer (Archipov, later lionised as the man who saved the world).

He also reminds us of other factors. The decrepitude of Pliev, Khrushchev’s commander in Cuba, which weakened the chain of command on the ground. What now seems the absurd length of time – up to eleven hours – for communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev to reach each other, which led both parties to make public announcements as a way of sending immediate messages. And, most significantly, the fact that a number of the weapons were operational by the time Kennedy and his generals contemplated military action. An invasion would most probably have precipitated a general – in other words, nuclear – war.

Hastings is also convincing on the characters of the main dramatis personae. Khrushchev, blunt, sometimes brutal, impulsive but ultimately sane enough to step back from the brink. Kennedy, highly intelligent, well-read, an effective chairman and an excellent listener. And Castro, the romantic revolutionary, also impulsive and increasingly megalomaniac – an ally of convenience for the Soviets but never wholly trusted by them. A significant part of the book describes the ascent to power of each of them, and the encounters between the Soviet leadership and their American counterparts which led to Khrushchev fatally underestimating Kennedy.

He’s equally strong on the deliberations of Kennedy’s Excom – the executive committee formed to advise the President on the US response to the crisis, as well as the characters of the main players: especially Robert Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the bull-headed generals who reported to him, of whom Curtis LeMay, the Air Force Chief, emerged as the most outspoken, and potentially most demented, of the lot.

Whereas Hastings had a wealth of source material to draw on describing the Excom discussions – which Kennedy, unbeknown to some of them, recorded, his material on the Soviet deliberations is somewhat light. He draws heavily on Khrushchev’s autobiography and that of his son Sergei. The other members of the Politburo, apart from Andrei Gromyko and Anastas Mikoyan, rarely emerge from the shadows.

As Vladimir Putin and his wilder supporters in the media keep flying their nuclear kites to intimidate those countries coming to the aid of Ukraine, do we learn any useful lessons from the Cuba crisis?

Possibly. Those who urge Putin to unleash his nuclear arsenal against Ukraine are of a generation that have no personal memory of 1962, let alone the horrors of the Great Patriotic War that the likes of Khrushchev lived through. Yet the craving for respect for their country as a superpower rival to the US was and is embedded into the mindset of both men. Likewise the concept of spheres of influence, first tacitly agreed in the wartime conferences between Stalin and western leaders in Tehran and Yalta, was a factor in the US determining that it could not tolerate the presence of nuclear missiles in an independent state a few miles from its own shores, just as the same principle lies partly beneath Putin’s decision to invade a neighbour determined to join what he sees as a rival political alliance.

Another common theme is the use by both leaders of deception and disinformation to mask their intentions. Just as Khrushchev and Gromyko, his foreign minister, flatly denied any intention to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, so Putin made the same denials of his intention to invade Ukraine. The difference is that Russia under Putin has turned disinformation into an art form, setting the stage for the morass of confusion and distrust that now characterises the social media. The nature of truth has been turned on its head.

In one other key area, the world that survived the Cuba crisis is not the one we live in today. In 1962, there were four nuclear powers: The USSR, the US, France and Britain. Now there are nine, with Iran looking to become the tenth. The compact America made with would-be nuclear powers – such as Germany, Japan, South Korea and others – under which the US would place these countries under the protection of its nuclear umbrella – is weakening. Little wonder that in the face of an aggressive Russia and the isolationist noises emanating most strongly from Donald Trump, some countries are starting to wonder whether they too should be equipping themselves with their own nuclear shield. A recent article from the Carnegie Endowment for International for Peace provides a convincing background on this dynamic.

Despite the shrieking of Putin’s harpies, the man himself is old enough to remember Cuba. He knows the risks of nuclear deployment. But does he share Khrushchev’s recognition of its futility? A problem for Russia’s adversaries is that a coherent understanding of thinking in the Kremlin – let alone the rivalries among those closest to Putin – seems as far away from us as it was in Khrushchev’s time. The blizzard of open-source information (and disinformation) that was unavailable in 1962 leaves most of us none the wiser.

