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What disturbs me about Trump’s America? The faces in the crowd.

Mobs can be terrifying, unless you’re part of them. Then they’re exhilarating. The surrender of individuality. The irresistible tide of emotion. At least I imagine so.

Years ago, I used to look on with horror at film of lynch mobs in Pakistan, stirred up by self-appointed leaders to take action against some insult, real or imagined, against their religion. I was comforted by the thought that I was far away, and that this could never happen here. By here, I meant countries like Britain, France, Germany and the United States.

I was wrong, of course. Protests take place everywhere, and protesters sometimes coalesce into violent mobs. Could I imagine myself becoming so angry about something that I would join others in a hot fury and attack other human beings with sticks, stones and knives? No.

Worse still, would I have it in me to retain that fury once the mob has dispersed and use it as the fuel to plan and execute some act of retribution, in cold blood, against another human being? I devoutly hope not.

What prompts this self-righteous prattle on a peaceful Sunday morning in a part of Britain where a couple of people arguing about a parking ticket is the nearest you’re likely to get to an angry mob?

It’s not, as you might think, the beheading of a teacher in France who offended someone’s religious belief. Nor is it the sight of groups of tightly-packed drinkers delivering a collective fuck-you to those who were curtailing their freedom to hug, dance, snog and expel the contents of their lungs over each other.

No, what really shocks me isn’t even the daily diet of video nasties showing teargas and random acts of violence. I’ve become used to them over the years. And it isn’t the spittle-flecked ranting of Donald Trump, who may or may not be clinically insane. Surely we’ve all become used to that since 2016.

What I do find chilling is the faces of his supporters at the rallies that are now becoming almost daily events as the US presidential election draws near. Not, however, the faces of the bulked-up white men with military paraphernalia, a few of whom are accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan and have become as much emblematic objects of fear as clean-shaven men with brown skins and rucksacks became on the London Underground after the 7/7 bombings.

It’s the mums and dads who disturb me. Smiling, kindly-looking folk who might welcome you into their homes if you were passing by their neighbourhood, and, as long as you steer clear of politics, would epitomise what you thought of as the best qualities of Americans. It’s the clean-cut schoolkids, students and young professionals you might meet on the street and find anything but intimidating.

It’s the sight of a middle-aged guy being called up to the stage by Trump. Just an ordinary guy whose enthusiasm Trump picked up on, now standing in front of all those people with a look of surprise, delight and above all trembling devotion.

It’s these people, swaying, waving and cheering together, faces sometimes contorted by fury, sometimes by what looks like ecstasy, as Trump goes through his call-and-response routine, accusing, casting doubt, spreading derision, taking credit and making grandiose claims about me, me, me.

These are the people who buy the lies, chant the chants and, in Michigan, enthusiastically endorse the suggestion that their governor, along with the Democrat candidate for president, should be locked up for some unspecified offense.

These are ordinary people. This is a man whose decisions affect lives way beyond Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

We’ve been here before. And yes, I know it’s crass to talk about the ordinary people who, ninety years ago, were carried away by another demagogue much closer to my home, with disastrous consequences for them and the rest of humanity. Especially crass, perhaps, because the grandparents of the cheering crowds in America helped rid the world of him.

I’m only writing here what many have written before me, including, in as many words, me on so many occasions. But as the beat of electioneering intensifies, I find myself becoming consumed by it, despite the fact that America isn’t my country, and despite the many reasons to be equally disturbed by events in the United Kingdom.

Was this how my parents felt in the 1930s, as they witnessed the rise of a leader even more despicable than Trump in a country close to home? No, because they weren’t bombarded with it on a daily basis. There was no TV and no social media. No smart phones sending them alerts on an hourly basis.

And yet they lived with a fear that we can’t experience – of another world war similar to the one that had touched the lives of so many around them. Perhaps that’s the difference. Our fear of annihilation, despite the posturing of Kim Jong Un and others, has faded somewhat into the background. We don’t really think these people would be crazy enough to blow up the world, do we?

Maybe what causes people to abandon what others see as reason, that leads them to succumb to conspiracy theories and the seductive routines of demagogues, is, in a strange kind of way, a safer fear. A fear not of global holocaust, but of losing home, livelihood, status, influence and power. Of losing a sense of control, however illusory that might be. Safer because in the wealthier countries there’s usually a safety net of some sort that helps us find a way through, should we choose to make use of it.

But of course it can be foolish to generalise. The causes of fear are many and varied. The coronavirus is an addition to the mix. People of my generation fear that it will send them to an early grave, even though it’s just one of the reasons why we might go that way.

But for me, looking from afar at the most powerful country in the world, the anger in the eyes of its “ordinary people”, the stripping of the thin veneer of what we think of as the civilisation that it exemplifies, and the unconfined malice in its political discourse, are phenomena that I currently find the most disturbing of all.

Even if America rids itself of its current ringmaster, I fear that the audience will still remain, waiting for the next circus to come to town.

Does the digital age really capture our memories better than before? Perhaps not.

These days, most of us (and I speak of the wealthier nations of the world) have smartphones, and most of us therefore have videos. Of family, friends, riots, crime scenes and bungee jumps. Mostly these are ephemeral things. We share them on WhatsApp groups and the social media, and unless we can make money from them, we don’t give much thought to organising them or storing them for future use. Or for looking back, just as we used to sit around at family gatherings and look at photo albums, or leave them in a cupboard for our descendants to discover when we die.

It takes effort to gather these little clips into one place. If we do so, I suspect it’s the result of an occasional binge of organising, after which we let new videos accumulate on various devices, only to be forgotten when we change phones and haven’t been bothered to subscribe for cloud storage that accommodates the increasing swarm of ephemera.

Well, that’s my story. Perhaps yours is different. But it wasn’t always that way. When I saw three little video clips posted to Twitter by Mandy Patinkin, he of Homeland and a heavenly counter-tenor singing voice, I was reminded of an earlier age.

The clips are of Mandy and his wife Kathryn Grody, who is a highly-regarded playwright. They’re recorded by his son as the two of them sit together in their home. The ostensible reason for the postings is that they’re anti-Trump videos. In one of them, Mandy starts off with a thunderous rant, and then asks Kathryn what she thinks. She suggests calmer language. She has a go herself, ends up with an even more sulphurous tirade than Mandy’s. It made me laugh, which was no doubt the intention.

As a snippet of political propaganda, it’s no more or less effective than other celebrity offerings, most notably Robert de Niro’s fulminations.

But as a little piece of family theatre, it and the subsequent videos were of far greater value. The son asks simple questions of a couple who have been married for forty years. What do you row about? What’s the most annoying thing about him/her? The answers are touching – little bits of parental interaction that no doubt have been repeated off-camera over the decades. This is clearly a marriage of equals. Mandy may be the more famous of the two, but Kathryn gives as good as she gets. They seem to value each other deeply.

I mention these little family vignettes because I tried something similar in a more formal setting in the early 2000s, just before my father died. I’d just bought a very fancy video camera, so I arranged to do a video interview of my parents, with a pre-arranged set of questions.

The interviews took place over four one-hour sessions in their garden in west London, interrupted occasionally by passing aircraft on their way to Heathrow. It didn’t quite go as planned, because my mother contributed little beyond the occasional tut tut as my father talked. I think she was a little embarrassed by the whole exercise, but she did come up with the occasional acerbic remark, since she was rather fond of cutting him down to size.

My father, who was a lawyer, and very fond of the sound of his own voice, was in his element. He held forth on a number of subjects from childhood onwards. On trips to the dentist across London on his own at the age of seven, on appeasement before the second world war and on India, where he served in the Royal Air Force. You get the idea.

Yet apart from one exercise in consolidation years later, we have no archive of family videos or snapshots. Our vast accumulation of printed photos ended around the same time, thanks to the digital cameras and ultimately the smartphone. Yes, we digitised them, but the well ordered set of folders sit alongside a jumble of stuff downloaded from our phones.

You would think that the collection of items that could be described as family history would become easier in the digital age. But in fact it’s become harder, because people don’t write letters any more, and it takes a concerted effort to gather together digital relics in one place. Most of us can’t be bothered, and besides, not everybody thinks this stuff is important when set against the life imperatives of the present.

Which is a shame, because for all the terabytes of stuff we all generate in our daily lives, technology isn’t really designed to help us suck material out of our phones and clouds, as well as those of our loved ones, into a set of folders marked Mum, Dad and other subject matters. Perhaps when facial recognition software has been designed for the purpose, it will be easier to assemble every video featuring Aunt Gertie in one place, but we’re not there yet.

Much as we treasure those little video clips of people we love, especially after they’ve died, I suspect that we’re getting a less informative portrait of them than was available of our parents and grandparents, even though the whizzy technology wasn’t available at the time. The same goes for the written word. Emails and texts are no substitutes for love letters, for example, as Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved letter demonstrates.

Sad, really, to think that for most of us, our memories have the life cycle of a butterfly and fast disappear into a cloud of disorganised digits.

The Comey Rule: a story without a proper ending….yet

It might not be to everyone’s taste. After all, there are no murders, drug busts, zombies or eye-scratching marital differences. But The Comey Rule was pretty good TV.

The story of James Comey’s journey from respected FBI boss to national hate figure and ultimately one of Donald Trump’s early purge victims would easily have passed for made-for-TV fiction has we not known that it was based on real characters and events. Perhaps some of it was fiction. Trumpites would certainly make that case, since the four-part series was based on Comey’s book.

The events described are recent enough to be fresh in the memories of most people who watch the series. Comey finding himself in an impossible position after finding that Hillary’s dumb insistence on using her personal email account for State Department business didn’t warrant a prosecution, only for the sexually incontinent husband of one of her aides to be revealed as having a huge stash of her emails on his computer. Since the latest revelation was only a couple of weeks before the presidential election, should Comey announce a new investigation, knowing that it could affect the result of the election, or should he stay schtum in deference to the long-established principle that the FBI should steer clear of politically explosive announcements so close to polling day?

We know the answer, and we know that Hillary blames him for her losing the election. Though I have much sympathy for her, the fact remains that she was pretty stupid to bypass the State Department email system, clunky as it might have been. Whether she made an error in judgement in hiring the spouse of a congressman who was fond of sending pictures of his genitalia to other women via the social media is another matter. Either way, she was hardly an innocent victim of circumstances, let alone of a self-righteous head of the FBI.

But the series wasn’t really about Hillary and her stupid emails. Naturally, since he wrote the book, it was about Comey, and ultimately about how he lost his job. Hillary and Russia were supporting players in the central drama of Comey’s interactions with Trump. And here was where the main characters really came into their own.

Jeff Daniels did a cracking job as the upright man of principle struggling to plot his way through the political minefield, though he was more corpulent and, I sense, more amiable than the real Comey. But that impression was perhaps inevitable. After all, Daniels is second only to Tom Hanks in his portrayal of characters with an old-fashioned sense of decency in the grand Jimmy Stewart tradition.

Comey’s nemesis, Brendan Gleeson’s Trump, is a joy. Not just because Gleeson captures the president’s appearance, tone of voice and mannerisms par excellence, but because of the way he radiated menace. As has been claimed so often of the real Trump, Gleeson’s character is a magnificent addition to the gallery of mob bosses, the equal of Vito Corleone and Tony Soprano.

Other characters brought an almost comic edge to the proceedings. A whey-faced Jared Kushner dismissed from a meeting much as a father might eject a ten-year-old son when it was time to discuss “men’s business”. Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney-General, beaming like a schoolboy when being sworn in, and weeping tears of remorse after being conned by Trump into writing the letter recommending Comey’s dismissal. Jeff Sessions, the slippery Attorney-General who recused himself from the Russia investigation and thereby earned Trump’s undying enmity, is an arse-covering courtier. Reince Priebus, the president’s first chief of staff, comes over as an amiable but slightly hysterical stooge.

There were plenty of sympathetic characters to offset Trump’s mob. They include the FBI investigating team, who are constantly exhorted to do the right thing, Rosenstein’s predecessor (played by Holly Hunter), and the hero’s wife (Jennifer Ehle) and kids, who suffer the whole saga alongside him.

My only regret is that we don’t get to see the real ending, which is where the villain gets his just deserts. Though Comey’s part in the drama ended in 2017, I would give anything to see Brendan Gleeson reprise his Trump in a portrayal of the orange monster’s ultimate downfall.

But, as we all know, that might take a while.

COVID: the perfect disease for our time

One of the interesting (if that’s the right word) things about COVID is that it’s becoming a catch-all for rampant hypochondria. Not a day goes past when some expert suggests that the “official list” of symptoms be expanded to include yet another worrisome affliction.

The latest appears to be COVID Toe, in which your extremities go a fetching shade of blue. Add that to inexplicable rashes, taste’n’smell and all the other better-known symptoms, and we seem to be reaching the point where any abnormal condition, within or without the body, leads us instantly to wonder if we have the virus.

No doubt we’ll soon be informed that loss of libido, and more specifically, erectile dysfunction, has joined the list. Though I suspect that erotica will be far from the thoughts of anyone suffering from any of the other gruesome symptoms.

And from that we shall probably progress to pustulating buboes, and possibly, in a grand finale, to the spectacular condition that caused the Roman emperor Galerius to explode in a seething mass of foul-smelling gangrenous flesh. Don’t ask for more on this – just search on “Galerius’s death” for more details.

It’s almost as if the virus has acquired a Trumpian narcissism in its efforts to call attention to itself. Not content with screwing up our breathing, fogging our brains and leaving those of us who survive reduced to exhausted husks, it feels as though it’s constantly searching for new ways to make its presence felt. It’s all about it, it seems.

