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A bullying politician: which matters most – the means or the end?

Let’s talk about bullying. A drill sergeant screams in the face of a young recruit, showering them with saliva. Is this bullying? A group of footballers surround the referee to protest at a decision that doesn’t go their way. Is this bullying? A teacher sneers with contempt at a kid who gets an answer wrong and humiliates them in front of the class. Is this bullying?

I know a lot of people who would answer each question with “yes, but”. They might follow the “but” by saying it happened to them and it didn’t do them any harm. In fact, it toughened them up. It taught them to be resilient, to accept criticism and to get it right next time. It made them the person they are today.

Often as not, if someone who is bullied stands up and resists, there are consequences, not usually good. The new recruit is probably sent off to clean the toilets. The referee sends someone off, or complains to their professional body. Either way, they risk being accused of being weak and unable to control the match. The kid can tell their Mum and Dad, who complain to the school. The kid, at least in their imagination, risks being picked on by the same teacher again, or getting a reputation among their schoolmates of being thick as two short planks.

Now consider the government minister who cajoles and belittles her senior staff, all of them presumably well-qualified and experienced people, with the result that one of them collapses, possibly as the result of stress and overwork. What are the consequences for them? Loss of employment, damaged reputation and even, it seems, damaged health.

Is Priti Patel a bully, or can she be excused on the grounds that she was so committed to her work that she failed to notice that she was turning her subordinates into gibbering wrecks?

She might smile wryly at the story of Timur, the all-conquering founder of the Mughal empire, deciding to build a huge mosque in Samarkand. Since he was away campaigning, he put two overseers in charge of delivering the project. When he returned, he was horrified to find the the main portico was too small for his taste. He ordered it rebuilt and executed the overseers in spectacularly grisly way. Pour encourager les autres. The twist in the tale was that although the mosque was magnificent, it started going to pieces almost from the moment of completion. Worshippers were constantly on their guard against falling tiles. We’re never told what happened to the architects and builders, but one can guess.

All of this begs a question: what is the dividing line between bullying and forceful leadership? Can anyone who has led people look at themselves in the mirror and say that they’ve never been guilty of what others might perceive as bullying? I certainly can’t.

Perhaps the line is between attacking the person, which often considered to be bullying, and criticising the behaviour, which isn’t. In those terms I’ve probably kept on the right side, though perhaps not everyone who has worked with me would agree.

But of this I’m sure. Whenever I’ve got hot under the collar about a person’s behaviour or performance and let the person see my anger, whether in private or in front of others, I’ve always felt myself a lesser person for allowing myself to do so.

There’s also a difference between someone loved and respected losing their cool, and someone for whom sarcasm and abuse is a standard modus operandi. If your parents tell you off, do they do so in a manner that convinces you that they still love you? Or do you endure a childhood of cold parenting, which causes you to acquire many layers of passive resistance to protect yourself?

I know very little about Priti Patel, but from what I do know, I can well imagine that when trying to impose her will upon the self-assured mandarins who work for her, but don’t consider that they really work for her, she has felt insecure and frustrated, which is why she has lashed out on occasion. As a result, to use a favourite football term, she’s lost the dressing room. Brian Clough and Leeds United come to mind.

If I wanted to be unkind to her, I would say that she reminds me from afar of the head teacher of an indifferent English private school who sweet-talks the parents at an open day, and when the doors are closed returns to her unenlightened ways. She might say that the parents don’t much care about her behaviour or her standards of education, only that that she sends back their offspring prepared for a life of dull conformity that is unlikely to result in them going bankrupt or being sent to jail.

It’s not difficult to find mitigating circumstances in her defence, mainly around the culture of her department, the Home Office, its recent history and the divided loyalties as an institution of the civil service. She might also claim in her defence institutional racism, misogyny and class prejudice.

She might feel that she was surrounded by incompetents, as evidenced by her department’s past failings. But were those failings – the Windrush scandal, the hostile environment policy and the failure to control immigration – the result of the failings of the civil servants, or those of the minister under whose watch most of these mistakes occurred: Theresa May?

And then we come to the Comey question. To whom do those civil servants owe their loyalty? To Priti Patel (or in James Comey’s case, Donald Trump)? Or to the institution of the civil service (or in Comey’s case, the constitution)?

The answer in British terms would probably be to the duly elected government of the day, whose chosen officer is Priti Patel – though always subject to the rule of law. But what if that officer is asking them to implement policies that they think are ill-advised or possibly even disastrous? In that case, they’re supposed to offer their advice, and if it’s not accepted, to bow to the will of the officer, their minister.

If the minister bullies and cajoles, the civil servants have rights under employment law, which explains why her previous head of department, Sir Philip Rutnam, is suing the government for constructive dismissal.

In giving a view as to whether Priti Patel should have been dismissed for her behaviour, I have to be careful to override my personal and political views. I do not like bullies, and I have never supported the Conservatives.

But looking at her case, I’m convinced that she should go because she has shown a character failing that makes her an ineffective minister. To retain her would be to condone behaviour that under the vast majority of circumstances does not allow teams to perform at their best. If she can bully people and get away with it, so can we all. Just as Dominic Cummings helped to destroy the consensus of compliance that had built up during the first COVID lockdown by his stupid trip to Barnard Castle.

When a football manager loses the dressing room, the consequences are that the players underperform, undermine team morale with their grievances and start talking to their agents about moving to another team. And the team starts losing matches that they should be winning.

Fairly or unfairly, deservedly or undeservedly, inadvertently or not, Priti Patel appears at one stage to have lost the dressing room. Even if she’s recovered it, when the chips are down, she’s likely to do so again. It’s a matter of character, not just performance. Boris Johnson should not wait until the tiles start falling from the roof.

It’s also a matter of zeitgeist. Behaviour that might have been acceptable a thousand, a hundred or even fifty years ago is no longer acceptable today. Whether that’s cause for regret or celebration is irrelevant. It happens to be reality, at least in the United Kingdom, even if it’s not part of the learned experience of politicians who grew up on the playing fields of Eton

Which is why she should go.

What did you do in the Lockdown, Granddad? Pilnuj swoich spraw, dziecko.

Since we have declined to gorge on bulimia-inducing episodes of The Crown, you might wonder what we are doing in our locked-down evenings. Well, you probably won’t be wondering, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

Not, as you might think, knitting, playing chess, reading some high-minded history of the Emperor Franz-Joseph or having intelligent conversations about the delicious prospect of Donald Trump going to jail.

Actually, we’re sprucing up on our languages. French, Danish, Flemish, German, Dutch and Polish to be specific. Not via interminable sessions on WhatsApp with people in Lodz, Ghent, Amsterdam, Berlin and the Massif Central, but by the next best thing: watching Euro-dramas on TV, and slowly absorbing the cadences while trying to make sense of the subtitles.

I had expected that the well of foreign-language drama would have run dry by now. But it seems that the folks on BBC4 and geeky Walter, who selects stuff for More4, have been busy dredging the archives. Some of the stuff we’ve been watching is fairly recent, but a few of the series are several years old. Not quite as ancient as those Inspector Montalbano episodes where sexy Salvo doesn’t even have a mobile phone, let alone a smart one. But old enough. Though who cares? Shakespeare died four hundred years ago, after all.

So in case you haven’t had occasion to catch them, either because they’re not available where you are or because you just don’t like foreigners, here are a few gems that you’re missing.

Let’s go to France first. God clearly doesn’t like Annecy (above), which is a pleasant town near the Swiss border blessed with a beautiful lake, mountains, woodland and weather that’s always benign – apparently. Fear on the Lake is the third series based in the town. In the previous two, all manner of misfortunes, from murder, kidnapping and accidental death, have been visited on the unfortunate residents and the long-suffering police officers who try and keep them safe.

This time they’re cursed with a plague, which of course is very timely. Not coronavirus but (spoiler alert) Ebola. The whole thing races along at a fine pace, taking in not only the bloody snot that informs us of each new victim, but a kidnapped child and a bunch of murderous robbers. The heroes are Clovis Bouvier (a wonderful first name I last encountered when reading about the ancestors of Charlemagne) and Lise Stocker. They’re both cops, and they have a young son who also manages to get dragged into the action.

Normally one would say oh merde, c’est affreux. And it does get pretty grim. But since we’re currently going though an actual plague, there’s the additional pleasure of being able to spot obvious breaches of infection control protocol, including pretty casual use of PPE, especially when the principal characters rush to be with their loved ones. Understandable, I suppose, since it must be difficult to record coherent dialogue when it takes place between astronauts without radio.

Still, it’s well worth a watch, especially if you’re missing the beauty of France.

Next up is a compelling series in which the weather is rarely as pleasant as France in the summer. DNA is a baby trafficking saga set in Denmark, France and Poland. It involves nuns, crooked adoption agencies and a Danish cop who has a personal reason for investigating the disappearance of a child five years ago.

Better still, one of the main characters is the wonderful Charlotte Rampling, who plays a French police chief. Given that she’s 74, clearly the French aren’t as ageist as I thought they were. And a very calm, no-nonsense police chief she is too. She seems to have developed a tendency to look down her nose at the mortals with whom she has to work, an expression of regret rather than contempt. It’s fair to say that she dominates the proceedings.

Then we have a Belgian courtroom drama called The Twelve, in which Frie, a teacher, is accused of murdering her best mate fifteen years ago and, more recently her daughter, who was in the custody of her estranged partner.

The twelve, of course, is the jury, many of whom have back stories almost as interesting as the subject of the trial. There’s a guy whose only friend is the alpha male monkey at the zoo where he works. A woman with a coercive husband you want to slap every time he opens his malicious mouth. A builder with a mendacious, coke-snorting brother with whom he runs the family business. And so on.

The question that lingers through the trial is whether Frie is a manipulative narcissist with a murderous streak, or the victim of the philandering ex-partner who’s trying to set her up.

My favourite character is Frie’s lawyer, who looks like an old-testament prophet and has a booming delivery to match. His name is Spaak, which is appropriate, because he’s pretty combustible in court. Does he end up getting his client off? That would be too much to say. One thing’s for sure: they certainly have interesting juries in Belgium.

Staying in the Low Countries, we have The Blood Pact, set in Holland. The pact in question is between a convicted murderer with a bad temper, and a mild-mannered tax official. Together, they did away with a gangster called Wally, whom they first hid under the taxman’s trampoline and ultimately trussed up and chucked in a river.