And while governments will have teams of analysts dedicated to interpreting the signs coming from Russia’s leaders, the rest of us, as in 1962, have to make do with informational chicken feed. Battlefield analysts, of which there are plenty, are one thing, but psychologists who can peer into Putin’s mind and predict with any certainty what he will do next are entirely another. We, the bystanders and onlookers, are left to choose which “experts” we believe.

And finally, in the wake of a conclusion to the Ukraine conflict, will we, as our parents and grandparents did in 1962, breathe a sigh of relief, only to realise that the way ahead is infinitely more complicated. After Cuba, the road for the United States led to Vietnam. And today, even if Russia abandons its costly Ukrainian adventure, is another crisis comparable with Cuba germinating in the West’s relationship with China?

After sixty years of nuclear proliferation, the potential for miscalculation and accidental detonation are surely even higher than when the nuclear button remained in the hands of only two main protagonists.

Yet despite the parallels that might be drawn between October 1962 and where we are today, Abyss is not a tale of doom and gloom. After all, we did make it through the crisis, thanks to both parties stepping back from the brink. And although we’ve flown by the seat of our pants on occasions since then, the fact remains that for sixty years the ghastly events foreseen both by Khrushchev and Kennedy have not come to pass. So it’s right that we should still remember and celebrate our close escape.

Whether the current inheritors of the nuclear mantle have the sense and sanity to keep their weapons safely in their bunkers remains to be seen. At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s hope so.

A long-dead Soviet writer reminds us why now is a good time to remember Stalingrad

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory over German forces besieging Stalingrad. So a few words in praise of a magnificent novel that describes the battle like nothing I’ve read before.

I have always been intensely interested in Russia. Be it fearing for a life hardly started during the Cuba crisis, or watching, fascinated, the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s a country that’s never been far from my thoughts throughout my adult life.

Fear, wonder, an instinctive sense of common humanity fighting a perception of otherness.

And what of Russia now? What face does it present to generations who didn’t live through the flashpoints, the summits and the ever-present mutual suspicion? It’s hard to not argue that among those who don’t speak Russian, have never visited the country and have no Russian friends, the picture is pretty ugly.

Even before the latest Ukraine war, the West’s old adversary was about oligarchs and their yachts, a grim-faced leader orchestrating election interference, poisonings and defenestrations. Mean, bitter and bullying. A country whose grudges and resentments over its past inform its future.

Its war against Ukraine heaps further damage upon its reputation. Murderers set free to kill. Progozhin the troll farmer and warlord, whose mercenaries castrate deserters or stove in their heads with concrete blocks. Regular soldiers walking down suburban streets randomly killing passers-by. And black-clad thugs bundling protesters off to prison.

This is the Russia you will find on the social media, and indeed in the mainstream media (as if there’s much difference between the two nowadays). At least, it’s what you’ll find if you live in a country that doesn’t control what you watch and what you post in response.  A country without a moral compass, loosely held together by the virulent nationalism spewed out by Putin and his propagandists on state TV. Search YouTube for Simoyan and Solovyev and you’ll discover what I mean.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia seemed to be adopting some of the trappings of the West. A form of capitalism, even if the intended spread of ownership of national assets was perverted by the mafia in league with remnants of the Soviet elite.  We were able to say that a Russian middle class was emerging, consisting of people who shared western aspirations: freedom of ownership, freedom of speech, freedom of movement. Yet if you talked to a Russian you didn’t know well there was always an elephant in the room. Putin, oligarchs and the mafia were subjects best not discussed unless the other person brought them up.