Apart from leaving us all convinced we’ve been infected, and reaching for every medication under the sun, the virus provides one additional benefit to the pharmaceutical industry. You’ve probably scrutinised one of those sheets of paper (as above) that come with most medicines. You know the ones. They list all the possible side effects of the drug you’re about to take: epilepsy, necrotising fasciitis, lethargy and pink spots on unlikely parts of your body.

Well, for the foreseeable future, all that the manufacturers will need to include will be a simple sentence: “symptoms resembling COVID-19.” That should cover most eventualities, including death.

One of the nastiest things about COVID is that it’s such a malignantly exhibitionist disease that it puts all the quiet and far more deadly conditions into the shade. Which explains why treatments for cancer and heart disease, in the UK at least, have taken a back seat, with potentially disastrous consequences, since the pandemic began. In that sense, it’s a perfect disease for our time, since this is the age when we celebrate disruptors, though usually in the form of technologies that make a few people very rich and leave the rest of us reflecting on what we’ve had to sacrifice for the privilege of being disrupted.

In fact, you could possibly make the case that COVID, in its relentless efforts to corner the market in all the symptoms known to humanity, deserves to be thought of as the Amazon.com of disease.

No doubt it won’t be long before the conspiracy theorists start putting it about that the evil bastards who they claim conjured this thing up in a laboratory were inspired by Jeff Bezos. Or possibly, given the current fashion in certain quarters of blaming China for everything bad in the world, by Bezos’s Chinese equivalent, Jack Ma, the Alibaba supremo.

And equally, it won’t be too long before we can add paranoia to the ever-expanding symptom list.

Quite Alone: stories of hope from the Middle East

When I want to escape from the grim reality of decline, unspeakable politics and national self-harm, I go travelling.

And when regulations and the desire for self-preservation make it inadvisable to venture further than my local park, I hitch a ride on the experiences of others. Books and TV travelogues are no substitutes for one’s own footprints, but at least they offer short journeys into different worlds and wider perspectives.

Matthew Teller is a writer whose adventures I have followed through Twitter and occasional BBC broadcasts. He, like me, has a profound love for the Middle East and its people. Through his work as a journalist, he has been to parts of the region that I could only dream of visiting. In contrast, my experience has been mostly urban, and the straight lines between centres of population – via roads, flight and occasionally train.

In some cases, he and I have trod the same trails – to Petra, the Asir, Taif and various emirates that nestle between the Persian Gulf (or Arabian, if you will) and the vast, oasis-studded interior of the Arabian Peninsula. But whereas my purpose has mainly been business, with side-trips when possible, his has been to explore and describe places and things most of us never get to see.

Which is why his latest book, Quite Alone, is a joy. It’s a collection of articles he has written over the last decade for a number of outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic and The Times.

He writes much about preservation and renewal. Of efforts to reintroduce the Arabian Oryx, once common across the peninsula and Jordan. About the baboons of south-west Saudi Arabia and ways to ensure that they don’t become dependent on a growing human population. Of a project to save one of central Arabia’s wadis from becoming the receptacle of polluted run-off water from Riyadh. Of the recapture of the Gulf’s long history into a digital library in Qatar. Of efforts to create a walking trail through Palestine, and preserve an ancient hill-top town in Iraqi Kurdistan. Of the cuisine of Aleppo and Damascus. And of efforts in the Oman to claim the birthplace of the mythical Sinbad the Sailor. Not to mention wine-making in Jordan – surely as unlikely an activity as hummus production in Harrogate.

It’s hard not to read these stories from the Middle East without a sense of sadness. For me personally, because I will probably be unable to visit most of the places Matthew writes about, either because I wouldn’t be welcome in some countries because of what I’ve written in the past, or because I’m no longer of an age to go backpacking and climbing mountains.

While it’s easy to accept that the world Wilfred Thesiger described – of pristine marshes in the Shatt-al-Arab and heroic treks across the Empty Quarter – is no longer what it was, the sadness from reading Quite Alone comes through the effects of war and other forms of destruction in such a short time on some of the places he describes. I never made it to Syria before the civil war. Damascus and Aleppo are scarred and traumatised. Beirut is shattered by economic crisis, continued sectarian tension and recently by the catastrophic explosion in the port. And now, of course, the pandemic threatens to cut the heart out of tourism, on which many jobs depend across the region.

So much writing about travel in the Middle East seems to focus on remnants of what was. William Dalrymple’s haunting From the Holy Mountain, for example, in which he traces the decline of Christianity by walking in the footsteps of a sixth-century monk. Many of Matthew Teller’s stories are also rooted in the past, but offer hope for the future in the dreams of the ecologists, architects, artists and the ordinary people he meets.

The Middle East, caught between the fertile land masses of Europe, Asia and Africa, fought over for reasons of politics, faith and trade, and now warped, sometimes beyond recognition, by recent mineral wealth, is nonetheless home to a stunning diversity of culture, belief and geography. Quite Alone reminds us that there’s more to the region than plastic souks, soaring tower blocks and concrete walkways between the holy places. And once the rubble has been cleared, the tanks have retreated, the secret police have returned to their barracks and the virus has been put in its place, perhaps it will again be possible to explore and learn. To rejoice in mountains, deserts and oases. And once again to experience traditions whose difference can enlighten and nourish those of us who visit from afar, if we only open our minds to them.

Matthew Teller writes with love, and also with a sense of responsibility to future generations, much in the same way as another of my favourite writers, Tahir Shah, does in his In Arabian Nights, through which he celebrates the story-tellers of Morocco, and teaches his children the same stories as his father taught him.

None of this is to deny a dark side. I’ve seen enough of that to last my lifetime. Equally, I don’t see myself as a romantic orientalist. And neither, I suspect, does Matthew Teller, who choses in his book to celebrate the positive without ignoring the darkness.

I’ve read and reviewed enough books about turbulence and torment in the Middle East. You don’t have to look far to find prophesies of further agony.

So it’s a pleasure to be reminded that the future of its people doesn’t have to be endlessly bleak.

Trump goes viral

Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis is certain to have a number of unfortunate side-effects, even if he suffers from few symptoms himself.

The first we are already seeing, which is a series of messages from people on both sides of the partisan divide wishing him and Melania the best. You know full well that many such messages are for form’s sake, delivered through gritted teeth by people who would actually prefer that he became permanently incapacitated, if not deceased.

Given the care he will receive, neither outcome is likely, but it’s quite possible that he will be pretty ill come election day. Will sympathy make any difference to the voting? Hard to tell, but in an election dominated by emotion rather than fact, it’s possible.

What we can be certain of is that as long as he’s in reasonable shape but confined to quarters, there will be a marked increase in his tweeting. No doubt it will become ever more hysterical as he seeks to draw attention to himself, deprived as he will be of his rallies, his favourite dopamine bath.

I guess it’s possible that the rallies will go ahead anyway with placeholders taking to the podium and Trump himself delivering a set-piece speech live from the White House. Not quite the same though, especially as every news outlet in the world would be looking for evidence of physical and mental deterioration.

What of the remaining debates? The next one is due in two week’s time. Will Trump haul himself from his sickbed after testing negative, and heroically resume his interruptive shit-show? Would Biden agree to be in the same room as him? Or would the candidates agree to a Zoomathon? Good luck with the latter, given the difficulty that the technology has with handling people talking over each other.

Most likely the next debate will be postponed for a few days, if not cancelled, paving the way for a grand Armageddon a few days before the poll. Actually, the organisers should look seriously at the format of the hoary old British game show, Just a Minute, in which participants are required to speak for a minute on a given subject. The BBC rules say that

you must speak for a minute on a given subject. If you hesitate, repeat yourself, or deviate, an opponent will interrupt and take the subject. Points are gained for speaking when the minute is up, correctly interrupting, or being wrongly interrupted.

The person winning most points wins the debate. Simple! Unfortunately, since Trump breaks the rules of every game he plays, the proceedings would be no less chaotic than the first debate. But still, it could hardly be less entertaining.

On a more serious note, I’m sure pundits in the US will start speculating on what might happen if one or both candidates fail to make it to polling day. Given that Biden has been more cautious than Trump in guarding himself against COVID, he’s more likely still to be standing. But if neither make it, who will be the contestants in the election? Pence and Harris? That would be an interesting contest.

As far as I’m aware, no presidential candidate has expired or retired 30 days before an American election. Is there a constitutional provision for this, or would the whole shebang end in a lawyerly free-for-all? On which one could reflect that they’re heading in that direction already, so the net effect would merely be that the lawyers would be wheeled into action a few weeks early.

One thing’s for sure. We will be treated to a stream of bulletins on the condition of the orange balloon, either from Trump himself or his doctors, and the President will end up with more holes than the Albert Hall – unlike poor old Boris, who festered away alone in 10 Downing Street for several days before anyone realised he was going downhill fast.

It’s going to be a fascinating month, and of course I wish the President and Mrs President a speedy recovery. I can’t say I wish him well, because the man’s a monster, but I very much hope he stays fit enough to stand trial for his multiplicity of law-breaking some time after January next year.

Until then, no doubt Mike Pence, my favourite Thunderbirds pilot, will be practicing holding the bible the right way up in front of boarded-up churches, just in case.

How cruel I’ve become. Sign of the times, I suppose.

You can loosen the straps now, Nurse Ratched

There are times at the moment when I wish I could go to sleep and wake up in a different universe. One without COVID, without Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Novichok, public health slogans, forest fires, melting glaciers and people encouraging my neighbours to inform on me.

But then I realise that if I did go to sleep for a long time, it might not be a pleasant experience. Ventilators aren’t really my thing, and I’m not ready for a permanent sleep just yet.

So onwards and upwards. Let’s ride the second wave, avoid any references to the Second World War, be kind to each other and encourage those who are dictating our futures to do the right thing.

I do find it hard, I admit. The wall-to-wall COVID coverage in the media last time round was acceptable, because here was a phenomenon that in many different ways was grimly fascinating. Now it’s just grim. Not so much because we keep erecting the equivalent of flood defences at vast expense that the waters flow around or breach with careless violence; more because in the spring the crisis brought the best out of many of us, whereas now we seem to have lost our patience.

We carp, we curse, we blame with abandon. The old blame the young for their house parties, their gaggles in the park and their hugs outside the pubs. The young blame the old for being the reason why they’re losing their jobs, their freedom, their future. And the middle-aged are just bitter: sod masks, sod everyone, it’s all a conspiracy.

And afraid, of course. Whether we admit it or not, we’re all afraid for one reason or another, aren’t we?

So what’s to do? Far be it for me to trot out a few meaningless platitudes. Everybody’s situation is different, and this is not a self-help blog. I can only say what I do. If that sparks off a few ideas, fine. If not, well, you’ve only wasted a few minutes reading this.

First off, I do stuff. It doesn’t really matter if what I do is trivial, repetitive, of short term or long term value. Doing stuff fills my personal reality and stops me from being sucked into that of other people. The stuff I do can usually be associated with some purpose, profound or otherwise. I play golf to keep a level of fitness. I write this blog because it helps me make sense of the senseless. I read books for the same reason.

Second, I try and remember that the past, the present and the future are different places. The past is gone but not forgotten, the future is unknown and full of possibilities, good and bad. The present is what I have to deal with. If times are hard, what matters is a sense of purpose, informed by the past, grounded in the present and in tune with a future that I want to see. No purpose, no point.

Third, I try to focus on what I can do rather than rage about what I can’t. Perhaps this is function of getting old. While the positive thinking gurus encourage you to believe that there’s nothing you can’t do, that’s fine when you’re young enough to surf eighty-foot waves or ride cycles over cliffs, but not fine when, as I am, you’re in your sixties and your physical powers aren’t what they were.

And finally, I find it helps to think of the current situation with COVID as a collective recuperation. There are setbacks, good days and bad days. There are also plenty of quacks who will offer conflicting advice that may or may not aid recovery. We, as a human collective, don’t always behave in a way that speeds our recovery. But we will recuperate, even if some of our commerce, institutions and ways of living do not.

It may even be that when all the political, economic and cultural ramifications of the pandemic have played out, we find that positive qualities that have been at a premium in dealing with the event – adaptability, creativity, improvisation – have re-wired our societies and made it easier for us to deal with future crises.

That’s not to say that there won’t continue to be moments when I want to scream with frustration at the stupidity, recklessness and sometimes outright malevolence that crops up at every turn, especially in my country and in the United States, and most especially as Donald Trump does his utmost to cling on to power and our gang stumble into Brexit.

But when the anger has subsided, at least I can reflect that while the supply of make-believe drama on TV is slowly dwindling, real life is more than making up for the shortfall. For those who keep their eyes open and manage to maintain a level of personal equilibrium, the next few months should be endlessly fascinating.

That all sounds very logical, calm and sensible, doesn’t it? In fact, much of it is nonsense.

The bit about doing stuff, and seeking a sense of purpose is true. But it’s also true that I spend much of my time curdled in fury at the incompetence of my government. So much so that I can no longer watch the news on TV because the first fifteen minutes is usually about COVID. Is that because materially I’m relatively unscathed, physically I’m still plague-free, but I feel guilty that so many people are suffering so much more than I am? Possibly. Is it also because the blizzard of information coming our way from every direction is so pregnant with uncertainty that the only thing one can conclude with much certainty is that the blind are leading the blind? Most likely.

I’ve also switched off on Brexit, because the same incompetents, so in thrall to their feckless ideology and the absurd optimism of our joke of a prime minister will do what they will do, and there’s not the slightest thing that I can do about it.

And then there’s the land of the flea, the home of the plague. If it were not for the fact that what happens in America matters to all of us who live beyond its borders, I would also be tempted to close my eyes and cover my ears while the country is tearing itself apart. In fact I scour the media for even the slightest suggestion that Trump’s demise is coming ever closer.