Marius, the murderer, who has been released after serving his sentence, is pursued by Ron, another gangster, who is owed money by Wally and suspects that Marius has something to do with his buddy’s disappearance. Marius’s wife Kitty is in deep financial shit, and employs a dubious accountant to conserve some assets before she goes bankrupt. Dubious accountant duly disappears with the money.

Meanwhile, Hugo, the mild-mannered tax man, resorts to unorthodox methods to deter the thirtysomething flash harry who seduces his teenage daughter.

It’s all a bit of tangle, but entertaining as a result. I also love all the Anglicised names, which result in my wife and I wandering around the house growling “where’s Wally?” to each other. We’ve got to Episode Ten so far. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to stand another twenty episodes of Marius losing his rag, Hugo playing the mouse that roared and Kitty having her nineteenth nervous breakdown, but we’ll see.

And finally, there’s The Same Sky, set in pre-unification Berlin, in which a personable young Stasi officer is sent to West Berlin with instructions to seduce a middle-aged woman who works at a NATO listening station. The woman in question is played by Sofia Helin, who is slightly lower on the autism scale than Saga Noren in The Bridge, but still seriously buttoned up. The last time we saw her was when she played a Swedish archaeologist in an Aussie murder hunt, in which she appeared relatively normal, though slightly tortured.

Now she’s half-English, half-Swedish, and as someone who split from her husband a decade ago she’s considered a suitable target for seduction and recruitment by the brutal East German equivalent of the KGB.

Among other things, we’re treated to a highly amusing class for budding spies on the art of seduction. I wish I’d been on that course when I was younger. Oh and there are some interesting sub-plots involving a tunnel, a young swimmer being trained, both athletically and chemically, for the Olympics, and a frustrated physics teacher being censured by his school for demonstrating how a paper plane rises in the heat. Subversive stuff.

All in all, a cornucopia of European entertainment to delight and amuse in these dark evenings, though I would quite like Walter to unearth something light and Italian for dessert. A Mafia comedy perhaps? A couple more Montalbano episodes would do nicely, though I think we’ve run out of these.

Plenty to amuse, nonetheless, while we wait for Line of Duty and The Valhalla Murders, BBC4’s latest murder epic from Iceland, in which, as always, the landscape promises to play a starring role.

Also nice to indulge in some real fiction while we wean ourselves off CNN’s endless coverage of Donald Trump’s fake fiction, or whatever you like to call it.

Until next time, or Iki kito karto, as the Lithuanians would say.

By the way, I’m reliant on Google Translate for my Euro-phrases (apart from the French). So if the results are ghastly misinterpretations culled from some Satanic tract, sue them, not me.

The Crown? No thanks. Give me Ivan the Terrible any time.

I take the same attitude towards Britain’s royal family as the Victorians did towards children: that they should be seen but not heard, except possibly at Christmas.

Hard to achieve, really, in an era of “I speak therefore I am”, in which satisfying the public expectation of narcissistic self-expression and emotional incontinence are enough to unhinge even the most stolid member of a family not known for their imagination and intelligence.

Watching the Queen twenty-five years ago, bullied by the politicians into making an address to the petal-strewing nation after the death of a women whose antics clearly horrified her was a case in point.

I’m afraid that much as I love Olivia Coleman, I’m profoundly uninterested in The Crown, and I really couldn’t give a fig about the current kerfuffle over an interview with Princess Diana from twenty-five years ago. After all, was this the first time there were three people in a royal marriage? Edward VII might have had the answer to that one.

What I want from the royal family is this.

They should be dull but worthy. They should do the necessary when it comes to knighting people, opening buildings and inspecting the troops. They should refrain from talking politics, because God knows we have enough idiot politicians without idiot royals sounding off as well.

They should continue with their silly little rituals and absurd protocols if they wish to, and get rid of them if they so desire as well. They should be aware that being royal may once have been a divine right or a sacred obligation, but nowadays it’s a job.

The job description is pretty tough. If you’ve got the top job, you have to meet Donald Trump, suffer weekly meetings with a blatherous prime minister and commune with no end of worthy nonentities when all you want to do is pat the noses of your horses and put your feet up at the palace.

Worse still if you’re on the fringes, required to toe the line but not given much in the way of responsibility. Small wonder then that you marry a TV star and abscond to Los Angeles so that you can live a life of endless self-expression.

But if you keep your nose clean, avoid Jeffrey Epstein and remain aware that your slightest indiscretion will be noticed, leaked, circulated, subjected to a woke-test and turned into an internet meme, there are compensations. Big country estates, plenty of birds to shoot, horses to ride and countries to visit. Plus you get to call yourself HRH, which is a passport to deference and doors opened where they might otherwise be closed. And you get to dress up in fancy uniforms, holding the ranks of Field Marshal, Admiral and Air Marshal simultaneously.

I sometimes wonder what our senior royals might have done with their lives if they hadn’t been senior royals. The Queen might have excelled as the owner of a stud farm. Prince Charles I imagine as the much-loved but occasionally eccentric headmaster of a minor public school, where his homilies would have inspired future civil servants, and much sniggering behind his back. Princess Anne would have made an excellent prison governor – firm but fair. Prince Andrew? Easy. After a middling naval career, he would have ended up as the secretary of a posh golf club, until a scandal involving a lady member caused him to retire.

As for Prince Philip, I fancy him as a Himalayan explorer who pissed off his Sherpas so much that they accidentally dropped him down a crevasse.

Not that I think of them that much, unless I’m forced to do so by some TV producers who look to make a buck by dredging up muck.

I actually think that the Queen has done a superb job of being the Queen over the past seventy-odd years. She certainly doesn’t deserve to be portrayed as a sour old matriarch in a fictional account masquerading as fact. And the rest of them, by and large, have done their best to play their parts. Like all of us who try and do a good job, they deserve some slack, because, like us, they’re fallible humans.

Would I prefer that we get rid of them? Not really. A country without royals has to invent their equivalent. The standards expected of royals are rarely met by elites in other countries, let alone by those that still have royalty. Would I prefer to live in countries where the likes of Donald Trump are temporary kings, or where Vladimir Putin struts around the palaces of the Tsars?

And should we end up replacing Her Majesty with a figurehead president, it would be more likely that we would end up with someone like Nigel Farage than David Attenborough. Far better to let the Queen & Co bumble on, drawing in the tourists with their chocolate-box ceremonies and well-meaning patronage.

As subjects of entertainment, give me historical kings, queens, emperors and dictators any day. We can safely lie about them. Unfortunately, the current lot aren’t allowed to be interesting, and it’s hard to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear of bland mediocrity, let alone an endless TV series.

Efficiency bad. Red tape good.

Artwork by the incomparable Hunt Emerson

One of the promises made by those who persuaded us British in 2016 to leave the European Union was that Brexit will result in less red tape once we’ve cut through the impenetrable jungle of EU-imposed bureaucracy.

It turns out that this will not be the case. Apparently we are having to hire or redeploy 60,000 people to handle the intricacies of trade between our newly-liberated country and our hitherto largest market across the channel.

I thought of this when my wife and I spent a hilarious couple of hours on the phone to National Savings and Investments, the government body that runs the Premium Bonds. It seems that NS&I have decided that it’s better for us that that they deposit prizes, which used to come in the form of cheques, directly into our bank accounts.

In order for this to happen, since we both have Premium Bonds, it was necessary for us to make separate calls, and each go through a security process that appeared to be a dialogue between several disconnected parts of the same brain.

At each of the three stages we were required answer security questions. First, to establish our identities, then to provide bank details, and finally to tell the institution how we wanted to be notified of our unexpected enrichment which, in the vast majority of cases, is the princely sum of twenty-five quid.

Most of us are familiar with the process of setting up phone or on-line banking that requires us to provide answers to security questions – mother’s maiden name and all that rubbish. But in the first phase, our interrogators went a step further. They clearly had our Experian credit rating information to hand. Armed with this information, they started asking us questions that were directly related to our banking arrangements, using multiple choice. “How large is your bank overdraft facility? None, five thousand or five million?” I’m exaggerating here, but I wonder how they would deal with Donald Trump. Is there a five billion option?

Before they started asking the questions, they told us that if we got any answer wrong we would have to go back to the beginning, which would have wasted an hour of our precious lives. By the end of the process I felt as I once did when I passed my driving test. A mixture of relief and exhilaration.

At each stage we were asked for our names and the first line of our addresses. Not once but several times. A testy “But I’ve just told you that” was met with the explanation that they had to enter the information in “the system”, which presumably they hadn’t done the first time. Was this the equivalent of detectives asking a suspect to run though his story again and again in order to catch them with an inadvertent lie? Who knows?

My wife had gone first. By the time I arrived on the scene she had been going through the process for at least an hour, perhaps because one of the call centre operators, by his own admission, was on his first day of work.

By the time the whole exercise was done, she had steam coming out of her ears. She then handed over to me to start all over again, warning the person that I had a short fuse and didn’t suffer fools gladly. As if they cared. But still, after asking me to answer the same questions twice, as the procedure demanded, he asked if I was OK. I wanted to answer that if they’d got the impression from my wife that I suffered from a particularly nasty form of dementia that made me unreasonably aggressive, they’d got the wrong end of the stick. I wasn’t about to chew the carpet or launch into a murderous assault on my beloved for putting me through this ordeal. But thanks for asking.

In the end, my turn on the grilling machine lasted a mere thirty minutes, thanks to prompting from my wife and the information she had gathered as the result of her interrogation. I remained Jupiter-like in my calm and good humour while she went into fits of laughter beside me at the prospect of the imminent self-combustion that she detected from my facial expressions.

Afterwards, when I looked back on a torturous process that involved three call centres and was clearly designed to stop some scamster from siphoning my hard-won wealth into a bank account other than my own, I had a thought.

What if bureaucracy was good, not bad, as we’ve all been taught to assume? What if all those thousands of jobs created to handle Brexit, ward off cyber-criminals and trace COVID infections were actually saving us from even worse financial privation, or even civil chaos?