I’ve always been a believer that wherever they are, and whatever political system they live under, people share universal basic needs and values. I still believe that, even if the flip side of that belief is that given the right circumstances people are also capable of unspeakable evil. And that goes for people in Manchester and Philadelphia as much as it does for the citizens of St Petersburg and Shanghai,

I don’t believe that people are basically evil. Yes, they can be led astray by manipulation of resentment and a constant stream of propaganda. Nazi Germany is perhaps the most extreme example, though most recently the willingness of people in the US to embrace Donald Trump and in the UK to vote for Brexit are evidence that the dark art of manipulation is no less potent today.

I’ve read many books about Russia, its contradictions and its struggles, but equally its profound cultural contributions to humanity. One big book has been sitting for a couple of years in my library unread – waiting for me to devote sustained attention to it. Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman, is a literary monument not to be skimmed or glossed over.

Now I’ve read it, all nine hundred pages, over a period of ten days. It’s a novel that was never published in the author’s lifetime. Grossman, born in Ukraine of Jewish ancestry, was the pre-eminent Soviet war reporter during what Russians call the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. He was covered every major battle, from the defence of Moscow to the final act in Berlin. He was the first writer to describe the horrors of the Nazi death camp at Treblinka. And he was at Stalingrad, the most brutal battlefield of them all.

Stalingrad is the first of two novels that deal with the battle. The second, Life and Fate, I have yet to read. I mention it in the context of Russia’s current struggle for two reasons.

First, because for all Grossman’s riveting descriptions of the fighting, as I read it, the book is actually about love. The love of families for each other, of comrades for each other in the heat of battle and of those fighting to preserve of their nation for the land itself. Each aspect brings forth some of the most lyrical and moving prose I have read in decades.

Second, because the book was finished in the 1950s, the dark side of the Soviet Union was hinted at only in the most oblique terms. To do otherwise would have risked official censure and prevented him from publishing. So no mention of Stalin’s iniquities: the Holodamor (the man made famine that ravaged Ukraine in the early 1930s), nor of the Reign of Terror, nor of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which enabled Stalin and Hitler to carve up Poland and provided Germany with a vital source of war materials in the early years of the war. In the event, even though he danced delicately around those events, he was unable to get it published. Perhaps it was his ideas about the nature of truth that did for him. These days we talk much about alternative truths as a new concept. Grossman was there six decades ago,

Stripped of its malign context, you might read Stalingrad as a story of heroism and the power of collective will. It’s much more than that. It’s a tale, not of systems and ideologies, but of the power of people doing their best under impossible circumstances in the face of a vicious and remorseless enemy.

Every character has a story that brings them to life – some short and some long. You sense that Grossman has distilled into the cast of Stalingrad hundreds of real encounters in and around the battle scenes from which he reported. It’s commonly held that one major character, whose mother is killed by the Nazis in a Ukrainian ghetto, is based on the author himself, who suffered a similar loss.

The book is a blend of tenderness, compassion and brutality, interspersed with polemics against fascism, as well as the obligatory paeans to the joys of Soviet socialism. But above all, the humanity of the characters shine out – humanity with which any of us would empathise.

So in the week when Vladimir Putin unveiled a new statue of Stalin in the city that was subsequently re-named Volgograd, one wonders how Russia’s current autocrat will be remembered: for the iniquities of his authoritarian kleptocracy, or for what he might claim to be the power of collective will that’s reducing the cities of Ukraine to rubble and feeding his citizens into a human slaughterhouse?

There are many other books and movies that describe the Battle of Stalingrad, For me, Anthony Beevor’s account stands out, as does Enemy at the Gates, the movie that depicts the battle between snipers in the ruins of the city.

But I would recommend Grossman’s novel above all of them, because it reminds us, at a time when we might easily forget, that whatever their differences, human beings, wherever they might be, have more in common with each other than sets them apart. And that includes the capacity for evil as well as good.

What he would have thought of today’s Russia is anybody’s guess. He died in 1964, long before the regime that denied him fame and recognition in his lifetime itself perished. But he has left us a powerful lens through which to view the most brutal of conflicts. Not for nothing is he sometimes regarded as the Soviet Union’s Tolstoy.