I have become the most biased of the biased. To give him credit for any achievement is hard for me to do unless that credit is laden with poisonous cynicism. The thought that we must all put up with another four years of that horrible man is only leavened by the possibility that my bile might send me to an early grave, thus releasing me from the need to pay further attention to the orange monster.

But other than that, everything’s good. Rational man prevails. I haven’t thought of COVID, Brexit or Trump for several hours. A good splenetic outburst keeps me going for a while.

And yes, more medication please, Nurse Ratched. You can loosen the straps now.

Life’s too short for dog stories, foodie lists and yearning for alfresco sex

There are some questions in life that can never be answered. Perhaps that’s because they aren’t worth asking.

One, for example, is whether newspapers create their audiences, or their audiences create the newspaper.

Take the London Times. When I read some of their stuff, I increasingly feel that I’m a square peg in a round hole. If yesterday’s Weekend section was created to satisfy an audience of dog lovers, foodies and gym bunnies, then I’m definitely in the wrong place.

I recently said goodbye to a life of picking up dogshit in the garden, of walks in the park in terror that Poppy would bite the legs of some yappy Jack Russell that got too close and thereby pitch me into an angry confrontation with owners that look like Jason Statham or that MP’s wife who spilt the beans about David Cameron and his buddies. How, therefore could I possibly be interested in people who give their dogs homeopathy and acupuncture, take them to a psychic, serve them their own Sunday roast dinner and let them have the window seat on train journeys?

I’m not a dog hater, and neither am I a dog lover. Poppy arrived by family vote. I was outvoted three to one. And a few years later, long before the end of her natural lifespan, two of the voters, who vowed fervently to clear up the shit and do the walks but ended up rarely doing either, disappeared to university, leaving us holding the canine baby. And a fine, faithful, companionable baby she was.

But having avoided for all of my life movies and TV shows about hero dogs, slushy tales about unbreakable bonds between men and their large dogs and those hundred and one bloody Dalmatians, the last thing I need on a Saturday morning is to be confronted by a picture of two of the ugliest mutts on God’s planet with their nervous-looking owner.

The reading got worse. After spending much of lockdown mocking Waitrose customers for their decadent shopping preferences, on page 4, after the dogs, came a listicle: The delicious top 50 – this year’s award-winning food. Chosen, we are told, by experts.

Yes, I know taking the mickey out of food and wine reviews is in itself decadent. But after wading through gushing descriptions of various gins, coffees, teas, honeys and oils, with ridiculous foodie names such as Teapigs honeybush and rooios, 88 Organic Molecular Gin and Whisky Smoked Black Garlic Sea Salt, I ground to a spluttering halt when I came across Cornish Yarl, a cheese about which the “expert” said “This smooth, nettle-wrapped cheese has a creamy flavour with hints of nettle”.

What in the name of heaven is a hint of nettle? Is it the tongue, after tasting this cheese, telling the brain: “just to let you know that my taste buds are experiencing a light tingling sensation that might be evidence that the thing you just shoved in your mouth might be similar to the obnoxious weed that you just spent the last hour eradicating from the bottom of your garden. Don’t blame me if I swell up and thereby choke you to death”?

This possibility reminded me of a time in my youth when I worked in a chocolate factory. It was a summer job, and it required me to sit for hours on end watching a conveyor belt full of delicacies called walnut whips. It was the most boring job in the world. Occasionally, to alleviate the tedium, I would place a dead wasp underneath the walnut that sat on top of the chocolate. I can admit this now because I’m way beyond the window afforded by the Statute of Limitations for a prosecution. And anyway, I’m not aware that anyone was adversely affected by my juvenile folly.

I only mention this disgraceful little episode because I wonder how an expert might describe the taste of this extra-crunchy delight in a newspaper review. A hint of wasp, perhaps?

The magazine continues with the agony aunt counselling someone who says she misses the alfresco sex she had on a staycation with her husband, and wants advice on how to continue the fun in the city. What do you say to someone so clearly lacking in imagination? Try dogging? The answer was too boring to describe. All I can say is that here in leafy Surrey, we have quite enough copulating dogs, foxes and pigeons, so my answer would be not in my back yard.

Then we get Brian Cox (the actor, not the astronomer), telling us about his newly acquired cannabis vaping habit, and that he still feels like he’s in his twenties. As if I, approaching my seventies and feeling like a dead rat some mornings, really want to hear that.

And to round things off, we get “Midlife muscle: the secret to a good brain (and body) after 50.” Talk about stating the obvious. But despite my dead rat mornings, I think my brain’s working fine, and I’m not about to place myself in the hands of some demented personal trainer, only to keel over with a heart attack when attempting an unachievable contortion with weights. And as for the advice that I should do one minute of squats every day, I already squat on a regular basis for other reasons, and that’s quite enough, thank you very much. Sod weights. I’ll stick with golf.

I have other reasons for questioning whether I should stay with the Times. One of them is their annoying columnists who argue for a return to the gold standard and appear to believe that another four years of Donald Trump would be a jolly good thing. This is also the paper that backed Boris for Prime Minister and now think he’s an incompetent shit of the first order. Well, I suppose we all make mistakes, and they do have columnists who have always thought that way about Boris.

So I’ll stay with them a while, despite their obnoxious owner and their silly lifestyle content. The alternatives, such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, are too polarised to contemplate for an ideological agnostic like me. The only alternative might be the Guardian, but will they exist as a newspaper much longer? And anyway, I read plenty of their stuff online.

So to return to the original question of whether newspapers create their own readers or the readers create the newspaper, I’m really not sure.

Perhaps at my age and given my querulous disposition, no publication offers me a square hole, just as the last thing I want is to belong to any tribe that would have me as a member.

PS: Another thing about the wasp episode is that if I’d been standing as Prime Minister in a general election, I suspect that by telling it in response to a question about my misspent youth, I would have won more votes than Theresa May, whose only indiscretion was walking through a field of wheat….

The Rule of Six: good news for misanthropes but bad news for grouse

Fantastic news that shooting parties in England have been exempted from the Rule of Six! It seems that the rule forbidding more than six people from gathering together doesn’t apply to field sports.

I must make haste to obtain a shooting licence for my estate. I’m sure that in my deeply Conservative constituency the authorities will turn a blind eye to the fact that my land is about the size of the average municipal playground, and that we’re somewhat short on heather and grouse. No matter. I shall be hosting invasive species parties. My guests will encouraged to bag a brace of marauding grey squirrel, or possibly some screeching green parakeets.

I will of course warn my neighbours to take shelter from the occasional volley of shot accidentally fired in their direction. And, as a good neighbour, I shan’t hesitate to repair any fences that get pock-marked. Should anyone end up being terminated with extreme prejudice during the festvities, not to worry. I have insurance for that.

I reckon that two or three shooting parties before Christmas will be enough to take care of the squirrels, at least for the while, though they won’t make much of a dent in the parakeet population. But the birds do talk to each other, I gather, so hopefully they’ll be sensible enough to stay away, or, better still, to return to whichever foreign land they hail from.

Other strategies will be required if we’re to have a jolly festive season. Perhaps the government will make an exception for dogging, cock-fighting and whippet races, if only to show that it’s not biased in favour of the recreational habits of the upper classes.

I’m not sure we’ll go so far as to indulge in such merriment, but we do have a cunning plan that will save our annual Christmas party. We’re thinking about starting at 7am, with two-hour time slots for invitees, no more than four at a time. Our friends who live locally could do exactly the same thing, so you would end up with people rotating around each other’s homes in a kind of celebratory round-robin.

On the other hand, since the COVID regulations of other countries are likely to prevent us from embarking on our usual November tour of South-East Asia, I may well be pretty morose by the time we get to Christmas week, so one option to consider is to slip away to somewhere like France or Spain for a fortnight in December, which would force us to self-isolate for a couple of weeks on our return. A good excuse to abolish the party altogether. A ten-minute zoom chat with various friends and relatives should be more than enough to fulfil the required social obligations.

Either way, the next three months should be a grand opportunity, following the example set by the government, to flout the law in creative, albeit specific and limited, ways.

There’s another silver lining to the incipient second wave. Should parents be irresponsible enough to let their kids go trick’n’treating or carol singing, one would think that they’ll quickly move on when they see the large sign on our front door proclaiming “COVID House – Keep Away”. And if they can’t read, a crudely-daubed red cross should do the job.

So whether you’re a party animal (apart from a grouse) or a miserable killjoy like me, there’s plenty of opportunity to make mischief in the coming months. Should be fun.

The Brexit festival: Billy No-Mates plans a party

You can call me a killjoy, but in my humble opinion, whoever came up with the idea of a “Brexit festival” is terminally misguided. Whatever is said by supporters and would-be participants who claim that such an event would be non-political, this will plainly not be the case in the perception of the target audience.

What’s more, only the deluded can possibly believe that by 2022, when the festival is scheduled to take place, Britain will have recovered from the double whammy of COVID-19 and the adverse effects of Brexit.

Whatever Boris Johnson and his minions would like to think, the country is still hopelessly divided over Brexit. Some people are quietly mourning the end of our membership of the European Union. Others are stoically resigned to its inevitability. Either way, if the government, which is hardly noted for its competence, screws up on Brexit, latent anger will quickly resurface.

Hardly an auspicious setting for a festival to celebrate all things British. The last time we had such a festival, in 1951, it was notionally to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Great Exhibition. It also served as a relief from the grim years of post-war rationing and economic hardship. The Festival of Britain was widely enjoyed and largely free of political controversy.

The Brexit festival will be far from that. Aside from opponents of Brexit, I imagine that there will be plenty of people, burdened by financial measures the government will need to take in order to claw back the billions spent during the pandemic, who will begrudge every penny spent on what they might see as a frivolous Johnsonian brag-fest (even if Boris’s benighted predecessor gave it the go-ahead).

Whether it’s by accident or design, the irony of this “festival” is that it’s due to take place ten years after the 2012 Olympics, when big-wigs, spectators and athletes from around the world were welcomed with a spectacular opening ceremony that portrayed British history and culture without a hint of arrogance.

Yet if things continue on their current path, we shall be treated to a short-term hit of cultural adrenaline in a country with few friends, and a society whose spreading strains of racism and xenophobia are light years from the Olympic ideal.

Assuming COVID doesn’t carry me off first, I have no intention of participating any event that is associated with the spurious independence of my country, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one.

In fact, assuming the plague has abated, I shall probably make sure that I’m in the same place as I was on July 23 2016, when the whole Brexit comedy started to unfold: France. I commemorated the day with a post to this blog called a bore with a sore head. I’m afraid I’m no less of a bore today.

If, however, the £120 million budgeted for this manipulative contrivance were to be donated by way of an apology by hedge fund owners and other shysters who have benefited financially from tearing the country apart, that might be another matter.

But somehow I can’t see that happening.

I’ll have what he’s having

I read over the past couple of days that Donald Trump raised the possibility that Joe Biden has been taking “performance-enhancing drugs”. His ever faithful but somewhat dim-witted son Don Junior has made the same suggestion.

I think the intention was to show the public that without his magical medication, Biden would be a dribbling idiot. I hope the allegation relates to cognitive ability rather than any other kind of performance. For Trump to suggest that Biden needs Viagra would surely be a statement too far even for him. Though who knows, perhaps the president is talking from experience, because his own performance is also chemically enhanced.

Or perhaps he’s a shareholder in the pharmaceutical company that makes whatever Biden’s supposed to be taking. That would be very Trump.

Either way, the medication seems to be working for Biden, who, in recent videos of speeches and interviews, seems to be admirably coherent. More than can ever be said about Trump, unless he has an autocue feeding his words. Even then, as happened yesterday, he gets tangled up and has to ask for a re-wind.

If Biden is indeed taking some drug that keeps his mind clear and focused, I’d argue that that’s no bad thing. As we get older, we all need a little help in overcoming our senior moments. So why not?

Which, for those whose synapses aren’t working well enough to remember it, explains the title of this post, which is a tribute to the scene in When Harry Met Sally, when Meg Ryan simulates an earth-shattering orgasm in a restaurant. A relatively ancient fellow customer, when asked what she would like to order, replies: “I’ll have what she’s having”.

Another landmark in a cancelled year

Yesterday we were due to go to France for our annual visit to Lot-et-Garonne.

We planned to go through the tunnel in the car this time, away from airports, aerosols and face masks. Out into the French countryside, chipping away at the milestones we know so well: Orleans, Le Mans, Tours, Poitiers, Limoges and Perigeaux. The temperature slowly rises. The fields start to show yellow and brown with the last of the sunflower crop. The vines trace the contours of gentle hills and valleys.

When we get there, to a little stone cottage a few kilometres away from Monflanquin, a fortified village once occupied by Edward, the Black Prince, we’ve already loaded up with wine, cheese and charcuterie from the local supermarket. It’s dark. You can see the Milky Way in the clear sky.

We wake up in the morning to the usual view: fields, woods and fruit trees. Apples, pears and peaches already falling, half devoured by wasps and frelons. We settle into our usual routine. Breakfast outdoors, hours of reading. Between us we’ve packed a dozen books. Perhaps a visit to Monflanquin, or Monpazier, another bastide a little further on. A chamber concert in a nearby church. Or to Villereal, for the weekly market, with its brocante stalls full of Napoleonic maps, old books, and what we in England would call antiques and curios.

Coffee in the square with the usual haul safely secured: a few melons, garlic stalks, fat tomatoes and perhaps some fancy bit of patisserie. A spit-roasted chicken, maybe a freshly-baked tranche de porc carved in front of us. Then back to the cottage for lunch.