After all, the people recruited into these jobs might otherwise be unemployed and thus eking out life on benefits. Instead, they’re drawing salaries and spending them on their mortgages, on Tesco weekly shops and Amazon deliveries, thus keeping the economy and Jeff Bezos’ bank account ticking over.

I’ve seen bureaucratic bloat before. Saudi Arabia’s public sector employs far more citizens than its businesses, which prefer to operate with cheap labour from other countries. Without the hundreds of thousands of jobs for pen-pushers and desk jockeys, the country would collapse into a seething mass of unemployment and seditious discontent.

Since we in the United Kingdom seem to be floundering in the midst of a pandemic and with no clear idea of how after Brexit we’re going to restore our fortunes beyond the vague aspirations voiced by our slippery leaders, perhaps we need to retreat further into our bureaucratic past.

By introducing more red tape we employ more people. If the cost of such employment has to be born by us consumers in terms of transaction fees and higher prices for goods and services, surely that would be more palatable than some blood-soaked finance minister sucking away our wealth by means of overt measures such as tax increases?

So perhaps we need to go back to the system beloved of Foyles, the mega-bookshop in London’s West End, who until recently insisted that if you wanted to buy one of their books, you had to get a chit from one place, and then take it to another place that would accept your money.

Perhaps we should start hiring bus conductors again. And train guards. And putting police back on the beat. And while we’re at it, reintroduce National Service, so that we can counter the imminent threat from Outer Mongolia. We could then deploy more troops to vaccinate us, shore up our dams and prevent the invasion of immigrants from across the channel that threatens to inundate us with unwanted foreigners. That, of course, would require us to expand the command structure, so, joy of joys, more jobs for majors, colonels and generals.

The possibilities are endless. All we have to do is turn ourselves back into a nation of functionaries and jobsworths. We might have to borrow a bit more money, but at least we can keep the workers employed and docile while we figure out what the sunlit uplands will look like.

And then, once we’ve forged a new country in the white heat of technology, we can employ an army of consultants who will help us slowly wean ourselves off all the bullshit jobs we’ve created, and shepherd us into a new era of Universal Basic Income, that allows us, uncritical and cow-like, to graze the pastures of prosperity created by artificial intelligence without the need for human intervention.

Well that’s a plan, isn’t it?

So the next time you’re asked to provide your mother’s maiden name six times in the course of one phone call, ask yourself if you’d prefer that your interrogators should turn into starving zombies stumbling through the streets of your neighbourhood, rifling bins in search of half-eaten Bic Macs.

And repeat the slogan of the age: Efficiency Bad – Red Tape Good.

Cummings and goings

I can’t get excited by the thought of flashing knives in Downing Street. Those who have made their exits from the British government will be replaced by others, and life will go on. Not a particularly good life, as it happens, with worse to come.

I suppose you can’t blame our troubles on a guy who once dressed as a chicken at the behest of a national newspaper and door-stepped David Cameron. After all, if Caligula (a statue claimed to be of him sits in the British Museum) could think of appointing his horse as consul, why not put the government communications apparatus under the control of a chicken?

As for Dominic Cummings, much as I fundamentally oppose the cause for which he successfully campaigned, and ultimately brought to fruition, he shouldn’t be trashed and never heard of again because he road-tested his eyesight and lived to tell the tale. He’s far from stupid. He has ideas, whether you like them or not, but he’s failed to learn the art of the possible.

By pissing off everybody who could harness his ideas and help him make them a reality without making those who oppose them feel small and despised, he became the biggest obstacle to his personal success beyond delivering a project that ultimately might prove ruinous.

I sometimes think that Winston Churchill would have appreciated having Cummings on his team during the Second World War. Winston loved contrary individuals and was never afraid to back oddball scientific and military initiatives, even if some of them came back to bite him on the backside. The difference between him and Boris Johnson is that Winston would never have allowed Cummings to be more than one among many advisers. Churchill was a believer in teamwork, which was why he succeeded in keeping such a diverse group of individuals with different political persuasions and philosophies focused on one overriding objective.

There should always be a place for disruptive thinking in government. But if the disruptor brooks no argument, the ideas they espouse simply become a new orthodoxy as sclerotic as the one they replaced.

I have no great hopes for Boris Johnson’s government now that Lee Cain (Cameron’s chicken) and Dominic Cummings have departed. Boris is still there, and I suspect that he will prove no more adept at leading a new team than he was the old. It would probably help if he negotiated a year’s delay of Brexit on the grounds of the unprecedented instability caused by the pandemic.

But I’m not holding my breath. In fact, I’m resigned to the possibility that 2021 will be one of the worst years, politically, socially, financially, in living memory. What’s important is where we go from here. Are we to become a nation of scientists, solution providers and creative thinkers, or a fragmented society full of bitterness, envy and grudge-bearing, diminished by the loss of wealth, influence and soft power?

Right now, it seems as if we’re both at the same time. The question is which of the two states will become dominant in the future.

Of one thing I’m certain. We shall not become that creative nation by casting people with awkward personalities, like Cummings, into the outer darkness because our leaders put them into roles for which they are manifestly unsuited. We need to find round holes for everyone, and I’m not talking about dustbins.

Perhaps we should pay attention to the recruiting policies of one of our undoubted centres of excellence, GCHQ, who deliberately seek out people on the autistic spectrum, because their talents lend themselves to decryption and pattern recognition.

We need horses for courses, and leaders who can forge teams that work to achieve common objectives. Are those leaders to be found in our current government? Far from proven, unfortunately. But that’s not to say they don’t exist across the political spectrum. It’s time to seek them out and recognise them, hard a task as that is given the current climate of distrust, media fog and divisive politics.

And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try.

Corona Diaries: the death of a decent man

A few days ago, a lucky streak – if you can call it that – came to an end. Until then, I had known nobody who had died of COVID.

One of the hallmarks of previous episodes of mass death over the past century – in my country and I’m sure in many others – is that those of us who survived all knew someone who didn’t. My family suffered losses in both world wars. I’ve been to graves of relatives who died in the first war. Unfortunately, our only casualty of the second war, an uncle, died at sea, so we have no monument or grave to visit.

As far as I’m aware, we lost no relatives to the 1917-19 flu pandemic. But I’d be surprised if those who were around at the time didn’t know people who did die.

Now it’s my turn.  The person who met his end thanks to the virus died in St Peter’s Hospital in Surrey. I knew him well enough, because he was a member of my golf club. Not as a close friend, but someone I often encountered, though less over the past couple of years as health problems started to impinge.

So I’m going to write a few words about him, not in the manner of a mourner who might say a few kind words at his funeral, but as someone who sees him as a memorable person, who therefore should be remembered. Also because he was a real person, with strengths and failings, like all the thousands of others who have died from COVID. And because, for all his eccentricities, he was fundamentally a decent man.

Peter was in his seventies when he died. I knew little about his life outside the golf course. I believe he was once in marketing. His wife passed away a couple of years ago. They had no children. It seems to have been a marriage of co-dependency, though perhaps he was more dependent than she was. She was also an active member of the golf club. She was always doing stuff and organising things. According to Peter, she was his rock. He was lost without her.

Peter, at least in the time when I knew him, was a classic case of what unkind smart-arses from younger generations might call a gammon – In appearance at least. He was short, bald, chubby, with a ruddy complexion that you might think came from an enjoyment of the good things in life. He had the jovial but occasionally dyspeptic manner of the sort of retired army colonel you might encounter in a PG Wodehouse novel.

I sometimes found him a slightly off-kilter figure as he sounded off in the clubhouse about all manner of subjects. On one matter, though, we made common cause against the vast body of opinion among our fellow golfers: Brexit. He, like me, thought that the whole project was utterly stupid. For that I would overlook all his other strange opinions.

But it was on the golf course that he made the strongest impression. To be honest, he was a terrible golfer. A hacker of the worst kind. If I was as bad as him – and I also have my bad moments – I would have given up hitting stupid white balls a long time ago. But Peter kept hacking on, literally, hoping against hope that one day he would cure his incurable habit of removing half the fairway with every shot. And with each turf-ripping excavation that sent the ball, as an accidental result of his efforts, a mere thirty yards, he would issue forth an expletive-laden howl of frustration and self-pity that could be heard in the next county.

It got to the point that I actively avoided playing with him, because it could be a major distraction having to watch a grown man cry several times on each round of golf. His cursing I could handle, because I’m not above the occasional (and some would say regular) screamed expletive. But it didn’t endear him to the women golfers who would occasionally be drawn with him in mixed competitions. I always found this rather unkind, because who these days under the age of ninety is really offended by the wide range of expletives that have become common currency whenever people open their mouths?

Perhaps the real reason for the sniffiness was that those who play golf fancy themselves as adhering to a higher code of conduct than the rest of humanity, which presumably is why people like Donald Trump love playing the game.

Peter became a legend for his golfing exploits. I called him The JCB, because a good fifty percent of the scars on the fairways were the result of his efforts to re-fashion their contours. Equally remarkable was his good humour when he returned from his regular journeys of devastation, and his relentless optimism that next time would be better. It never was.

Those who knew him better than me would say that his first love was sailing. It was to the coast that he headed every weekend. Friends who sailed with him say that at the helm of his boat he was something of a Captain Bligh, though he apparently stopped short of making people walk the plank. Despite what I said earlier, I suspect that battling the elements on the open sea was the reason for his weathered appearance. Unless, of course, his capillaries failed to withstand his regular moments of near-apoplexy on the golf course.

He was also into cars, and would go into raptures about a certain model of MG or some other sports car beloved of people of small stature, though totally uninteresting to someone like me, who would have to be cut into a number of small pieces to fit into those ridiculous fetish objects.

Since I’m not really into sailing either, should I end up next to him at a table, I would make polite conversation about his latest jaunt across the channel, courageously avoiding passing warships and supertankers. Beyond that, unless the conversation turned to the iniquities of Brexit, we didn’t really have too much to say to each other, because I tended to blank out if he started a blow-by-blow account of his latest disaster on the golf course. One doesn’t have much sympathy to spare if one’s busy dealing with one’s own pain.

But he stood out as a character, and I’m sure his name will be mentioned far more often than mine when my golfing days are over.

I hope he’ll forgive me for this less than reverent portrayal if he’s looking down at us from some clubhouse in the sky. I shall miss him, though not because he was a particularly remarkable person, any more than I am. After all, who among us is truly remarkable over the long stretch of time?