Of an evening, up to the town for dinner at one of the restaurants in the square. They take it in turns to open at this time of year, so it’s sensible to book in advance. Hopefully we can take in a couple of farmer’s evenings. Stalls with street food surround the tables and chairs laid out in the square. Snails, chips fried in goose fat, brochettes of duck and lamb, crepes, galettes, cold plates with foie gras and millefeuille apple tarts. Then back down to the cottage, the night sky occasionally illuminated with a distant lighting flash.

And so the days go. A couple of weeks in which I planned to devour Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, Bettany Hughes’s history of Istanbul and a bunch of grittier stuff about the way we live now.

Alas, not to be. COVID cases are rising again in France, and who’s to say that there aren’t a few visiting Brits brewing the virus under their elegant M&S panama hats? The farmer’s evenings are most likely cancelled, and the markets will be socially distanced. No rubbing shoulders, hugging of friends or polite double kisses.

It was best to stay away, as much for France’s sake as for ours. But I miss the autumn warmth, the half-familiar faces, the medieval churches and the ancient town houses that have seen plagues far worse than this one. Above all I miss the French, from whom we are once again to be sundered after years of feeling, despite our ups and downs of the past, that we were part of the same family.

But I take comfort from the thought that before too long, once this cancelled year is over, no squabbling politicians or border regulations will be able to keep us from going back to our beloved France, even if its own problems match ours, and even if it’s never been the paradise our selective memories conjure up for us on cold autumn nights in England.

Until then, those memories will keep us going.

Anti-vax and the age of trust nobody

When your doctor prescribes you a drug you haven’t taken before, or you go to a pharmacist and buy a medicine off the shelf, do you ever bother to read the little sheet of paper that comes with the packet? Perhaps you do, and perhaps you’re scared witless by all the side-effects that the drug company is obliged to list that are associated with the product you’re about to ingest.

If you’re sufficiently frightened, perhaps you then go to the internet, and search on “paracetamol side-effects” or some such query. You become further horrified by the stories people post about the drug in question. You don’t ask yourself why people who have no side effects don’t bother to register their satisfaction. You focus on the downside.

Perhaps you consider yourself a critical thinker, and discount the crap you read on the internet, but watch out for stories in mainstream newspapers about new research results, because you think that papers like the Daily Mail and the Times have done their homework and won’t feed you bullshit click-bait.

If you’re of a certain generation, you remember the thalidomide scandal. Pregnant mums prescribed medication to stop them vomiting ended up delivering babies without legs and arms, or limbs so grievously stunted that they would never be of any use to their unfortunate owners. If you’re of the same age of those children, you shudder and think there but for the grace of God.

I get it. I really do. There are enough risks in the world, and to willingly take a risk with our lives and those of our children seems crazy. And as for us adults, are we taking layer upon layer of medication to mitigate a chain of side effects produced by each successive drug we take? And yes, should I ever have a need for Viagra, I probably wouldn’t take it in case my vision turned blue and I keeled over with a heart attack.

No matter that our chances of being killed on the road, struck by lightning, electrocuted by a hair dryer or drowned while swimming in the sea are far greater than the 0.01 percent of adverse side effects cited by the drug companies, why add to risks that we can control?

But vaccines? Sorry, but I just don’t get it. It’s true that we take a leap of faith when we go for our flu jabs. And there’s no little piece of paper on hand warning us of the side effects when we take our kids for their MMR courses. Have we so lost our sense of perspective that the chances of our children catching a potentially fatal disease like measles seem less scary than the remote possibility that they will become afflicted with autism or some other condition?

Do we take no account of the fact that vaccines have eradicated smallpox and are close to ridding us of polio? Perhaps not, because few of us have seen the effects of smallpox, or met someone, as I have, whose life was stunted by polio.

We don’t think of the success stories, not because they’re unremarkable but because they’re history. Just as we don’t think of the millions of people with HIV who are able to live relatively normal lives because of anti-viral medication. Unless we happen to have HIV, of course.

It’s the horror stories that get our attention, whether or not they’re fake or built on dubious evidence. Just as around every corner there’s a paedophile ready to abduct our kids, a mugger ready to knife us for our wallets and phones, an internet scammer ready to drain our bank accounts or a murderer ready to kill us for fun.

The world is a very dangerous place, says Donald Trump. So dangerous that we need to buy guns to protect ourselves, and if we aren’t allowed guns, we must turn our homes into fortresses and keep knives and baseball bats in strategic locations.

Yet I fail to understand the anti-vax sentiment, when simple jabs have made the world immeasurably safer for the vast majority of the global population. Is it because the virus that is most fiendishly difficult to inoculate against – fear – has twisted our minds away from all sense of proportion and perspective? Is it because the younger we are, the more days of life we notionally have in the bank, and the more fearful we are that we might lose them? Or is it that the older we are, the more keenly aware we are of a diminishing resource, and the less inclined to take risks?

Or is it that the order of the day is trust no one? That this is the side-effect of the most addictive drug of all – the internet. And where there is fear, there is anger. And when fear and anger rage, exploitation and manipulation take wing. People do inexplicable things, think inexplicable thoughts. And some make a fortune on the back of other people’s fear.

We gave our kids their jabs without hesitation. Every year my wife and I have our flu jabs. If a COVID jab becomes available, we’ll be first in the line. If either of these vaccinations cause us problems, so be it, our life bank accounts are depleted anyway, and all sorts of other things can carry us off without the assistance of vaccines.

Perhaps I’ve lost all sense of perspective, but I completely fail to understand why a significant minority of people in my country would only consider having a COVID vaccination, unless they’ve lost confidence in the medical profession, those people whom they applauded week after week during lockdown. Or perhaps it’s because they’ve lost any sense of certainty about any aspect of their lives that intersects with those of others, or about the world beyond their own experience and imagination.

If it’s the latter, then we have a problem far more serious than smallpox, polio and COVID put together.

Or perhaps I am indeed suffering from perspective failure, because instead of giving thanks for the internet as a tool for cooperation, knowledge-building, education, entertainment and commerce, I’m focusing on anti-vax, viral fear, conspiracy theories, QAnon, Russian bots and cybercrime.

Finally, I go back once again to my favourite Josef Stalin quotation: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” Maybe we should adapt that for our age: “if only one person dies of a preventable disease, that is a tragedy. If millions survive, that’s salvation.”

Perhaps it’s time we got back to thinking about the millions.

Lock her up? Sadly, she locked herself up

I’ve been watching the Hillary Clinton documentary series on Sky. It’s a welcome diversion from the endless coverage of Trump and his cronies turning the White House into a stage set from some dystopian dictator movie.

It’s not for me to judge Hillary’s character. Certainly, the carefully choreographed interviews that formed the centrepiece of the series were never likely to tell the whole story of the person and her career.

Many people, my wife included, felt that her failing to win the presidency in 2016 was a tragedy. Over the past three years, perhaps many more people have reflected on what might have been, were it not for the 70,000 votes that denied her victory in the electoral college.

The striking aspect of Episode Two, which dealt with Bill Clinton’s election to the presidency, Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers, Vince Foster’s suicide and the failure of Hillary’s healthcare initiative, was its reminder that the viciousness of modern American politics didn’t start with Trump.

To an extent, it was always there, but before Bill Clinton, all of America’s post-war presidents, whatever was going on behind closed doors, gave the office a veneer of respectability and dignity. That ended with Bill, or perhaps more accurately, with Monica Lewinsky. The American public’s respect for their presidents took a dive when tales of semen stains made the headlines.

Thereafter, the president was fair game. Clinton was incapable of keeping his trousers zipped. Bush Junior was a man of limited intelligence with a self-satisfied smirk who conned the nation into going to war. Obama was the epitome of dignity, yet ended up like Gulliver, pinned down by Republican majorities in both houses of Congress who were determined to destroy him. And then Trump, con artist, pussy-grabber and trash-talker extraordinaire, is the ultimate anti-president.

During Bill Clinton’s reign, the conspiracy theorists, the dirty tricks artists and the grass roots extremists seemed to step up a gear. Did it all start with Clinton, or with Nixon? Nixon, for sure, was a more immoral president than any of them except Trump. But he maintained a veneer of dignity to the end. If he achieved nothing else, he proved that it was possible for a president to be taken down while in office.

Thereafter, every president became a target of opportunity, but during Clinton’s time the partisan divide, fanned by the likes of Newt Gingrich, seemed to intensify. And since he left office, it seemed as though Hillary’s principal role was as a partisan lightning rod – as a senator, as Obama’s Secretary of State and ultimately as a presidential candidate. And, of course, as a woman of power and influence. A convenient denizen of the swamp, if you will.

What was it and is it about Hillary that made half the country want to lock her up? Is she really, as one person commented, like every husband’s ex-mother-in-law? Is it the hard protective shell she built around herself that her detractors interpreted as lack of empathy? Was it her failure to divorce a man who consistently cheated on her, evidence in many people’s minds of her ruthless pragmatism and desire for power? Was it her speaking engagements with the Wall Street giants, evidence of her greed, or her emails, evidence that she didn’t think that government rules applied to her? Or was it her obvious contempt for the deplorables on the other side?

One person in the documentary pointed out that her rock-solid confidence in her own righteousness made it hard for her to understand why people were so keen to attack her. Perhaps Joe Klein did the damage early on when he portrayed his version of her in Primary Colors as a foul-mouthed Lady MacBeth figure as she berated Bill for his priapic indiscretions during his first campaign.

So here, for what it’s worth, is how I see Hillary.

She’s a person from an age when women like her, determined, intelligent and fiercely ambitious, didn’t feel the need to go to charm school. These women, inspired by the likes of Gloria Steinem, thought they could and should succeed by ability only. The compromises she needed to make in order to turn herself into an electable persona didn’t sit easily, either as a president’s wife or as a candidate in her own right.

Her self-control, which she built as a wall between her public persona and her private passions through bitter experience in the White House, has worked to her disadvantage. A degree of vulnerability, which she never felt able to show, can be an electoral asset. You could say, therefore, that she locked herself up.

If she had been elected president, she would have faced continuing hostility from those who didn’t vote for her. Her political opponents would have denigrated her, opposed her and fought her at every turn. The hostility that Obama attracted would have been small beer in comparison. This would have made it difficult, to put it mildly, for her to do her job. She would have had as many setbacks as achievements.

That said, she would still have been ten times more effective than Trump. Even if she had been defeated for a second term, she would, in the long term, have earned the same respect as other one-term presidents such as Carter and Bush senior.

She wouldn’t have left the United States a smoking, riot-torn ruin, and she would have paved the way for more women to reach the highest office.

There but for the lack of 70,000 votes. And by the way, I’m sure she’s a damned fine mother-in-law.

Rule Britannia belongs in one box. What’s really important belongs in another.

For someone like me who writes such a spectacularly mundane blog that I once referred to myself as the Gerald Ratner of blogging (sorry, bewildered readers around the world, a joke that only British oldies will appreciate), the Rule Britannia fracas would seem to be highly suitable material.

C’mon everybody, let’s get angry.

But first, news that polio is eradicated from the whole of Africa and from all but two countries in the rest of the world. That’s good news, right? I guess.

Now for the meat. The BBC plans to drop the singing of Rule Britannia at the end of its annual Promenade concert series. Bleeaaagh! A vomit of outrage. A video of a singing Nigel Farage who, without the sound, looks like a Chelsea fan in the 70’s just before he takes out the bicycle chain. Boris, in the tones of a junior school prefect, saying that he’s had enough of “wetness”.

Back in the real world, heads rolling at the UK Department for Education and associated quangos because of the exam fiasco, while the minister’s idiotic head remains on its shoulders.

And then there’s the Republican National Convention over the pond. How can America sit and listen to a parade of screaming harpies, smooth-talking liars and emotionally stunted sociopaths while a seventeen-year-old in Wisconsin with an assault rifle thinks it’s OK to shoot people in a riot over the shooting of a guy seven times from point-blank range in front of his kids?

I don’t give a hoot about Rule Britannia. You would never drag me to the Last Night of the Proms in case I encountered Nigel Farage. But I’m utterly indifferent over whether they sing the stupid song, play an orchestral version or ask John Cleese to narrate it using his satnav voice. If the BBC want to leave it out, fine. It’s not as if they’re spitting at the Queen.

I also don’t care if someone decides to ban Zulu, Bridge over the River Kwai, Henry V and The Dambusters. For kids corralled along delineated areas in their schools, they’re an irrelevance, of no more importance than fairy tales.

Nor, for that matter, do I care if woke America forgets How the West was Won, Mr Smith Goes to Washington or Birth of a Nation. For kids on the street in riot-torn America, or squeaky clean God-fearing Trumpites, they’re equally irrelevant, far less noteworthy than Shrek and Captain America.

Lately I’ve been reading a book about Saudi Arabia which was written in 2005, four years after 9/11. The author, a journalist who was working for an English-language daily in Saudi at the time, came up with an explanation as to why young middle-class Saudis felt able to applaud 15 of their number who had the “courage” to bring down the twin towers, while surrounding themselves with western technology, drooling over western porn shows and wishing they had the guts to board those planes themselves.

John Bradley, in Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis, put the apparent contradictions down to the ability of these kids – born into a world of religious stricture, raised not by their parents but by hired domestic helpers, spoilt yet angry, devout yet envious, disapproving yet curious – to compartmentalise. God, jihad, virtue and purity in one box. Playstation, porn and parties in Vegas on vacation in another. Neither box intersects. A kind of schizoid condition, if you like. Not hypocrisy, because that implies an awareness of the boxes.

I saw that in Saudi Arabia too. I see it in the west as well, and not just in the kids.

In Britain, I see it in “I’m not racist, but….”. I see it when we happily order our lattes from a Lithuanian waitress, or profusely thank a Syrian doctor for saving our life, and then vote to kick them out of our country. Nothing personal. No contradiction.

In America, I see it when people go to church every Sunday and happily applaud those who break the Sixth Commandment, that thou shalt not kill, now subtly redefined as “thou shalt not murder”, and vote for a man who breaks the Seventh, prohibiting adultery, on a regular basis. A means to an end. No contradiction. And I see it when grandmothers bake cookies for their grandkids and take them to school, while at night wallowing in QAnon conspiracy theories about blood-drinking satanists. Protecting the family. No contradiction. No overlap. No hypocrisy.

So here are my boxes. I won’t apologise for the British empire, slavery, Winston Churchill, Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston, any more than I will take credit for William Shakespeare, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Florence Nightingale, Alexander Fleming and all the British luminaries who have made the world a brighter and more enlightened place. They’re in the box called Past.

But I will condemn all the racists, the bigots, the lying politicians, the grasping hedge fund owners, the amoral shareholders, the oligarchs, the dictators, the oppressors and the assassins. Because they’re in the box called Present and Future, and something can be done about them.

If we have to be angry, they’re the ones to be angry about, not a hackneyed old tune by Thomas Arne (above) that represented aspiration rather than reality three hundred-odd years ago.

No contradiction. No hypocrisy. But most certainly an overlap, because learning about the one box feeds our understanding of the other. And that learning gives us a better chance to deal with the things that make us angry about the present, and likely the future too.

The secret of England’s cricket success: going the full Alexander?

One aspect of getting involved in an all-consuming project is that it’s amazing how all the stuff you thought was important slips away. I’m currently writing what might become a book. I won’t say “I’m writing a book” because words don’t become a book until they actually are a book – in other words, something you can read on a Kindle or something with paper pages that someone else has printed.

I’m currently struggling with a backlog of newspapers that I normally get through on the day they arrive on my doorstep. Not that I’m unaware of the general gist of Belarus, Biden, Johnson in his tent, Trump and his tantrums, the latest ramifications of COVID and so forth. But it’s a temporary joy that they’re taking second place to a labour of love, whether or not that labour ends up as something tangible.

But I have managed to find time for my beloved cricket. England are currently playing Pakistan in the last of a three-match series. For once, at least on the basis of the first two days, Sky’s endlessly resourceful commentators have found it hard to say anything negative about England’s performance, which makes a pleasant change.

When Ian Botham and David Gower, both eminent former England cricketers, were given the boot from the commentary team at the end of last year, I thought they would leave a gap. They haven’t. The current team are as good as, or better than, any group of sports commentators I’ve seen over the last fifty years. Not only are the individual contributions full of knowledge and insight, but the content that fills the gaps between the cricket itself, of which, thanks to the weather, there have been plenty this year, has been compelling and always entertaining.

Michael Holding filmed in the Caribbean, taking about West Indies cricket. Michael Atherton interviewing Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister and former cricket captain, about the return of international cricket in his country years after the terrorist attacks on the Sri Lankan team. Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent on the impact of racism on their cricket careers. Then there were the coaching sessions, the match analysis, the videos of young cricketers and the contributions of former internationals brought in to represent the visiting team.

And finally, the humour, the banter and the respect that each team member seems to have for the others make watching test cricket on Sky feel like a family experience. Even my wife, who’s not a cricket fan, has been in stitches over the exchanges between Nasser Hussain, Robert Key and David Lloyd.

When Botham was in the team, I always got the impression that the banter had an edge, and that as soon as he left the commentary box he’d be out in the car park looking to deck the smart arse who had just dissed him. Not so now. He can do that in the House of Lords car park from hereon.

One noticeable effect of the bio-secure bubble in which both sides have been locked up during the series is that a number of the England team have been looking somewhat wild and hairy of late. Alice bands have suddenly appeared to keep their unruly manes in check. Not so the Pakistani team, who have been looking well trimmed. Is this because it’s difficult to find someone to cut their hair, whereas the Pakistanis have an in-house barber? Or have the likes of Joe Root, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes decided to model their coiffure on that of Alexander the Great?

This is something that bothers my brother and his wife, who emailed me about it, suggesting that it might be a suitable topic for this blog. He wrote that:

We have an aversion to the use of so-called alice bands in sportsmen with perceived hirsutical excess. Notorious examples are Ronnie O’Sullivan (in times past) and Chris Woakes (currently) and Joe Root (sometimes). We are also not too keen on the head shaving option for those suffering perceived hirsutical lack (e.g. Andrew Strauss and many others). I was wondering if an investigation of hair “styles” among sportsmen (and I mean men) might be an entertaining topic for one of your blog posts.

Well yes, it probably would, except that speaking for myself rather than my male siblings, I would quite like to have the option to vary my hairstyle. Having very little left, all I have is memories of previous incarnations from an age when hairdressers lacked the same imagination as they have today. An age when it was either short or long, with little in between other than the unforgettable mullet.

So I have no problem with cricketers, footballers and so forth enjoying their youthful hair, because by the time they reach my age there’s a good chance they will be bald old gits like me.

I’m certainly not one of the “get yer ‘air cut you ‘orrible little man” school that abounded in my youth. But I do have my own preferences, and they don’t include the weird hybrid favoured by many, which involves a short back and sides, but luxuriant locks on top. A bit too much like Trump without the courage of their convictions for my taste.

If you must be a skinhead, be a skinhead. Then at least people who have unpleasant memories of football terraces in the Seventies can give you a wide berth. Or alternatively, if you must, go the full Hugh Grant. Less threatening but a tad effete for some people. But then again, the 50/50 cut is perhaps a symbol of the ambiguity of the age.

I’m far more concerned about what politicians do with their hair. Boris Johnson may be a gift for cartoonists., but it has long bothered me that baldies never make it to the top. Is that because we baldies lack the killer instinct, or because the voting public don’t trust a male politician unless he has a full head of hair? For a full exploration of this theme, go to a piece I wrote on the subject a while ago, called Why do the baldies always lose unless they’re up against other baldies?

Certainly it would seem that the surest way for Donald Trump to lose the next election would be for someone to persuade him that he would look far more impressive if he went the full baldie, as the picture of his effigy in progress by Madame Tussauds in another post, The real Donald Trump, one scary dude! suggests.

But back to cricket. Perhaps the real reason why the England team, or many of them, have chosen manes like the lions on their sweaters is because of an arcane detail in the COVID-related rules around the current series. Bowlers looking to swing their deliveries look for all sorts of help to make one side of the ball shiny. Normally the two legal methods are spit and sweat, to put it bluntly. Because of COVID, saliva is not allowed, so our bowlers have to rely on sweat. The combined moisture of six or seven hairy guys applied as each passes the ball to the next is surely enough to create a shimmering surface.

If that’s the case, how fascinating that such tiny factors might influence the tonsorial preferences of a generation – of cricketers at least.

Boris in Purgatory

I have a new slogan for my unfortunate compatriots who have been bombarded with messages on TV, radio and print media over the past few months. It is this:

STAY AWAKE
DITCH THE GOVERNMENT
SAVE THE COUNTRY

One day, there will be an opera about these days. Quite possibly it will be called Boris in Purgatory. More dramatic possibilities than Nixon in China, I reckon.

I don’t really want to launch into a rant about the British government being the most shameless, incompetent, venal, self-serving, blatherous shower of ordure to have gathered in one place in living memory. So I won’t, because then I’d feel obligated to justify my insulting language by going into chapter and verse on their shortcomings. Instead, I’ll just say Johnson, Hancock, Patel, Jenrick and Williamson. That should be enough to be getting on with. And if that’s not enough, I’ll also say care homes, PPE, NHS management, virus testing, track and trace, Brexit negotiations, A Levels, quarantine and Barnard Castle.

Anyway, I’ll stay silent, because my mother taught me that if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all. But I would really prefer if my silence was reciprocated by those with whom I’m in regular discourse, because if anyone mentions social distancing and all the other COVID cliches, my spleen is in danger of melting.

I’m only really interested in hearing three words: resignation, prosecution and election. And as far as C***D is concerned, I would prefer not to be the target of any more self-righteous, misleading cant until until somebody I trust tells me “your vaccination is now available. Please arrange an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.”

And that’s my last word on our current situation. At least until I can think of something more constructive to say.

Note to the disappointed: there are disasters, and then there are disasters

I have nothing to say that could add to the outrage felt by young people across Britain whose grades have been distorted or downgraded unfairly by an algorithm, except that shit happens. The same shit that put the most incompetent government for decades in charge at a time when we needed competence most.

For that shit, they must blame their parents and grandparents, or at least those who voted these donkeys into power.

I will, however. offer a few words of consolation to those who feel that their lives have ended because they didn’t get the grades they expected. Whatever the ignorant might say, life doesn’t stop because you didn’t get into Oxford, or because you didn’t get your place to study medicine. If you want it badly enough, appeal. If that fails, try again.

And if it turns out that you decide not to go to university at all, be aware that whatever Gavin Williamson says, grades don’t determine your future. In a few years they’ll be an interesting footnote to your personal histories. What will determine your future will be you.

To put your heartache into perspective, think of the millions who put their lives on hold at the start of World War 2, and survived the experience to rebuild productive and successful lives. Think of those who escaped from conflict-torn countries since then – India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Iraq and Syria to name a few, who prospered in their adopted countries.

Shit might happen, but it happens in orders of magnitude. You might not want to hear this, but however earth-shattering your shit might feel to you, you have not been bombed out of your home, lost your families, seen your life’s work destroyed, risked injury or death to reach a safe haven and started again in a culture and society that is not your own.

So count your blessings that you aren’t starting from zero. By all means allow yourselves a period of grief and anger. Then reset your ambitions and carry on.

Oh, and since you will soon be of voting age, help to make sure that those whose incompetence has caused you so much pain never get another opportunity.

Joe Biden: will the quiet man strategy see him through?

What is a demagogue without an audience to whip into a frenzy? A gogue, I suppose. This is an intriguing aspect of the forthcoming US presidential election campaign.

How effective will Donald Trump be in recapturing the imagination of the electorate without his rapturous rallies? Not great, I suspect. His live audiences surf his stream of consciousness without much thought as to what he’s actually saying beyond a few communal imprecations, as “in lock her up”. But in the cold glare of the TV cameras, without a screaming audience, he seems far less effective, and far more open to ridicule.

Unless he chooses to ignore medical advice and summon his base to a series of infection-spreading rallies, what we’re likely to see in the course of the campaign is Trump the idiot, not the fire-breathing orator. A gogue without his demos.

Biden, on the other hand, can continue to be the still, small voice. The voice of reason, if you like. It’s been a strategy made feasible by the social restrictions of the pandemic. Kamala Harris can be the firebrand, and it will be interesting to see how she fares in her debate against the Thunderbirds puppet currently occupying the job she wants.

It’s also interesting that the few impressive examples of oratory we’ve heard in recent months have been those performed to a silent audience. At George Floyd’s funeral, for example, and Barack Obama’s address at the funeral of the civil rights icon, John Lewis.

Both presidential candidates, deprived of the whooping, hollering enthusiasm of their supporters, will have to do things very differently.

If Biden continues to play his cards right in the quiet man role, he has the chance, by his very demeanour, of outgunning Trump, who attracts ridicule every time he opens his mouth, and has the attention of a host of comedians ready to mock him at every turn.

Whether the likes of Sarah Cooper, my favourite Trump impersonator, will be able to persuade enough of the president’s base that they’re following an imbecile remains to be seen. And whether they care enough not to vote for him is another good question.

Biden’s task will be to convince the electorate that he’s not a geriatric case one step away from a care home. It will not be easy for him to convince the younger electors that he “gets it”. But Harris will help him in that respect, which suggests that she will play a prominent role in the campaign. I doubt if Trump will get far in portraying him as a fanatical socialist who will undermine the foundations of American enterprise, but he will of course try. But he might do better with the ga-ga argument.

The stage is set. Biden has the opportunity to convince Americans that he’s the quiet man for a reason, not because he has nothing to say but because he’s keeping his powder dry.

A note of caution here: the last person in my country to call himself the quiet man was a certain Iain Duncan Smith, who was leader of the Conservative opposition for a while. His own party eventually realised that he was quiet because he was fundamentally vacuous, as he proved in his subsequent career. They very quickly kicked him out. Quiet must mean thoughtful, not brain dead.

After the Storm

CRACK BOOM! Wow, that was close. Actually, it was more than close. It came amid a constant barrage of thunder that must have been familiar to those who witnessed the opening barrage at the Battle of The Somme. Or possibly the cannonade at Austerlitz, so memorably recreated by Le Petomane at one of his famously flatulent music hall performances.

Though I fancy M. Pujol, who also had the ability to fart the Marseillaise, would have been hard put to emulate the lightning bolt that struck so perilously close to our home yesterday afternoon. Unfortunately one of our neighbours, no more than couple of hundred yards from us, suffered a direct hit. A plume of smoke rose from their house, which very soon turned into a full-blown fire.

The fire brigade came, saw and conquered, but given the column of flame, I imagine that the damage was considerable. The owner was out, so no one was hurt.

This little incident marred the pleasure of watching God exercising His attack dogs, which was far more entertaining than the regular sight of the two massive hounds from down the road taking their owners for a slow plod past our house.

There was a curious knock-on effect, though. Slowly, over the rest of the day, most people in our estate began losing their internet. I imagine that in the house that suffered the hit, everything electronic was instantly fried. But why everybody else’s routers should go down one after another like victims of a plague is beyond me.