No, I shall miss him because in some respects he was a bit like me, at least in his habit of expressing opinions regardless of whether or not they’re sought. But as much as anything else, I’m sad to see him go because he was the first of my acquaintances to be taken by COVID. The thought of him in hospital struggling to breathe or lying senseless on a ventilator is more painful than the sight of all the poor people you see in those incessant fly-on-the-wall reports on the TV news. Because I knew him, and now he’s gone.

For me, he is the first, though probably not the last. And for that, Peter deserves, at least by me, to be recognised, remembered and bidden a fond farewell.

To hell with Pontius Pilate, most of us still know what truth looks like. (We just need to be reminded occasionally)

Did anyone catch Sean Spicer being interviewed on the BBC yesterday?

It rolled me back to 2017, when he was Trump’s press secretary. He was the one who swore, against all available evidence, that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was far bigger than Obama’s.

As an exercise in precisely-rehearsed Trumpspeak, it was a classic. Feisty, combative and repeating ad nauseam the narrative of a biased mainstream media, and the need to wait until all the LEGAL votes have been cast.

So, in “legal votes” I have another trigger phrase that sends me into an uncontrollable screaming fit to add to all the other ones I’ve acquired over the past five year.

The roll of honour includes phrases such as “the will of the people”, “get over it”, the various coronavirus triads that have bombarded us on radio and TV and, in the US, any phrase that includes the word Jesus. And just in case you think I’m politically biased, “for the many, not the few” also sends me into paroxysms.

In fact, just about any slogan or phrase, endlessly repeated, makes me think that we’ve been subjected to a mass hypnotism programme. Every time you hear a middle-aged American woman say Jesus, I imagine the listener thinking of Trump, the end times, socialism and illegal votes.

On the other hand, those who have been counter-hypnotised think of Trump, the end times, pussy-grabbing, religious fanatics, Paula White and the orange monster falling asleep in the Oval Office, or possibly dreaming of pussies, as the hands of a dozen evangelists rest upon his shoulders.

So this is our world, in which our leaders are raised up by Mad Men, kept in office by lawyers and ultimately ushered off the cliff by mental health professionals, if the men in grey suits don’t get to them first. Better that, I suppose, than being lined up against a wall and shot, or incinerated in a bunker.

The fascinating thing about the end of Trump is watching people like Spicer faithfully following the party line. Why, you might wonder? He was fired three years ago – why would he keep trotting out this stuff?

A benign explanation is that he’s a man of shining principle, in the grand tradition of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and, er, Donald Trump. He speaks the truth as he sees it, whether or not you share his views.

On the other hand (a phrase I seem to be using quite often these days) you might think that he, like many others within Trump’s orbit, is keeping his options open. He has nothing to lose by his words, and everything to gain. He looks forward to the arrival of Trump TV, and he reckons that he’ll be in line for a nice little number as one of the anchors and opinion shapers for the new station, along with Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Trump’s chief lackeys, who are bound to desert after Trump leaves the White House.

And as for all the congressman and women who slavishly follow the party line, it would seem that their compliance is guaranteed, because they’ll be afraid Trump will ruin them by publicly withdrawing his support.

If you seek rather a pathetic equivalent in the UK, look no further than Nigel Farage, who is now regularly sounding off with his video feed, railing against lockdown, immigrants and all manner of other causes beloved of the far right. The main difference is that he doesn’t have the money to start his own proper TV station and he doesn’t have seventy million voters lining up to watch him.

But don’t be in the least bit surprised if Nigel gets funded before long, perhaps even by Trump.

Is this our fate from now onwards? To he haunted by failed politicians who seek to monetise their notoriety, not by book deals, but by cascades of garbage on their own TV stations?

It does look that way, though our Nigel is unlikely to get the ratings that Donald would achieve. The worst thing about all this is that whatever Biden delivers, Trump will seek to denigrate. He will measure the failings of the next four years against the shimmering success of his own presidency, until he rises again to take back power in 2024.

There are, however, one or two things that might get in his way. First, his health. While Biden, at 77, skipped up to the podium for his victory speech, Trump, at 78, is unlikely to do the same. He’s more likely to need a golf cart to ferry him everywhere.

He also needs to overcome all the lawsuits, bankruptcy proceedings and potential prosecutions that are likely to follow him out of office. Don’t be surprised if new secrets about his behaviour spring forth before long.

It may be that Biden will give no encouragement to those who seek to send Trump to jail because he won’t want to create a martyr. He can damp down federal investigations, but he can’t stop state prosecutors, especially those in New York who think they have the president bang to rights for financial crimes.

Either way, the last thing Biden will want is to wound Trump without finishing him off. That would make him even more dangerous. For those who seek an end to Trump and Trumpism, the best possible outcome is for him to be convicted for some serious crime that destroys his reputation even among his most fanatical supporters. At the moment, it’s hard to say what that might be. If pussy-grabbing, ripping off suppliers, dodging taxes and blackmailing foreign leaders isn’t enough, what is?

If Trump does manage to slither out of jeopardy, will his TV station become a beacon of conservative values? Or merely a rathole of liars, conspiracy theorists, religious fanatics and opportunists seeking to ride into power and prosperity on the coat-tails of a resurgent candidate Trump in 2024?

More likely the latter, I should have thought.

If this is the case, what can be done to counter his influence? Could it be that there are enough wealthy folks who believe that the truth doesn’t come in multiple brands, like condoms in a drug store? What if they took the view that the truth transcends partisan considerations, and set up a TV station dedicated to debunking, rebutting and, within strict parameters, telling stories and presenting facts that 80% of us (a bow to Pareto) can accept as manifestly true?

Not some grubby little Twitter account or YouTube channel, but a proper organisation with researchers, journalists and yes, even scientists who can lend their reputations to enhance the credibility of the output. And I’m not talking about an organisation that thinks it’s impartial by featuring the opinions of people at each end of a spectrum, no matter how weird and wonderful those opinions might be. I’m imagining an organisation that will be just as ready to call out Biden as Trump, or Starmer as Johnson, if they stray into the land of politically-motivated fantasy.

In Britain, the BBC will never be that organisation again, if it ever was. Whereas four years ago I followed its coverage of the US elections in preference to all other stations. Now, it seems, it’s so terrified of being attacked for showing bias that it prefers to say nothing at all. If it has to show a debate on a topic it goes to any lengths short of scouring the rainforest for some previously unknown species of primate in order to present a contrary view.

I was sufficiently disenchanted with the BBC’s coverage of this year’s circus that I went to CNN. What impressed me about its coverage was the preparedness of its anchors to call out Trump’s disinformation for what it was: lies. I know that as a station it has no reason to love Trump, since he’s consistently abused and insulted Jim Acosta, its White House correspondent. But nonetheless, it gave me the impression of scrupulousness in its assessment of the voting process, particularly when presented by the indefatigable John King. With every statement was a caveat, which I found quite reassuring.

And when CNN called Pennsylvania for Biden, I got the impression that there was a methodology behind that decision, based on data rather than the whim of a capricious proprietor.

I’m not suggesting that CNN could be that lofty antidote to Trump’s future dirt machine. At this stage, his base probably views it as the devil incarnate. But in its willingness to call out bullshit, it played what we British call a blinder.

So where are those wealthy potential investors who believe in telling the verifiable, unvarnished truth, and are willing to demonstrate their belief by putting their money where their mouths are. Bloomberg? Gates? Buffett? The trouble is that billionaires didn’t get to where they are today without inflicting a few casualties in their wake. So their motives and agendas will always be open to speculation, as Gates knows well.

Perhaps the key is independent governance and a tightly-drawn charter. Not easy, because every humanitarian, non-political organisation is open to accusations of bias and manipulation on the part of those who fund it. If, for example, you want to discredit an organisation in the minds of those who are politically aligned across a wide spectrum, all you have to say is that it’s funded by George Soros.

I am of course betraying my alignment by anticipating that Trump, in his future media incarnation, will focus on the malignant politics that he’s promoted in office. I might be wrong. Perhaps he will focus on self-enrichment. You could well imagine him coming up with shows on the lines of The Apprentice, with him, naturally, at the centre of things. Maybe he’ll create some nightmarish variant of a quiz show. Is Who Wants to Be a Billionaire? waiting in the wings?

But whether Trump sets himself up as the ultimate lie machine, or someone else does so on his behalf, there needs to be an antidote. Otherwise, a new generation will grow up never knowing the difference between fact and fantasy, truth and lies, critical thinking and slavish devotion.

You could argue that in some parts of the world, it’s happened already. Unfortunately, lies and misinformation will never effectively be countered by letting a thousand grass-roots activists bloom. They’re up against a juggernaut. Fire must be fought with fire.

So come on, billionaires, zillionaires and anyone else who believes that a world in which lies are challenged is a safer place, it’s time to step up before it’s too late. Time for Truth TV.

COVID is not the only pandemic rolling across the Earth.

Long ago, when Clive James was in his prime, he used to delight in showing us video clips of eccentric Japanese TV shows. Effectively, they were I’m a Celebrity Get Get Me Out of Here on steroids, except that the participants of the game shows weren’t celebrities, but ordinary (!) people prepared to chuck away their dignity by putting up with all manner of humiliating tests of endurance. It was crazy stuff, and it pre-dated the cruelty and sadism of modern reality TV by a couple of decades.

It was also hilarious, in a way that no reality TV has managed to be since. It’s likely that you wouldn’t be able to view these shows today, because the powers that be would consider them racist.

Modern equivalents are no longer to be found on TV. More likely they’re on on Twitter and YouTube. But if you have a taste for the bizarre, I suggest that you follow a group that goes under the name of Right Wing Watch. I say a group – they could actually be one person. They’re to be found on Twitter. They specialise in a particularly gruesome form of comedy. Actually, they aren’t comedy at all for many people.

RWW scours the media for videos of right-wing evangelicals in full flow. For any but their followers these folks – as they careen around stages babbling about angels striking down the enemies of Donald Trump, laughing maniacally at the prospect of Joe Biden becoming president and giving theatrical impressions of people speaking in tongues – are enormously entertaining, until you realise that they mean it. And then you wonder how many God-fearing followers in the churches of Florida, Arkansas and North Carolina will take them seriously enough to go back home and unlock their hunting rifles, ready step in if the angels don’t do their work.

Hopefully the FBI and the Secret Service have similar worries and are doing what they need to in order to protect the president-elect.

I know I’m inclined to babble on about the difference between my country and the United States, but this is a big one. In Britain we don’t have a religious right. No televangelist in their right mind would pitch to a British audience that we should part with our hard-earned dosh to buy them a second executive jet. Perhaps one reason why the ranters and ravers haven’t gained much traction over here is because they all emigrated to America, the land of the free and the exceptionally gullible.

The evangelicals are nothing new in America. People over there have been testing their faith by fondling rattlesnakes for centuries. But their weaponization in support of right-wing politics has only really come to the fore over the past fifty years. So while back in the day we were able to laugh at them in the same way as we did suicidal Japanese game show contestants, now we have to take them more seriously, especially when they have representatives at the highest level of government actively trying to bring about conditions that they believe will trigger the end of days. And if you don’t believe me, check out the beliefs of the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

An equally sinister phenomenon is the ranting of Muslim televangelists, who are matching the Christian right for lunacy. I also subscribe to a Twitter feed called MEMRI, which specialises in videos of preachers The moderate ones call for the restoration of the caliphate, but there are some wilder shores inhabited by people like the chap who recently urged Pakistan to unleash its nuclear weapons on the infidel. These guys, and yes, they all seem to be guys, are not just speaking from the obvious places in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. They’re also to be found, it seems, in American, Canadian and European cities.

A note of caution here. I have no idea about the political affiliations of the person or people who are behind Right Wing Watch. But its raison d’etre gives a clue: “A project of People For the American Way that monitors and exposes the activities of Radical Right political organizations”. So I doubt if they’re Trump supporters. All well and good, but any organisation that talks about the American Way automatically arouses my suspicions. After all, there are many different versions of this mythical path.

MEMRI, on the other hand, makes no secret of its connections. It is a non-profit institute based in Washington DC “co-founded by former Israeli military intelligence officer, Yigal Carmon, and Meyrtav Wurmser, an Israeli-born American political scientist” (Wikipedia)

But even if MEMRI’s agenda is to undermine and discredit Islamist preachers, it’s hard make a case that these videos have been edited in such a way as to highlight extremist sentiments that stand on their own. The messages these guys are sending are pretty much in your face. Unless MEMRI is using deep fake technology, of course.

I don’t find MEMRI’s offerings as amusing as the ranting of America’s religious right. But they are compelling nonetheless, because seemingly without any central orchestration, these preachers are beating a drum that echoes around the Muslim world. Not among the vast number of rational Muslims who are no less sceptical of the siren calls of fundamentalism than the majority of Americans are of the lunacies of the religious right. But if one in a hundred is inspired to radical action by these preachers, that’s a whole lot of people who might go on to translate thoughts into deeds.

When I subscribe to stuff like this, I’m mainly interested in the political dimension. No doubt there are many more weird and wacky feeds and channels out there that amuse, provoke and horrify. But life’s too short. I have enough to be going on with. The MEMRI stuff is plain disturbing, as no doubt it’s intended to be. But I can’t help laughing at the videos of right-wing Christian preachers, who appear to me to be plain demented.

But then if we’re looking for demented talk, we don’t need gimlet-eyed lunatics laughing at Biden’s election, when we have people like Rudy Giuliani standing up in a car park between a crematorium and a sex shop spouting about a stolen election.

A bonfire of the vanities, you might say.

Here’s the point. You might easily content yourself with ignoring the social media altogether, or at least confine yourself with videos of screaming goats and cuddly dogs. But your neighbour, without your even knowing it, might be gorging themselves on the dark stuff. All of a sudden, they’re coming out with all manner of conspiracy theories, and you wonder how the hell people you thought were sane and rational have turned out to be raving cultists.

I know of at least two people, both medical professionals with long experience, who seem to have gone that way. That they’re Trump supporters is one thing, but it seems that if you’ve bought into the orange monster, you’re highly susceptible to buying into a package that includes 5G paranoia, the Gates/Soros implantation theory and all manner of other spikes on the QAnon virus. Before you know it, you believe that the world is controlled by shape-shifting lizards, or you pray that the angels from Africa, South America and Asia will fly to your country and liberate it from blood-drinking paedophiles and other demons that have populated the land.

Almost as bizarre as anything else, you believe that the pussy-grabbing, narcissistic fraudster at the White House is God’s instrument for restoring virtue and order.

Which suggests to me that an entire hemisphere – because this is not just happening in America – is going through a serious bout of mental illness that is just as destructive as the coronavirus.

In other words, we’re dealing with two pandemics, not just one. We seem to be on the verge of rolling out a vaccine for the first one, but dealing with the second will be even tougher.

And before you mention it, I’ll say it: without even realising it, I could be a member of a cult that seeks to bring down God’s instrument on earth. Or I could be a lizard who’s extremely pissed off at the Chosen One’s presumption.

Cornwall: the dark side of a British tourist haven

Last night I watched the first episode in a series of documentaries about Cornwall by Simon Reeve. It was an eye-opener.

I know Cornwall pretty well. From childhood memories of holidays in a hotel just down the coastline from where Marconi first sent radio signals across the Atlantic. From more recent holidays near Padstow, where Rick Stein has created a gastronomic empire.

The public face of Britain’s favourite holiday destination is well known: breath-taking coastline, surfing, terrifyingly narrow lanes, clotted cream, pasties, ornamental gardens, sandy beaches, tiny coves and harbour towns.

Oh, and weather you can never rely on. When the sun shines in Cornwall, it’s summer heaven, even if half the population of the country wants to enjoy it with you. And when the wind sends sheets of horizontal rain across the cliffs, it’s hell for parents of small children who have forgotten (or never learned) how to amuse themselves indoors. Though for me, even the rain gives the landscape a rugged charm. Perhaps that’s because I’m a golfer.

But then again I don’t live in the county. I don’t have to scratch a living over the long winter months after the tourists have taken their money elsewhere. And I’m not a young person for whom, as Reeve observed, there are only jobs, but no careers.

Simon Reeve did us Cornwall-lovers a favour by pointing out that this is a region that has suffered more than most from the hollowing-out of our industrial heartlands. We might think that Wales and the north, with their disused coal mines, run-down factories and crumbling steel mills are the ultimate symbols of industrial decline – parts of the country where many people get by on welfare and the efforts of volunteers who run foodbanks.

But we don’t often spare a thought for the people of Britain’s most westerly county, whose tin and copper mines have closed, whose china clay industry is a fraction of what it once was, and whose fisheries have been as near as dammit wiped out by competition from super-trawlers who are scooping up the lobsters, crabs and other fish that used to be there in abundance for small fishing boats operating out of the tiny stone harbours that we love to visit.

Reeve took us to Camborne, once one of the centres of Cornish mining. It’s now a town crippled by poverty, with crumbling industrial relics and a large part of the population sustained, just as in other deprived regions, by foodbanks.

Worse still, if he’s to be believed, the regeneration promised by successive governments for post-industrial wastelands elsewhere has never gained traction in Cornwall. Is that because of poor transport links, the remoteness of the area or simply because there aren’t enough votes to attract the attention of central government? I don’t know.

For whatever reason, the county is more dependent on tourism than ever before. And when lockdown struck, tourism collapsed. Despite people returning in huge numbers in the late summer months, there are still concerns over whether small businesses that depend on visitors will survive.

I have been to other parts of the world that are equally dependent on tourism, but don’t have the benefit of furlough schemes and other forms of government support. How the people of Bali and Phuket are coping at the moment, goodness knows. My heart goes out to them.

But we British do have the power to look after our own. The young people of Cornwall have always had an option that potentially allows them to build secure futures for themselves. They can leave. And many, it seems, are doing just that. Is that what we want for our most beautiful region? Depopulation, hollowed out communities of the middle-aged and elderly? An area that lies fallow in the winter and springs to life in the summer?

On the one hand, you might think that’s inevitable, just as the west of Ireland was long ago depopulated by the ravages of poverty and famine. And if you believe in market forces, sink or swim and the virtues of self-reliance, you will no more advocate saving the inland communities of Cornwall than you will try and resist the erosion of coastlines in other parts of the country.

On the other hand, why do we trumpet the value of a United Kingdom if we’re not prepared to intervene on behalf of those who need a helping hand, just as we’re trying to do, with varying degrees of success, in other regions whose problems are more obvious? And if we let down populations that are far away from the centre of economic gravity in south-east England, can we blame those who call for greater devolution of the power to control their own destinies, even to the point of separation?

Where Scotland goes, and potentially Wales and Northern Ireland too, why not Cornwall?

This is not a serious argument for the independence of Cornwall, because it relies so heavily on the safety net provided by the Union. But are we to be content for such a gem of an area to remain a seasonal haven for people who own houses that stay empty in the winter while those who remain struggle to afford, at best, to live in dilapidated housing estates and at worst, in sheds and mobile homes?

I know there are no easy answers to Cornwall’s problems. But I also know that if we have pretensions to become a vibrant and entrepreneurial trading nation after Brexit, we must surely have the wit to find solutions to the tough problems, not just the easy ones.

We must surely try harder.

A democratically-elected monster has bitten the dust

It goes without saying that yesterday was the day I’d been hoping for ever since America elected the orange monster four years ago. I was watching CNN when they called Pennsylvania, and thus the whole election, for Joe Biden. I was moved when Van Jones broke down in tears, and the rest of the CNN team was swept along in a wave of enthusiasm that washed over the country.

This is how America differs from Britain. We don’t do displays of mass enthusiasm, except when our sporting heroes prevail. The sight of a BBC commentator breaking down in tears at the prospect of a change of government after a British election would be inconceivable.

The willingness of Americans to go on the streets to celebrate, to travel for miles to attend political rallies, to proclaim their idealism and unashamedly show their patriotism by putting flags outside their houses is profoundly un-British.

It also has a dark side. It means that America is also susceptible to being carried away by demagogues who would appeal to negative emotions: fear, envy, religious intolerance and xenophobia.

We too are susceptible to these emotions, but usually in a quieter and more private way.