We learned all this from our resident’s association WhatsApp group, to which I don’t subscribe but my wife does. These worthies usually keep us informed on matters of huge concern such as occasional outbreaks of teenage disorder, as evidenced by, horror of horrors, an empty vodka bottle jettisoned outside our house. They’re also lobbying for countermeasures against people who have the temerity to use our estate as a short-cut to the local park, and whose dogs regularly crap on a particular piece of grass, which the owners do not remove.

Anyway, excitement was high as during the day reports kept coming in about failed electrics, silent landlines and routers going down like ninepins. BT, whose incompetence clearly allowed God to take His anger out on us, have promised a resolution by 5 am tomorrow morning. Heard that before, I thought, though selecting such a strange resolution time was a bit odd.

Ordinarily, losing the internet for a while is annoying but not catastrophic. But up and down our road, people are busy zooming away as they avoid for as long as possible the resumption of the awful daily commute into London. Yes, like me, they’ll be able to access the internet via their phones, but it must be difficult to have conference calls with twenty people on a screen not much larger than a small bar of chocolate.

No doubt they’ll soon be trudging mournfully towards the station, reminded, if they care to think about it, that pandemics are not the only instrument God uses to turn our lives upside down.

As for me, I’m in heaven. I had my first decent sleep in days. After spending most of the last week dressed only in a loincloth (actually a pretty gross pair of baggy shorts), looking like a Buddha in search of a banyan tree, I feel reborn. After only a fleeting look at my usual news sources, bad tidings and gloom, I feel free to contemplate the universe, even if I rarely venture further than my navel.

Recession, dodgy statistics, viral spikes and social distancing can go hang for a while. I’m having an internet-free day, sitting in my conservatory as a gentle rain shower nourishes my roses.

Mind you, if the magic hour of 5am tomorrow passes with no return of the internet, I might start getting a bit twitchy. But then again I’d have the compensation of being able to curse BT as usual.

Meanwhile, my thoughts are turning to a few attention-gathering stunts that will signal to the waiting world that I’m still alive.

Perhaps chaining myself to a 5G tower and threatening to immolate myself. Or showing up at Waitrose dressed as Superman until I’m dragged out for refusing to wear the right kind of mask. Or dressing up as Nigel Farage and hurling Shakespearean imprecations from the White Cliffs of Dover.

On second thoughts, couldn’t be arsed. I’m quite content to remain a grain of sand known only to passing hermit crabs.

It’s enough to rejoice as the world around me breathes a deep sigh of relief at the return of the temperate English climate. Everything else can wait.

Then suddenly BOING! The internet returns, twenty hours ahead of schedule. And all the insufferable badness comes flooding back. Inundation and a fatal train crash here in the UK. Crippling heat in Iraq. Lebanon, Belarus. And ghastly, horrible politicians playing games with our future wherever you look.

I can only attribute this unpleasant return to reality as God’s way of punishing me for taking His name in vain. A reminder, perhaps, that not even a grain of sand escapes the attention of the Almighty.

Laurel Canyon: no turn unstoned

On the surface. it’s hard to imagine a time and a place so far from everyday experience in our plague-ridden time than Laurel Canyon in the late sixties and early seventies.

Laurel Canyon, a wooded suburb just outside the soupy bowl of Los Angeles, was a musical Shangri-La. It was the kind of place where, if you were a member of the West Coast musical aristocracy, you would claim you had lived even if you’d you only spent two weeks dossing down on a friend’s sofa in one of the district’s ramshackle wooden houses.

One of the reasons why I loved Sky’s documentary of the same name was that although it was packed with reminiscences from the people who lived and made music there, only two were actually featured on camera, both of them observers rather than players. Sound clips from the musicians themselves were accompanied by videos of them playing and hanging out, rather than long sequences focused on grizzled faces. So we saw most of them as they were then, and not now. Which is probably a good thing, because many of them are dead.

Others, though, have survived against the odds, so we heard plenty from David Crosby, Don Henley and Graham Nash, whereas Jim Morrison, Mama Cass and Glenn Frey were voices from the grave.

There are any number of reasons why the music of The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Eagles and the Byrds made such an impression on me at the time. It was close harmonies, soul-searching, idealistic innocence, balanced by commentary on the dark side – Vietnam, Kent State, the pain of broken romance and chemical excess.

Many of us lived in our own Shangri-Las – little bubbles of our own making that enabled us to ignore – most of the time – the “real world” outside. In my case it was as far from the sunny groves of Laurel Canyon as you can imagine: a smattering of shared houses in the student areas of Birmingham.

We each had our own taste in music. Many of us preferred the harder-edged stuff coming out of the East Coast of the US: Dylan, The Band, Steely Dan and later Springsteen. And of course we had our local heroes: the Stones, Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, Yes. But you’d be hard put to find a house where someone didn’t have some music from that small stretch of hills in Los Angeles.

As the residents of Laurel Canyon grew up, gorged with money, raddled by booze and various pharmaceuticals, they started to play stadiums, fence their houses, sue their managers. After Charlie Manson, they no longer trusted strangers. The Woodstock spirit was shattered by Altamont. The music business was always dirty, but as the seventies progressed it became more obviously so. I should know. I was in it.

At the same time, we in the UK lived through the IRA, miner’s strikes and three-day weeks. But most of us got on with earning a living, only to be derided as baby boomers when we wouldn’t share our wealth with our kids and grandkids.

Every successive generation of Brits and Americans had its share of political activists, but never, it seemed to me, to the same extent as in the years between 1968 and 1974. Or at least until the past four years, when Americans en masse have risen in protest for and against Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter and other causes. Over here, Brexit and a government seen by many as obviously corrupt has divided the country more than at any time since the Troubles and the Winter of Discontent.

While the current crop of twentysomethings have found their own noble causes, those whose music adorned my youth, who never took it as easy as they liked to claim, who hated as much as they loved, have felt the hard rain of age. They’re grumpy old men and women who are happy to talk about the olden days, but whose time has largely gone. Just as the rest of us, who still play their music, swap stories about our penniless days, but for whom those times were neither better nor worse. Just different.

Before too long we’ll all be gone, no longer helplessly hoping. But right to the end, many of us will still let the years slip away as we listen to the glorious sound of Laurel Canyon.

The world’s oldest vocation

One of the consequences of lockdown was that for three months we weren’t able to spend any time with our grandson, who is now two-and-a-half.

Of course we saw him on video. He recognised us, would wave and go back to what he was doing before his mum shoved a phone in front of him. But that was not the same as spending time in his company and watching him grow – a developmental flywheel that slowly gains momentum.

Now his mum is back at work, and he comes to us for a day a week, as he did before lockdown.

It’s been such a long time since our kids were at the same stage that I’ve forgotten how two-year-olds develop. Each is different, for sure. Ours were girls. Rupert is a boy. Is it my conditioning that leads me to think that there’s a difference in how boys and girls develop? I certainly don’t remember our daughters as the bumptious, risk-taking, furniture-climbing little handfuls – qualities that we typically attribute to boys in my culture. But I might be wrong. So much of my time in those days was spent with my eye on other balls.

One difference I do notice. Our kids loved stories. It was as if they learned about the world and relationships through narrative. Rupert likes stories too, but he seems to spend far more energy figuring out how things work. He loves clocks, keys, tower-building, furniture-climbing, decanting water from one container to another.

He has extraordinary balance. He jumps off things and lands on his feet. He dribbles a football like a baby Messi, yet nobody has taught him how. His speech is coming on leaps and bounds, though he was few months slower than some kids (girls, curiously enough) of his age.

One of the jokes my wife and I used to share was how mothers we knew when our kids were growing up would proudly proclaim that their offspring were in the “gifted stream” at school. What mother doesn’t think her kids are gifted?

I make no such claim for my grandson, because I have no point of comparison. But one of the delightful results of enforced separation has been that development the parents perceive as gradual appears to the grandparents as a giant leap. This little fellow can tell us what he wants and doesn’t want! He can count to thirty! He can eat his dinner all on his own without spilling food in all directions! All skills that have come together in the space of three months.

None of this has happened by accident. In her nurturing, her patience and her teaching skills Rupert’s mother most definitely is in the gifted stream. Which reminds me how little we value parenting skills – the ability to bring up a happy, curious and engaged child – against other occupations for which we’re paid money, get promotion, win the acclaim of our peers and sometimes fame and fortune.

Not that I’m dissing his dad’s undoubted parenting skills by singling out his mum. It’s just that at this stage of Rupert’s life we see more of him with his mother than with his father. Dad’s time in the spotlight will come.

I don’t get all soppy and sentimental about parenthood. I can’t stand the toe-curling saccherine of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I also know from experience that Rupert’s parents are still at the start of a long journey on which the skills of both will be sorely challenged. For example, will they have the emotional intelligence to realise that a teenage Rupert will probably reject them as the spawn of the devil, yet still want to come running back to them at times of need? To be there or not to be there is the ultimate question for parents of adolescents, just as it is for those of us whose children have grown up.

I have two reasons for writing this. First because we – or more specifically, I – spend so much time focused on stuff beyond our power to influence in anything other than a small way, be it politics, pandemics or global discord, that we sometimes forget the minor miracles happening on our own doorsteps. And second, in the hope that Rupert’s generation will make less of a bollocks of the world they inherit than we have.

The key to that hope being realised is the world’s oldest vocation: parenthood.

Beirut

I have never been to Beirut. But a city is the sum of its people, past and present. I have met many Lebanese people, so I feel a special grief for their capital city.

How is it that a people so gifted, vital and creative should be made to suffer as the Lebanese have over the past four decades? I have no answer. If you’re looking for reasons, you could do worse than read Kim Ghattas’ book Black Wave. which explores the disintegration of the Middle East since 1979.

I lived a short plane ride from the country in the Eighties. Saudi Arabia at that time was full of emigres, refugees from the civil war, who had the precious ability to speak in tongues. Not the gibberish that issues forth from evangelical Christians, but a magical mixture of French, English and Arabic that you will hear in a single sentence. Is that a metaphor for a trading nation that is able to speak the languages of many cultures? That’s the way I look at it.

I have no doubt that Beirut will recover from its latest body blow. Perhaps the trauma of the explosion will be enough to blow away the sclerotic political compromise that has so bedevilled the country since its birth. It needs a government that can get things done rather than tread fearfully through the minefield of competing factions. Failing that, will the city, as it has before, rise again through the efforts of its merchants, entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens?

If decent governance and regenerated infrastructure are silver linings that might be realised after the tragedy, there’s another potential good that might come out of it, even if it’s not directly connected to the latest disaster.

The many videos of the blast show an extraordinary explosion. Not surprising when you consider that 2,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate blew up. A mere two tonnes of the stuff, in the hands of a terrorist group, are enough to destroy a large building. Current estimates are that the power of the blast was one fifth of the size of the Hiroshima bomb.

Could it be too much to hope that those who witnessed it, including governments all around the world, will be reminded of the destruction and human suffering that would be caused by a nuclear bomb, and make greater efforts to put new agreements in place that limit the risk of their use in war?

Be that as it may, this was a “where were you when…” moment, not just for the people of Lebanon, but for the rest of us who are paying attention from the safety of our undamaged homes. Until something else comes up to divert our gaze.

It’s almost inconceivable that such a grotesque man-made catastrophe should be a deliberate act rather than the result of systemic negligence. Naturally, though, the Lebanese will be looking for someone to blame. Conspiracy theories have already started drifting on the electronic breeze.

In one sense it doesn’t matter how it happened. Somewhere in the world there’s a dam that will break, a bridge that will collapse, a virus that will escape confinement, a fire that will destroy a tower block. Or perhaps another Chernobyl. What we sow we shall reap. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, shit happens.

We are, after all, human. We are unique in being able to create great works of art and literature. We can fashion the physical elements into things never created by nature. We’re also capable of wreaking havoc and destruction like no other species.

The world is safer for humans that it was a hundred years ago, at least in some respects. Where international standards prevail, usually less accidents take place. Less planes fall out of the skies thanks to the process of learning though mistakes. Despite or perhaps because of Chernobyl, nuclear safety appears to have improved.

But over the past century, the potential for hugely destructive accidents has increased. Back then, it might have been a Titanic, a fire or a building collapse. Now it’s an airliner capable of carrying six hundred people, a city, or a whole area rendered unfit for habitation.

Lebanon, already thrice cursed by economic meltdown, coronavirus and rotten politics, will survive this latest disaster. If it is to survive and thrive, most of the solutions will have to come from its own people, if they are allowed to find them. Its gifts are the climate, the beauty of the country and the talents of its people. Its misfortune is its strategic location within the region, its proximity to Syria and Israel and the competing influences of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Those of us who don’t govern countries, run banks or lead development agencies can do little to help other than to lend our vocal support to our fellow-humans in their suffering, donate to relief agencies and keep them in our thoughts.

The last is important. How many of us still think of the millions of displaced Syrians, of Palestinians stewing in Gaza and Rohingya eking out desperate lives in Bangladeshi camps?

After all, if we think we’re immune to human negligence and iniquity, we don’t have to look far back in our own history to see their effects on us.

And today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of Hiroshima.

The Edge: triumph, disaster and the lessons we can all learn

When you look back on your life, what was the peak? Was there one, or were there many? And do you remember what standing on that peak meant to you? What did it feel like?

These are the kind of questions motivational coaches ask when encouraging  people to visualise success. I ask them of myself occasionally when I try to imagine how it feels to achieve something special. It could be in sport, like Liverpool winning the Premier League. Or politics, as in when Johnson won the last election, or the Brexiteers prevailed in the EU Referendum, much as it makes my toes curl to think of it.