It’s also ironic that as people flooded on to the streets across the US, I stood in my garden and watched fireworks bursting into the sky, not in celebration of a new president in another country, but in commemoration of an attempt four hundred years ago by dissident Catholics to blow up parliament. Not that many people who hold fireworks parties think too much about Guy Fawkes, but divisions between Protestant and Catholic have blighted our society ever since.

Even if the discord in the north of Ireland is relatively subdued today, it still has the ability to flare up again, all the more potentially because of the attitude of the government to the Good Friday Agreement in the context of Brexit.

Unfortunately, we in Britain are still deeply divided, not only because of Brexit, but in terms of Scotland’s future and the unequal distribution of wealth between North and South. Unlike the United States, we lack a unifying moment. There will be no general election for four years. So the prospect of the kind of reset that is possible in America is unlikely any time soon in the UK unless a further crisis sends us to the wall.

But enough of the UK and its problems. I’m celebrating a precious moment for the United States. A democratically-elected monster has bitten the dust. Perhaps the Trump era had to happen in order to remind the country how easy it is to flirt with the dark side. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, it’s possible that the hatred and fear among a section of the population who have felt themselves threatened, ignored and condemned as deplorables would have remained bottled up, only to surface in even more dangerous ways four years later.

Nobody will ignore them now, especially as their representatives remain in Congress. Equally, nobody on the other side will be so complacent as to believe that the institutions once thought to be solid as rock cannot be subverted and corrupted.

The moment is now with Biden and Harris. For all the challenges they face in dealing with COVID, restoring the economy and restoring a sense of public interest after four years of rampant self-interest, an equal challenge will be political.

If they lose the senate after the Georgia run-offs in January, they have two years to persuade the electorate to keep faith with them in the mid-term elections, and perhaps even to finish the job of converting the senate to a Democrat majority. That will be a tough job. Incoming administrations rarely increase their support in congress.

What of Trump, the dethroned lord of misrule? Will he survive, prosper and come again? Much depends on the outcome of the multiple lawsuits and potential prosecutions from which he will no longer be protected once he steps out of the White House. It may be that he will concoct the modern equivalent of a papal indulgence in the form of a pardon for his potential crimes.

But that will not protect him from state prosecutions for financial crimes, such as the one that’s looming in New York. Even if they come to nothing, he still has to deal with the creditors who will come knocking at his door over the next couple of years.

Another factor that has yet to be considered is what other dirt will be revealed once his former acolytes start spilling their secrets. There have been no stories of sexual impropriety by the pussy-grabber-in-chief while in office. That could be because there are none to be told, but it could also be because those who might tell stories have been intimidated into silence. Trump’s White House staff are unlikely to emerge with their CVs enhanced. They will be looking for other ways to monetise their futures.

Even if Trump evades all the threats to his immediate well-being, starts a new career as a media mogul and tries to spearhead a fight-back, the power no longer lies with him. It’s in the hands of Biden and Harris to do what they promise – to act in the interests of all Americans.

The demise of the orange monster has been a moment to cherish, but it has not removed the threat to the stability of the world’s most powerful country. In the hills of the hinterland there are still people busy cleaning their weapons. The expectations of the winning side can still turn to disappointment and anger.

That said, for me, someone who has watched the antics of Trump with a mixture of horror and disgust, the past few days have been utterly thrilling and finally exhilarating.

Has a tide turned? Who knows? However the next four years turn out, it’ll be a fascinating ride.

In a moment of change, an opportunity for Britain to think again

As we watch American democracy, in all its querulous and partisan glory, slowly reaching a conclusion on the matter of Trump versus Biden, one of the interesting aspects of the election process is not so much to listen to the pronouncements of the great and the good, but to take note of the press conferences given by officials who are administering the vote count in the battleground states such as Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Over the past 48 hours, these officials have been explaining in detail, county by county, the current state of play in their states. They have also shared with us the process they use for dealing with votes cast on election day, absentee votes and mail-in votes. The processes they are describing seem very complex. One of the officials, I think it was in Georgia, talked about a four-stage process of categorisation and verification that has to take place before the votes can be added to the tally for the state.

This partly explains why it’s taking such a long time for these states to count every vote. Special measures to prevent malevolent hackers from distorting the results are another reason. And decisions by state administrations to change the counting rules so that mail-in and absentee ballots are counted not first, in the run-up to election day, but last, are making a difference. Why last? Because there was a perception, fuelled by Trump, that the mail-in ballots would show an early skew in favour of the Democrats.

The conventional wisdom, which seems to be born out by the results, is that most Republicans voted early or on Election Day, whereas a majority of Democrats have gone either for mail-in. Why would that be? Beyond my paygrade, I’m afraid, but I would hazard a guess that Republican voters, encouraged by all sorts of mixed messages from the White House, as exemplified by Trump’s mask-free rallies, are less spooked by COVID than the Democrats. Hence Democrat voters are taking the safer option by mailing their votes.

Be that as it may, anyone who has spent some time in the USA, as I have, will know that far from being a quick and easy place to do business and conduct a civic life, America is highly bureaucratic, both at a state and federal level. In the US, you pay federal, state and city taxes. You have to navigate different ways of getting stuff done in each of the fifty states.

Why then, do we British, especially the faction that wants to “take back control”, look to the United States as our natural ally and trading partner, while excoriating the European Union, which has a far weaker federal structure and a bureaucracy far smaller than the American federal behemoth?

Is it because we feel more culturally assimilated with America, thanks to a common language and the overwhelming dominance of the US technology and entertainment industries?

This has obviously been a subject of debate over the past five years since a slim majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union, so I won’t bore you by going over the arguments again here.

But I do wonder, when I see one of Trump’s former chief advisors telling us that he would behead the country’s chief medical officer and the head of the FBI, when gangs of heavily armed men threaten to break into places where the votes are being counted, and when a chancer like Nigel Farage is hopping around in Trump’s wake like Mr Toad in search of a pond, why we don’t opt for the calmer waters of the European Union, at least by going the extra mile in order to reach an accommodation on our trading relationship.

I’m not picking this moment to make an invidious comparison between the institutions of the United States and the European Union. No doubt the US at some stage will sail into calmer waters. But isn’t it worth reflecting that the European Union has come though a financial crisis, and has absorbed numbers of incoming refugees that would have caused revolutionary protest in today’s US without falling apart and without abandoning its founding principles: the free movement of goods, services, capital and people?

And am I being a cultural snob by suggesting that the bedrock of our culture isn’t the iPhone app, the gig economy, superhero movies and the abandonment of those who fail to thrive, but the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Leonardo, Beethoven, Shakespeare and all the other cultural influences that come from Europe and our former colonies in Africa and Asia, not from the United States? And now we seem to have given up making war across our borders, should we not be looking to a future of alignment, if not to the institutions but at least to the principles of the European Union?

Whether we look to the future with optimism of pessimism, it does seem to me that in six months’ time, assuming a more rational government takes office the United States, and we are finally able to look beyond the massive disruption and grief caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we in Britain have an opportunity to think again about our future.

Will we look for consensus, reconciliation and a fresh desire to work with our neighbours to rebuild our shattered economies? Or will we continue on our current bull-headed course, sacrificing our future prosperity on the altar of small-minded and destructive ideologies perpetuated by a group of misguided politicians with questionable motives?

I won’t be holding my breath, because re-thinks don’t happen in an instant. It will be a long haul before our beliefs and priorities evolve, just as the end of Trump in America won’t mean the end of Trumpism.

I do think we’ll eventually get to a better place. Yes, I know I’m biased. But, as John Lennon said, I’m not the only one.

Corona Diaries Redux – Lockdown 2 arrives

DNA points to Neanderthal breeding barrier - BBC News

What to do in Lockdown 2?

Well, the first thing I’m going to do is forget about virtual this and online that. Not to say that I’m going to throw away my laptop. But I’m sorry – virtual museum tours don’t do it. Online conferences, except of course, the one in which I’ve just participated, are likely to send me to sleep, and I get enough sleep already, thank you very much. Any more screen time than I’m already exposed to will wreck my eyes. So I’m not going to succumb to internet addiction at my advanced age.

Instead, I’m going to do stuff.

I shall probably make a Christmas cake for the first time in decades. I shall teach myself to make cheese soufflés, something I’m disgracefully late in figuring out.

Since at this time of year we’re normally somewhere in Asia, I shall do what I would have done had we been there, which is read more books. Normally I get through at least ten books while we’re away. So that’s what I’m going to do while we’re locked down.

I’ve just finished William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy. I’m racing through Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers. Next on the list are Salman Rushdie’s Shame, Justin Marozzi’s Islamic Empires, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, and Michael Palin’s Erebus. More than enough to be getting on with.

Then there’s the matter of getting some fitness back, since I’m still suffering from the after-effects of a back injury incurred in the wake of Lockdown 1. I shall also continue to annoy my wife by being a professional grump. Which reminds me, when did “Poppy Day” become common parlance in the UK, and who in their right mind wishes people “Happy Halloween”? It’s not supposed to be happy, you bloody fools.

One good thing about lockdown is that I need no excuse for being unsociable. This will make me unpopular at home, but I have sneaky hope that lockdown will continue until Christmas Eve, not because I want to see the economy continue to tank, but for the entirely selfish reason that I won’t have to go to any seasonal get-togethers. Also not because I don’t miss our friends, but because I dread the endless conversations about COVID, and the embarrassed little dances we do to avoid potentially dangerous proximity.

Further afield, I expect to be helping Joe Biden to select his cabinet, and also making some suggestions to the powers that be as to Boris Johnson’s replacement. And if my advice is not accepted, I shall focus my efforts on solving climate change and training COVID dogs.

I shall also be training as a COVID warden, so that I can report my neighbours for infringements of lockdown. For that purpose I’ve already downloaded the STASI handbook for public-spirited informers. I have my flak jacket ready, and I’ve borrowed a few AR-14 semi-automatics from stood-down Trump supporters.

And then, as soon as the law is changed to outlaw hate speech within homes, I have a range of devices that will provide evidence of such deviant behaviour. They include a red face detector and a sensor in recycling bins that monitors household consumption of red wine and Stella Artois. And, of course, that fiendish instrument that records conversations picked up by vibrating window panes.

By this means I intend to purge my neighbourhood of teenagers screaming “I hate you” at their parents, and drunken grandparents hurling imprecations at passing foreigners. Not to mention dinner parties at which Brexit is discussed.