Most of us, me included, go through our lives with our fair share of minor triumphs. When, for whatever reason, we can’t repeat them, we’re not so much jumping off a summit, more a case of rolling gently down a hill of disappointment.

TV viewers in the UK had a rare insight a few nights ago into what it takes to achieve the heights of sporting success, how it feels and what life is like on the down slope. The Edge is about the England cricket team, which went from a miserably low ranking to number one in the world in the space of less than two years, and then back again equally fast.

If you’re not into cricket, don’t give up on me. There are lessons to learn whether you’re an Oscar winner or a prize pumpkin grower.

The period in question was between 2008 and 2014. It began with the appointment of Andy Flower, a tough Zimbabwean who was a first-rate player, as head coach. If you’ve ever encountered a rugby player from Southern Africa, you’ll know what I mean by tough.

With the aid of a new captain, Andrew Strauss, Flower forged a team ethos out of group of talented individuals who included Kevin Pietersen, one of the greatest batsmen of the age, but awkward, cussed and sensitive. Preparation for the summit, a tour of Australia in 2010-11, included a brutal army-style boot camp in Bavaria. It worked. One of the hardest tasks for any national cricket team is beating the Aussies on their home turf. For England, it’s nirvana. England crushed them, and won the series at the inner sanctum of Australian cricket, the massive Melbourne Cricket Ground, in front of ninety thousand baying home fans.

Later that year, with a home series win against India, England made it to number one. Before long, it all went pear-shaped.

Injuries, spats between players, most notably involving Strauss and Pietersen, and a relentless schedule that would have sent cricketing superstars of an earlier age, like W G Grace (above) to an early grave, came to a head when England returned to Australia. They were battered, bruised and ultimately crushed by a resurgent home team who went at them with vicious intent.

Several of those involved went into a downhill spiral. Their careers never recovered. From the interviews, many of them painfully honest, you sense that their lives have never recovered either. It was desperately sad to see Jonathan Trott, one of the people worst affected, still in tears five years after the event.

Others survived and prospered. Two of them are still playing at the highest level and made vital contributions to England’s recent series win over the West Indies.

At which point you might say what the hell – it’s only a game. Not for these guys. Cricket was at the centre of their lives. It’s the same for footballers, golfers and other elite sportspeople who make it to the top and spend a few brief years as the focus of mass adulation. And then what? How do you cope with the rest of your life when you go from being a superstar to a washed-up celebrity making a living out of reality TV, or perhaps fading entirely out of the view of your adoring public?

How was life for Neil Armstrong, or for a soldier whose ultimate moment was storming a hill seventy-five years ago?

We focus on training for success in any field. Battalion commanders, business executives, football coaches become heroes when they instil esprit de corps in teams, and when they coax performance out of individuals beyond what the person thought possible.

But it seems to me that the work of those who help people face the downward slope is both unrecognised and unrewarded. This is partly because there’s little profit in helping people manage what they see as their decline. Yes, there are therapists and life coaches. For those who bear the physical scars there are doctors who deal with chronic pain. And yes, many people build new careers after outstanding success early in life. Many don’t though, and spend the rest of their lives aching at the big gap that success in any field has left.

This is not just a problem for elite sportspeople. We all eventually have to face the the possibility that our careers are in decline. Our earning power is on the wane, or possibly non-existent. Many of us respond by finding new challenges that have nothing to do with money and career trajectory. But others – the ones who are aching inside – hit the bottle, suffer from depression and all too often decide to end their lives.

In the UK, fairly early in our working lives we’re encouraged to prepare for our retirement by taking out pensions. Why, then, aren’t we also encouraged to prepare mentally for the downhill slope? You would have thought that the cost to the state of treating age-related depression, dementia and other illnesses is sufficiently high for us to invest a little in this field. Call it decompression therapy, if you like.

You might also think, if profit is your motive, that there are plenty of bucks to be made from a self-help tome along the lines of How to Grow Old Gracefully. Or even disgracefully, so long as in the process of your disgrace you aren’t splurging money you don’t have pretending that you’re still young and, unbeknown to you, attracting the ridicule of those who are still young.

Perhaps mine is a very British concern. If you’re an American, society will tell you you’re on your own, buddy. Which perhaps explains why so many more Americans belong to a church, which often steps into the breach as a carer of last resort. Either that, or you go buy yourself a self-help book.

Either way, a society that rewards us for success and then abandons us to find our own way on the slow trudge towards oblivion can hardly be called enlightened. Perhaps our government, in its new-found enthusiasm for public health programmes, won’t stop with it’s efforts to turn us from fat to fibits and bicycles, will nudge us into thinking more about dealing with the mental impact of knowing that our best days are behind us. Or at least to find new best days to enjoy, rather than cower behind our front doors waiting in dread for the grim reaper, or the viruspolizei, whichever comes sooner.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, England are in action again tomorrow against Pakistan. I hope the younger players have watched The Edge, or else talked to those who went through the days of glory and despair. Perhaps they have a coach who’s trotted out the old Kipling chestnut:

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same….

Perhaps not. After all, winning’s everything, is it not?

GPT-3: how artificial intelligence might burn out the social media

Thanks to artificial intelligence, this blog and millions of other utterances will soon sink into a swamp of incredulity. As in, nobody will know for certain whether the words I’m writing come from me or from a computer. Thanks to a miraculous piece of technology called GPT-3, all I have to do is come up with a few sentences, and the computer will complete the post. And, based on results I’ve seen, make perfect sense – perhaps better sense than me.

I wish it had been available ten years ago. I would thereby have been saved the effort of writing over a thousand posts and a million words. Though probably I wouldn’t have bothered.

The implications of GPT-3 and its even smarter successors are mind-boggling. Imagine you wrote a letter or email of complaint to the CEO of a utility or mobile phone company. The software would be able to read your letter, make sense of it, and draft a meaningful response rather than the blatherous vanilla reply that usually comes from an executive far too busy to bother themselves with our particular problem.

Now imagine that you run a vlog that posts to YouTube. I’ve often thought about doing this using the content that you see in this blog, but to be honest, it’s a hassle. I’m not particularly photogenic, at least not at six in the morning. Though I like the sound of my voice that’s no guarantee that anyone else might.

So, using another technology called Deep Fake, that creates utterly convincing videos of people who either don’t exist or do exist but have had their heads substituted by someone else’s face, imagine that I could hire, say, the face of Tom Hanks and replace my voice with that of Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins.

All I have to do is feed in the words, and Tom and Tony do the rest. Fine, so long as people realise that the words come from me. Also fine, so long as the ever-reasonable Hanks unwittingly lends his face to some right-wing shit-stirrer who wants to summon the militia from the hills in order to defend Donald Trump after Biden’s whipped him in November.

In fact, what if the social media is so saturated by AI-generated stuff that’s utterly plausible? If we’re no longer aware that a real human has anything to do with 80% of the content we view on the social media, as opposed to the rabble of fairly obvious bots that currently infest Twitter and the like, then the human content eventually gets crowded out. At that point you’ve arrived at a stage that often occurs in an epidemic. A particularly virulent bug kills everything in its path, and eventually runs out of organisms that it can infect. It therefore dies out, because it’s too successful for its own good.

A similar situation could also occur with the social media, because I doubt whether most of us would want to be fed a constant diet of AI-generated opinion, even if it actually makes more sense that most of the human-created stuff that it’s replaced.

Then, according to a blogger who’s posted an interesting article on the implications of GPT-3, the only spaces in the internet where we can be sure that we’re looking to content that has come from humans will be private areas – probably at a cost – in which the authenticity and humanity of the contributors has been verified.

The likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey of Twitter are unlikely to be very sanguine about this prospect, because it threatens the entire existence of their current businesses. They either create these private spaces or they die.

I’m making a very big assumption here. It’s that people who hoover up stuff on the social media actually care whether the stuff they’re reading or looking at comes from a human or a computer, so long as it tells them what they want to hear. If they don’t care, then the social media will be reduced to a sump of propaganda that will serve even more than today to amplify people’s prejudices.

An interesting prospect. Fake news burns itself out? The mainstream media regains its credibility?

Whatever the outcome, I suspect that we will be hearing much more about GPT-3 and similar technology for the foreseeable future.

Fifteen-minute cities? Nice idea, but not everyone can afford a fitbit

Sometimes I’m ashamed of how cynical I’ve become in my old age. I offer an example. This morning I read a delightfully idealistic fantasy of post-COVID life in big cities. Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, extols the virtues of the fifteen-minute movement, which advocates that our cities should be transformed into villages in which everything we need for normal daily life is within a fifteen-minute walk or cycle ride.

Not only will we save the planet by reducing transport emissions, but we will level up – in other words, regenerate neglected areas and turn them into versions of Hackney, where currently middle-class millennials rub shoulders (or elbows, I guess) with drug dealers and knife fighters. In Gaby’s ideal fifteen-minute cities, high earners who have saved money on commuting, Pret sandwiches and suits will be:

drawn to spending it on services that go with the grain of their changed lives: hub workspaces, where lonely home workers can rent a desk alongside others, or cosy neighbourhood joints that make them feel comfortable about going out to eat again.

There will be affordable housing, a decent supermarket, artisan shops and all the rest of the stuff you would expect to find in some of London’s “edgy-but-cool” inner city havens.

Yep, and the big rock candy mountain as well.

No matter that you’ll have to tear down the rat-infested fire traps doubling as tower blocks, and find decent jobs for all the people who are no longer required to get up at three in the morning to take the first train in to their city cleaning contacts. There are only a certain number of barista vacancies in Dulwich and Dalston.

You’ll also have to persuade those who may have enjoyed the experience of working from home that this is forever. How long before they start hankering for the gossip, the office politics and the ceaseless manoeuvring for promotion by being the last person to leave the office?

As for building local communities, I suppose that’s a laudable aim as long as you understand that in modern cities, or rather the inner city areas we all want to see regenerated, communities, like the people who create them, are transitory things. Half the people want to move away to better jobs and safer lives, and for the other half are at the stage in their lives when they crave the excitement, the vibrant creativity that results from many ethnic groups living close together. And, of course, the fact that many of their friends from uni live nearby.

So these communities, where a hundred years ago people would have spent their entire lives, are now largely transitory. Not quite pop-up communities, but definitely places where you live for a while until you can afford to move on. And if you can’t afford to move, you either sink into apathy or you make damn sure that your kids can.

When I look back at my life trajectory, I ask myself if the dynamics of the city life that I experienced were so different in the Sixties and Seventies. I went to university in Birmingham and for the following decade continued to live within fifteen minutes by bus from the campus. I couldn’t afford a car, so I didn’t bother to learn to drive until I could. The places where I lived, in flats and house-shares, were full of people I met at university. Moseley, Kings Heath and Harborne were my stamping grounds. We didn’t have craft beers and internet cafes, but we did have pubs, music, curry houses and each other’s places for some riotous assembly.

Then, at the age of 29, via a circuitous set of circumstances, I ended up in Saudi Arabia, where I spent most of the next decade. I got married, we started a family and when we came home we bought a house in a small Surrey town utterly different from Moseley. Which is where, apart from some further excursions to the Middle East, we have remained ever since.

If you judge it by the ideals of the fifteen-minute movement, my town is a deprived area. Any sense of community is negated by preponderance of people who live in gated estates who might pay lip service to the idea of sharing space with other people, but who actually want to keep themselves to themselves, save for visits to Waitrose, the occasional night out at a “cosy local restaurant” and maybe a trip to the movies five miles away.

We have no local newspaper, though there is an online version. Once upon a time there was a communal hall, but that closed years ago. The local hospital burned down a while ago, to be replaced by a couple of general practice surgeries in portakabins. We do have plenty of park space, as well as good schools and supermarkets, but “community activities” are far and few between beyond those that are centred on schools.

That was my journey, and you’d be hard put to convince me that the fitbit-wearing, yoga-panted vegans in the inner cities aren’t on the same road themselves.

Our town is as far from edgy as you could possibly imagine. And of course I was joking when I said it was deprived, which is not to say that nobody you could call deprived lives there.

So where I live, COVID is hardly likely to force a lifestyle change. All it’s likely to do is put the aspirations of its population on hold for a while. As soon it’s no longer a dominant factor, be it in six months or three years, they will be back on their trains to their offices in the city or the outlying suburbs, pursuing their goals of endless upward mobility.

As for city-dwellers, I’m afraid it will take much more than a few affordable housing estates and supermarkets to create permanent communities that care for each other from cradle to grave. Cities will remain as they are: a permanent crust of the suburban entrenched that encloses an endlessly shifting population. A bit like the planet we’re trying to save, actually.

I hate to pour cold water over the dreams of idealists, but in my humble opinion the entire structure of our country, with its entrenched interests and its inequality, its greed and its guest-workers, and its relentless pursuit of what others have, will have to change if fifteen-minute cities are to become a reality.

Mass impoverishment through economic collapse is only likely to lead to existing power structures being replaced by others whose main purpose will be to constrain and restrict rather than to liberate and empower. The imperative will be keeping the show on the road.

Will COVID create these conditions? Possibly. To assume that once the virus has done its work, people will be focused on anything other than their own struggles for economic and social survival, is naive at best.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t dream. Fifteen-minute cities are splendid things. I lived in one once, after a fashion. But it will take more than a wodge of government money to make them happen. You could argue that it will take a revolution. Or an apocalypse.

It’s history, but not as we know it, Jim

If you’re looking for some light relief (to coin a phrase) from the troubles of the day, you could try reading Kate Lister’s A Curious History of Sex. I won’t go into the contents in any detail, since this isn’t an adult blog.