And finally, I’m learning Neanderthal, an ancient language that has recently been rediscovered in the mountainous regions of the United States. It appears to be growing rapidly in popularity, and already has a number of speakers here in the UK.

So far, I haven’t got much further than the guttural grunt with which a speaker dispatches their opponent to a better place, but I should soon be fluent. I shall also be teaching the language to my young grandson, since by the time he grows up, people will most likely be expected to be bilingual.

And when all this nonsense is over with, we have much to look forward to. For example, when the snows of the Himalayas have melted, I intend to mount an expedition to discover whether the remains of primates previously preserved in the ice belong only to climbers, or whether the bones of expired yetis can be found. If so, perhaps another ancient language is lurking undiscovered among the surviving population.

So no, I’m not moping at home like a polar bear in captivity. I’m bubbling with optimism, and busy preparing for the next chapter of my life: chef, political adviser, neighbourhood enforcer, multi-linguist and explorer.

Not a bad bunch of projects to look forward to, I think.

He got to me. Time for America to get rid.

Dangerous idiot': Trump says 'germ is so brilliant antibiotics can't keep  up with it' in chaotic White House coronavirus meeting | The Independent |  The Independent

Why the hell do I take so much interest in American politics? I’m British, for God’s sake. Yes, I know that what happens in the next couple of days will affect the future of everyone on the planet, not just the honking, hooting, praying voters of America.

But that still doesn’t explain why I’ve written so much about Trump over the last five years, and why I’ve taken every opportunity to pour scorn over him, his wretched family and his craven collaborators.

He got to me, that’s why. Every time I look at his sneering face, listen to his whining voice and watch him inciting his supporters, I curl up with revulsion. I splutter with amazement that such a goodly proportion of Americans should put their trust in such a profoundly bad person.

I’m not going to go through his crimes and misdemeanours. The list is long. Most of us know the basics, and some of us don’t think they’re important. Some people in my country think that it’s in our interest that he should win again, as if our interests are so important in the big scheme of things.

In my view, if Biden wins, and punishes us British for our government’s support for the orange monster, I will say that we deserve it for electing a government that deserves no respect from anyone. He won’t punish us, by the way, any more than an elephant will go out of its way to crush a cockroach. We’ll just be reminded how unimportant we are, the more so now we’re just a small island unmoored from a continent that actually is important.

I’m still amazed how, on the eve of this election, I’m like a child waiting to discover what he gets for Christmas or his birthday. Will I be delighted or doomed to wait another year, or four years in this case?

It Trump does win, I suspect I might admit defeat, and give up any interest in politics whatsoever. At my age, I have to consider what is a valuable use of my time. To agonise over the antics of a demented tyrant, or to turn away and read more books, thereby enhancing my understanding of whatever life is left to me?

It’s a choice I hope I don’t have to make. I’ve just watched a movie called Resistance, which is based on mime artist Marcel Marceau’ experience in the French resistance in World War 2. At one stage, after one of his comrades is tortured to death by Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, Marceau also has a choice. He urges one of his colleagues to focus not on trying to kill as many Nazis in revenge, but on helping orphaned Jewish children sheltering in France to escape to Switzerland.

His argument was that future generations were dependent on the survival of those children. But if the Nazis were to be defeated and the malefactors brought to justice, a small number of resistance fighters would not be the means to make that happen. In the end his argument prevailed. He helped hundreds of children to reach safety. And Klaus Barbie died in jail.

Today’s the day. The future of America is in the hands of Americans. They have the power to get rid of the malevolent cuckoo in their nest. If they don’t I can’t see myself visiting the US again. It would make me too sad to see what has become of a country I used to admire and love, for all its quirks and flaws.

So do it, America, both for your own sake and that of the rest of us, who crave a rest from the shit-show that is Donald Trump.

This is an age of pop-up political parties. So welcome to the Golf Party

One of the more ridiculous aspects of the new lockdown in the UK is that the government has decreed that we can’t play golf.

Anyone who might have seen me on Saturday when I laboured through a round of golf in a 30-mph gale and horizontal rain would have realised that COVID had no chance of getting anywhere near me or anyone else on that particular day, if for no other reason that we were soaked to the skin, and water is the best deterrent of the virus.

Even on a decent day, I and the people I play with scrupulously maintain the prescribed social distancing protocols. My home golf course is also set up in such a way as to eliminate any chance of catching a dose from, say, a distance marker or a bunker rake, because they’ve all been removed. Even the flag pin is equipped with a little device that chucks the ball back at you when you hole out.

So who is more likely to pass on COVID? Some panting, sweating jogger in the park who comes lurching past you on a narrow path, spraying toxicity in their wake, or a couple of people ambling up a fairway miles away from you?

Since this is a time for dark thoughts, something tells me that Boris and his rabble wouldn’t know a putter from a baseball bat. So ignorance would be one factor. And the second would be political. Fear of being seen to pander to what they see is an elite: the nation’s golfers. Whereas in fact, golf is as far from an elite sport as you can get. I play with people from all backgrounds – from builders to bankers. Bunkers and rhododendron bushes don’t discriminate.

No doubt the stock response from the government would be “if we make an exception for golf, we’ll have to do the same for lots of organised sport – such as tennis, hockey, dogging and croquet”. Well yes, except that golf is ideally suited for social distancing, whereas most other sports definitely aren’t.

I’m waiting for Nigel Farage, who was once quite a good golfer by all accounts, to redeem himself for his detestable views by standing up for us hackers. Unlikely, since he’s busy with his new pop-up political party. But since one-issue parties are fashionable these days, perhaps I’ll form one myself: the Golf Party. The agenda: keep Britain’s golf courses open, and while we’re at it, abolish the new handicap system, which is so fiendishly bureaucratic that it could have been invented by some nerd deep in the heart of Downing Street.

I admit that it might take a while to gain the necessary traction, and it might never get the attention that the infernal Brexit Party garnered. But we golfers need a lobby. After all, everyone else seems to have one.

Until such time as a Million Golfer March cripples London’s transport system and forces the PM to change his mind, I’m also thinking of Plan B.

A few weeks ago, I announced a plan to turn my garden into a shooting estate in which visitors could pay to train their shotguns on the squirrels and pigeons that colonise the back of my house. That didn’t get very far. I was overwhelmed with Twitter hate mail and animal rights protesters demonstrating on my front lawn, much to the distress of my neighbours.

But my latest wheeze might have more success. Since my next-door neighbour is also a golfer, I’m thinking of approaching him to suggest that we turn our gardens into a driving range. There’s a hedge between them, but with a bit of netting we can avoid too much damage. We can then take turns pitching golf balls into each other’s gardens. To avoid injury from incoming golf balls, we could rig up a fog horn – or whatever the Army uses to warn bystanders that they’re about to start a tank bombardment on Salisbury Plain – that announces our intentions.

With a bit of luck, there might be other golfers further down the road who would like to get involved. That way, we could cater for every length of shot. As for the cost of repairing greenhouses and windows for those whose properties are on the flight path, we could charge fees for the use of our range, and the revenue could be used for that purpose.

I can’t think of a better time to do this. After all, who but a mad person ventures into their garden in November? Admittedly, there are still a few details to be ironed out, such as signing up my neighbour and the folks down the road, persuading everyone else in the neighbourhood to stay indoors for a month, and hiring a couple of needy adolescents to retrieve stray balls.

But all in all, as a plan, it definitely holds together.

In case you’re thinking that this scheme is, er, a little left field, fear not. There’s plenty more to come. Lockdown 2 is only just beginning. It’s surely a time for creative thinking, is it not?

Don’t fight ageism. Become immune to it.

M-T-Cicero.jpg

In yesterday’s post about my first online conference as a speaker, which I survived despite struggles with technology, I promised to post an edited version of the stuff I said about ageism, and how to become immune to its worst effects.

Here it is. It was written for a professional audience, so not all the advice will apply universally. It’s also quite long, but with lockdowns in force in various parts of the world, for many of us, time is probably a more ample commodity than it normally is, even if patience is not. Anyway, feel free to dip in:

“Cicero (above) is one of my favourite personalities from the ancient world. In an essay on aging, he wrote:

“It’s not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done, but by wisdom, character and sober judgment. These qualities are not lacking in old age but in fact grow as time passes.”

Much as I agree with his sentiments, I’m afraid he didn’t live up to them. His fatal error of judgement, sober or otherwise, was to talk too much about the wrong people. And for that, Mark Antony, with the consent of the politician who later became the Emperor Augustus, had him decapitated, and his severed hands displayed in the Roman Forum, proof that he would never write again.

Not all of us, fortunately, are as eminent or injudicious as Cicero. The consequences of speaking out are not usually as dire as they were for him. Indeed, one of the wonderful things about the elderly is the way in which so many say exactly what they think. Even if we don’t particularly like what they say.

Let me give you one example. When Clare, the organiser of this conference, posted my introductory video for this session on Facebook, one of my friends, who years ago had been a work colleague, commented on my appearance. She said I looked odd, because the camera was rather low down.

Now anyone with an ounce of sensitivity might be a bit hurt when accused of looking odd. And anyone too young to be classed as elderly would be unlikely to come out with such a comment, even if that’s what they thought.

Except, of course, in France. When I was preparing for this discussion, I put out an appeal on Facebook for people to tell me the most outrageous example of ageism they had encountered, and how they dealt with it.

The same person who made that unkind comment about my appearance gave me two examples. Both were from France, a country I love almost as much as my own, but which has its own very distinct work culture.

The first was about a friend of hers who was aged nearly forty. When she applied for a job, she was rejected, on the basis that she was too old. The person interviewing her, told her that nobody could learn anything new after the age of forty.

The second example she gave was of an academic who suggested to one of her students that anyone over sixty was basically senile.

So much for life-long learning, you might think.

Of course, France doesn’t have a monopoly on ageism. But isn’t it true that most of us, if we do have some prejudice against the elderly, try our best not to show it?

We’re so sensitive to the possibility of being shamed that we go to any lengths to deny our innermost feelings. But occasionally things slip out, don’t they?

Where I come from, anybody who begins a sentence by saying “I’m not being ageist (or racist, or sexist), but…;” is usually about to say something ageist, (racist or sexist).