But suffice it to say that Lister, who covers the whole gamut of sexual activity in varying levels of detail, deals with her subject in an academic style, with loads of footnotes, references, a huge bibliography and a comprehensive index. But she does so with a lack of the stuffiness and arcane language you would expect from someone who makes her living as a university lecturer. In fact the book is laced with wicked humour that’s entirely appropriate because, as we all know, sex can be a very funny subject.

We meet many of the usual suspects, from Casanova to Kinsey, Lord Rochester to D.H. Lawrence, and a number of earnest but little known inventors who over the ages have come up mechanisms both to encourage and prohibit the art of procreation and the enjoyment thereof. The illustrations are almost worth the investment on their own.

In case you think that this is a smutty book dressed up as a serious academic tome, be reassured. It’s neither, though there’s plenty of smut as well as scholarly reflection. Kate Lister really knows her stuff, so if you want to know about the history of aphrodisiacs, monkey glands, contraception, sacred prostitution, bicycles and menstrual fetishes, she’s your woman.

Let’s face it, most of us have done it, thought about it, read about it and remembered it, even if for some it’s a theoretical interest. Sex is everywhere, whether we like it or not. So it surely does us no harm to delve into the subject in a little more depth than we might if all we encounter beyond our own experience is bonkbusters, adult websites and R-rated movies.

Having said that, it’s not the sort of book you would want to leave lying around when your grandparents come to visit unless you’re pretty sure of their broad-mindedness. Are grandparents shockable these days? I’m not sure, but I suspect that my children’s grandparents, if they were still alive, might have squirmed a bit.

On the other hand, you might find it amusing to read it at the airport and watch the carefully-disguised reactions of your fellow-passengers.

Well worth a read, even if you feel the need to wrap it in brown paper.

Let’s hear it for the awkward squad

Unconscious bias is a very cool concept these days. We talk about it most when we’re examining the causes of racism. Why should a white person feel more threatened when he’s being followed in the street by a black guy with a hoodie than he is in the presence of a white guy wearing Boden?

There are, however, many other causes of bias. Whether they’re rooted in the unconscious or are the result of conscious, known bias depends on the individual. Or at least I imagine so. The difference, perhaps. between “I’m not a racist, but…” and “I am a racist”.

I mention this after watching a video of a group of doctors, one of whom, a woman from Texas, extols the virtues of hydroxychloroquine, the wonder drug that Trump believes cures the coronavirus. My immediate reaction is to ask who is behind this obviously staged event. Steve Bannon, Breitbart and the Republican Tea Party group, it seems. Ah. Then Trump (or his son, not quite sure which) retweets somebody who in turn has retweeted the video:

At which point I turn off. Trump propaganda. Not worth wasting brain cells on this stuff. I long ago ceased to see any merit in anything he endorses or claims to believe. As a side issue, the background to this story is hilarious. The doctor in question believes all kind of weird stuff including “alien DNA and the physical effects of having sex with witches and demons in your dreams.” This article in the Daily Beast, from which I’ve quoted, is a must-read for anyone with a dark sense of humour. 

So what’s going on here? Basically, I think Trump is an arse. So I ignore anything he says unless it serves to prove that he’s an arse. Why do I think he’s an arse? Because of his repellent personality as much as because of his repellent policies.

So you could say that I’m guilty of personality bias, for want of a better phrase. In the same way as I despise Trump and Boris Johnson, I’m prepared to give Joe Biden and Keir Starmer the benefit of the doubt. Not because of their policies, but because I’m attracted to their personalities. Uncle Joe and Steady Starmer, as opposed to Donald the Bully and Blatherous Boris.

Perhaps my bias has roots in my unconscious, but it feels very conscious to me. The trouble is, as we know, bias towards people we consider empathetic, sympathique, can blind us to their flaws and hidden agendas. Which is why we end up falling victim to charming con artists. And why many of us make decisions primarily based on personality. I like him, therefore, I’ll marry him, I’ll vote for him, I’ll go into business with him, I’ll buy something from him.

Apart from the obvious pitfalls of marrying a charming person who ends up as controlling and abusive, or voting for a politician who fails to deliver, there are other pitfalls to personality bias. Combined with the cancel culture – another vogue phenomenon – it can lead us to dismiss a person’s life achievements because of a single misstep.

Take Dr David Starkey, for example. His personality isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. His public persona is acerbic, sarcastic and bad-tempered. Yet he’s made a career out of his books and and documentaries on the Tudors. I’ve found them entertaining and insightful. Now that he’s cast into the outer darkness because of a racist remark in an interview, he may publish more books, but it would be a brave TV producer who would commission another documentary series from him. He will be forever known for his views on slavery. Part of the reason will be because of his spiky personality and love of controversy.

JK Rowling, on the other hand, will most likely survive and prosper despite her views on gender which so enraged trans activists. Millions of Harry Potter fans will stay with her, and because of her empathetic, compassionate personality she will always win more admirers than detractors.

Are we more likely these days to make snap decisions about people based on their likeability or their repellent personalities? Yes, I think we probably are. It’s nothing new, but I do wonder how many people who have much to offer, and whose talents may have flowered in times gone by, find themselves dead in the water because of the imperative to be liked. Whether or not the social media has anything to do with this I’m not sure. But certainly the key to online popularity is how many people hit the like button in response to something you say or do.

Would Beethoven’s genius have been fully appreciated today if his success had depended on social media approval? Likewise Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and a host of other artists, writers and performers whose personalities and private lives would not have escaped scrutiny in today’s censorious culture.

So this is a gentle reminder that nobody is all bad and nobody is all good. That even Donald Trump, the very sight or mention of whom induces in me almost a physical revulsion, might occasionally be capable of doing something that I might consider positive, not that I can think of anything at the moment.

Yes, some people are beyond the pale, and probably would be in any age. We shouldn’t, for example, give Hitler any credit for his love of dogs and watercolours. But let’s not be too quick to write off the awkward, spiky, unpleasant souls whose achievements might nonetheless change us for the better.

Whatever Facebook or Instagram might lead you to think, being likeable isn’t the the be-all and end-all of life.

Corona Diaries: The truth is one thing. Useful truth is quite another.

As a lay observer of the COVID pandemic, I can’t add anything to the science or the politics of the event, though I can shoot my mouth off like Donald Trump and any other ignorant blowhard.

But let me tell you what frustrates me about the way information is presented, both by governments and institutions involved in dealing with the crisis.

Since the outbreak began, we have been assailed by diagrams, such as the one above, showing the progress of the virus. Most of them are by country, and all of them are two-dimensional. Effectively, they’re league tables. Even when there are breakdowns of different regions or cities within countries, the same format is used. London’s doing OK, Leicester’s had an outbreak. New York is over its peak. Florida and Texas are in the middle of a second wave.

We all seem to be holding our breath in anticipation of a second wave this winter, with the added complication of the flu season. Based on what I can see, I’m not sure it will be as simple as that. What if there are second waves now? Will those affected have a third wave, or a fourth? And will they all happen at the same time?

Perhaps the picture we should be looking at will show us that because of the measures taken thus far, the idea of successive waves, as occurred in the 1918/9 flu pandemic, is both over-simplistic and reflects the fact that countermeasures at that time were not nearly as effective as those we have used against this pandemic.

What I would like to see is a form of presentation that shows the rise and fall of infections and deaths in a much more granular and dynamic way. One method would be a three-dimensional, animated terrain map that shows how infections ebb and flow, which allow you to zoom to a region and perhaps even a city to show what’s happening.

Perhaps each peak, that might look like a molehill, could have a different colour to show successive waves. For example, blue for the first, red for the second and purple for the third. To give you an idea of what I’m taking about, take a look at this animated global map showing earthquakes around the world since 2015. Imagine the map a hundred times slower, and you’ll see what I mean.

That way, you should be able to see not only the size of the infection – indicated by the size of the molehill – but where each region is in terms of the progression of the disease. If we see that Leeds, for example, has stayed flat after a first wave, does that suggest that it’s in for a second one soon? We should also be able to look at the intervals between successive waves and understand reasons why an area has been hit with three waves over six months, and another by only two.

It may be that some institutions and governments are using these techniques right now to forecast future molehills, or, if you prefer, spikes. If so, they clearly think that we’re too stupid to understand anything other than a flat diagram. Or perhaps they don’t have data sufficiently granular to be able to show infections on anything other than a broad regional basis.

It would be a bit stupid of any government to share with the public predictions that might either be too optimistic or too apocalyptic. But wouldn’t it enhance our understanding of what’s happened thus far if we were shown historical data in the format I’m suggesting?

Why is this relevant to us ignorant proles? Well, suppose you were looking to go on holiday in France or Italy. You want to look at the history of infections in the region you want to visit. Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to see a dynamic map showing what has happened in the past six months in that region? Far more useful and meaningful, surely than a simple chart showing lines rising and falling, and often at only a national level.

The current situation in the United States shows how unevenly the virus is spreading and being contained. New York has been flat for a while, whereas Texas is in the middle of an outbreak similar to that which hit New York in March and April. Playing whack-a-mole with each successive hotspot is likely to result less in a blanket second wave in the coming winter, but instead in regions at different stages of infection, which is where the US is now.

Given all the science that’s going into developing vaccines and testing drugs to treat the symptoms of COVID, it would be surprising if 3D geographic models didn’t exist.

Many of us have important decisions to make as we emerge from the social and economic wreckage. Surely we need as much information as we can get, so that we can come to our own conclusions about where we want to live in the future, where would be the safest places to go in holiday, and where we might want to work.

Similar models showing economic trends would also be useful. For example, it would be good to see trends in employment by region and city, not buried in some dense statistical report, but in easy-to-understand graphic form. The same goes for business failures, bailouts and reconstruction spend.

Such information, collected and updated in real time and presented without political bias or spin by organisations such as the UK’s Office of National Statistics, would go a long way towards counteracting the sense that our chains are being pulled by leaders who have varying agendas and are only too happy to pull the wool over our eyes.

The cost of recovering from the pandemic will ultimately be met by us, the taxpayers, not by the Bank of Never Never. So surely it’s time that we were treated as grown-ups, not gullible children.

When normal is abnormal

What with the cricket, the pandemic, the labours of writing a daily post and the bizarre political goings-on on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m finding it difficult to catch up with one of my favourite activities: reading book reviews.

So this morning I was doing a review binge. One of the books that caught my attention was a novel set in the 1918-19 flu pandemic. I got halfway down the review to the point where the author is described as living with her female partner and their kids. At that point, I thought uh-huh, I know what’s coming.

And it surely did. A few paragraphs later she talks about realising she was a lesbian at 14, and the effect that this had on her writing career – the sense of otherness that every writer needs at some time in their life.

I don’t doubt her sincerity, and I agree with her otherness hypothesis. But I wonder at what point in the future we stop remarking on sexual orientation as being noteworthy.

Perhaps when Putin has fallen, when imams no longer urge their followers to throw gays off the top of buildings and when thuggish Chelsea supporters no longer beat the crap out of gay journalists.

Also perhaps when we have worked out a commonly acceptable protocol within which people can change their gender without arousing fear and paranoia rather than sympathy and supportiveness among those who aren’t remotely affected.

Should that day ever come, relief from the politics of sexual identity is unlikely to be long-lasting because most phobias tend to submerge and rise again. But I actually long to read something like this in a book review which doubles as a profile of the author:

When I got to be 18, I realised that try as I might to prove to myself otherwise, I was a man who had no sexual interest in other men and did not wish to be a woman. I found porn boring, had no dominating sexual fetishes and was only interested in women of roughly my own age. I felt utterly alone.

Because when we get to the point where normality in terms of human behaviour is no longer seen to be relevant, and has only ever been a reflection of social expectations at a specific point in time, then we can start thinking of a new baseline. What is toxic? What is harmful, not only to other humans but to other species and to life itself?

Does that mean abandoning religious belief, which is responsible for so many of the structures that help societies to be coherent yet cast aside people who do no apparent harm and yet whose behaviour is deemed abhorrent? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that perhaps followers of religions should examine their scriptures and traditions and ask whether their deity really intended to cause so much suffering through the strictures they are supposed to have decreed.

As part of that process we also need to define more closely what harm actually means. If we accept that those who murder, injure, rob, lie, steal and cheat are doing harm, what, for example, about those who break with societal norms, and in particular the rules of honour? Is someone who brings shame upon a family doing harm?

These are all questions on which enough has been written to fill many libraries. I have nothing profound or groundbreaking to add to the literature.

But I do sense that in many parts of the world we’re moving closer towards the ethos of “do no harm”, even though Google abandoned it years ago. Perhaps that’s because I’m of a subset of a generation that tried for a while to live by that ethos, until we discovered for ourselves that harm has many definitions and that living in the real world was far more complicated than we imagined.

Since the Sixties and Seventies, in Britain at least, we have moved on from some moral absolutes. We don’t censor books, male homosexuality is no longer a crime, divorce no longer carries implications of morality, and it won’t be long before we decriminalise marijuana.

You could argue that our increased toleration of variety in behaviour is a sign that the bonds of Western societies are weakening, that we are becoming increasingly decadent. That’s certainly an argument that the likes of Xi Jinping might accept.

And yet, even while laws might reflect a more tolerant society, we use the power of the social media to reject, condemn, ostracise and cancel people whose views don’t chime with ours.

We live in a world with miraculous diversity. We have more species than we can count. Each landscape and waterscape is subtly or obviously different from its neighbour. Why then are we so obsessed with differences in human behaviour?

Much as I’d like to believe otherwise, as each generation finds its targets of intolerance, I don’t have much confidence that we’re moving much closer to that golden era when to be normal is abnormal.

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