In this session we’re going to look at ways in which we can immunise ourselves against the sense that people think we’re past our best for no reason other than that we’ve reached a certain age.

What we’re not going to talk about is how to fight against ageism. Yes, you can confront attitudes head on, but you’re going to find it hard to overcome prejudice that’s been around in some cultures for centuries.

So what’s the most the most important consequence of getting old? As I see it, it’s losing your self-esteem. Feeling that we aren’t worth anything anymore. That we’re on the scrap heap. That nobody apart from our loved ones pays attention to us anymore.

The first and most obvious thing to say is that if we feel that way, there are unlikely to be many people who will go out of their way to change our minds. Doing something about it is down to us.

I’d like us to think about three aspects of immunity against ageism: planning, preparing and making it happen.

Let’s look at planning.

If we want to be immune to ageism, I think that first we need to be realistic about ourselves, and environments where we’re most likely to face prejudice on grounds of our advancing years.

Let’s start with the workplace. Most of us, especially if we’re high-flyers, reach the peak of our careers somewhere between our thirties and our late fifties. After that, unless we happen to be Donald Trump or Joe Biden, we might get the uncomfortable feeling that we’re in the way. (Come to think of it, they might have that feeling as well.)

We might become uneasy, because we have a sense that we’re blocking career paths for those who are younger and more energetic than we are. In fact, if we’re insecure about our careers in our fifties, we’re likely to be more so if we read this article in The Times which suggests that after 54, we start losing our passion and drive.

A sense of insecurity must also be more common today as we face the consequences of COVID. Even if we have what we think is a job for life, say, in the civil service, we need to be aware that there will be huge pressure within society to make way for the young, especially those whose lives have been blighted by unemployment.

COVID is just one of a number of factors, another being the effect of artificial intelligence in eliminating roles previously carried out by humans, that should cause us to be increasingly uncertain about our lifetime employment prospects.

Here’s another thing to think about.

Several things might be happening in parallel while we move up the career ladder. We might have young families that consume everything we earn and more. So we feel under pressure to earn more.

When we get beyond our fifties, we might find our earning power slipping. If we haven’t planned for it, this can be worrying. Also frustrating, because we don’t feel we’re any less effective or deserving of a high salary. But the problem is that we see earning power as an upward curve, and we don’t consider the possibility that the curve might at some stage take a downward turn. Perhaps we’re made redundant, and we can’t accept that a new employer shouldn’t pay us what the last one did.

Perhaps we also find it hard to accept that our role in our sixties might be different. Unless we own our own business, and therefore control our own destinies to some extent, we may find ourselves in the situation where the only option open to us is stacking shelves at Walmart or Tesco.

If we don’t see that coming, the effect on our financial well-being and our self-esteem could be catastrophic.

So we need to plan. Perhaps we might need to look at our finances, and instead of factoring in a steady upward line in earnings until bang, we retire, we should cater for a gradual tapering off of income, from our fifties onwards. Or possibly ups and downs, as we move to a period of less certain employment. And those ups and downs can happen any time, not just towards the end of our careers.

We should also manage our expectations on an emotional level. No matter how committed we are to our work, we should always remember that we are not defined only by what we do 8 hours a day, 220 days a year.

We are more than what we do for a living. And if we have a family, we’re more than what we do for them. If we fail to give our lives more dimensions, we risk ending up at 65 with no work, no family and nothing else.

So if our life is all about work and family, we should make sure well before our careers come to an end that we have more strings to our bows.

Then there’s preparation.

How do we prepare for a time in our lives when we might fall victim to ageism? Perhaps the most important thing is to understand how our outlook on life might develop over time.

If we’ve managed to avoid being stuck on the same treadmill in our sixties as we were on in earlier decades, how do we transition to different roles, perhaps different careers, that play to our strengths? Perhaps our horizons have broadened. We’re no longer interested in the narrow focus. We want to take a wider view.

Let’s say we’re a research scientist. We win fame and fortune for our achievements in our twenties or thirties, as Albert Einstein did. We might continue on the same path of research until we die.

Or maybe we say hey, there’s more to life than this. I want to stay in the same field, but now I’m going to guide and encourage younger researchers. I can be a head of research, or maybe a mentor. Or I can use my fame in support of wider objectives: eliminating poverty, dealing with climate change, eradicating malaria. I may no longer get into the detail, but I make it possible for others to do so.

Let’s take a couple of real-life examples.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost the US presidency. He was 56 at the time, which was fairly young for an ex-president, especially by the standards of the time.

What did he do? He’s spent the last forty years campaigning for peace and human rights. When he was 78, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not for what he did when he was president, but for what he achieved afterwards. At the age of 96, he’s still doing his best to help his local community by helping to build affordable housing.

Bill Gates is another example. He stepped down from an executive role with Microsoft in 2006. Since then, he’s dedicated his life and much of his fortune to a foundation that helps to combat poverty and find cures for infectious diseases. Who’s to say that he won’t be remembered more for his humanitarian work than as a founder of Microsoft?

Of course, we can’t all be Bill Gates or Jimmy Carter. And I wonder at what point they started thinking about second careers. Was there a plan, or did they drift into it? It’s a shame they’re not here to tell us.

But what we can do is take a good look at ourselves. Look at our strengths and weaknesses. Ask ourselves how we might spend the rest of our lives if our current path comes to an end.

As for making it happen – taking positive steps to immunise ourselves against ageism – everybody’s situation is different. So we all have to come up with our own strategies. But by way of an example, it might be worthwhile if I share a little of my story.

My story is one of three careers. Actually, I did quite a lot beforehand, but nothing I could call a career. More, to use a phrase coined by Emmylou Harris, a process of “stumbling into grace”.

In 1991, after nearly a decade working in the Middle East, I started a business with a partner. I was forty at the time. I was married, with two daughters under five.

Things went pretty well. Over the next ten years we ended up employing over 350 people in Britain, Ireland, Germany, France, Hungary, Finland, Malaysia and China. In 2001, we sold the division of our business for which I was the CEO. Though I had an involvement in the other side of the business, it wasn’t full-time. With education costs likely to continue at least for the next decade, I wasn’t in a position to retire, and anyway I didn’t then and still don’t believe in the idea of retirement.

I did have more time, though. But to do what? I was fifty. The previous decade had been pretty much full on.

I’m not sure if it was by accident or design, but I started consciously to learn again. I did a big research project on my family. It ended up with my digitising thousands of pictures and doing video interviews with my parents. And I read books. Loads of them. Between fifty and a hundred a year. About history, psychology, geography and a number of other topics.

My great-grandparents.

Is it impossible to learn once you’ve passed forty, as that French employer implies? Of course not! You should have spoken to my father. At sixty, he bought a motorbike for the first time and started learning German. All around me, I see people of my age learning new stuff. Including learning Zoom, of course.

I learned plenty. But learning is one thing. What do you do with the knowledge you acquire?

Well, here’s another thing you can do to immunise yourself against ageism. Start passing on your knowledge. If you feel you’re approaching the end of your career, perhaps you can prolong it by being the best mentor, adviser, source of wisdom that you can.

I will always remember my Saudi boss in the 1980s telling a group of western managers, of whom I was one, that the best way of prolonging their careers in Saudi Arabia was not by becoming indispensable, but by being the best at passing on their knowledge.

For me, the idea of passing on knowledge led to a second career. In 2009, after a year managing a start-up in Saudi Arabia, I moved to Bahrain and started a training business. I wrote many courses on what people call soft skills – communications, conflict resolution, leadership and so forth. I actually don’t think of those skills as soft. Perhaps it would be better to call them essential skills. For where would we be in any walk of life without the ability to communicate?

One of the most satisfying achievements of my life was working with a team of talented people to design and deliver a programme for sixty bright school-leavers in Bahrain. It was called Going West, and it helped them to prepare for life at university abroad. The motivation, idealism and enthusiasm of those kids was truly uplifting.

Anyway, for the next six years, I ended up going back and forth around Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East running training workshops – in factories, hospitals and government offices. Not only were they great fun, but great learning for me. And hopefully for the participants too.

By around 2016, demand dried up. By then, I was back in the UK, and it became increasingly uneconomical for my clients to fly me over for extended trips when they had local resources to call upon. I did some workshops in Europe, but there was a slow wind-down of paid work, which suited me fine. I didn’t need the money, and there was other stuff to do.

The other stuff had already kicked off back in 2010. I started writing a blog, which I called 59steps. Why the name? Well, I was fifty-nine at the time. As simple as that.

Anyway, some of my stuff ended up being syndicated to quite a wide audience, and I also did a weekly column for one of the Bahrain newspapers for a while.

Since then, I’ve written well over a thousand original articles, about politics, the Middle East, history, travel, books and anything else that came to mind. That’s over a million words.

The great thing about blogging is that it forces you to take a view about things. To develop arguments, to persuade, to interact. It’s basically my anti-dementia strategy. Whether it’s working is for you to judge.

During the spring lockdown in the UK, I set myself a target. Not quite the same that of Captain Tom, the centenarian who walked up and down his garden every day and raised millions from sponsors for the British National Health Service. I’m not a war veteran, and what I did was unlikely to capture the public imagination.

But my personal goal was to write and post one article to my blog every day. I ended up doing that for 130 days. Normally I would post once or twice a week. Much of what I wrote was in the form of a series I called Corona Diaries, but there were lots of other subjects. It was quite tough. Unlike some newspaper columnists, I had only myself to rely on for ideas and research. And whereas I would normally take some time on a piece perfecting the language and the arguments, I learned how to post stuff rapidly, hoping like hell that I’d avoided some major piece of idiocy.

Taking things up to the present, I’ll be seventy next year. I’ve written a book which I expect to publish within the next couple of months. I shall keep writing until I’m no longer able to string one word after another. And my self-esteem doesn’t depend on how many people read what I write, but on whether it makes sense to me.

I feel immune to ageism because I like to think I’ve capitalised on the advantages of being older: ability to pass on knowledge, being able to laugh at absurdities, and still caring about what happens beyond my doorstep. Either by accident or design, as each phase of my life has come to an end, another phase has been waiting to take over.

When I look at my family, I see other examples. My father was a lawyer who became something of a polymath. He had an incredible range of interests, and continued to practice law until he died at the age of 81. His curiosity made him a role model for me. My sister, who spent most of her career as a medical doctor, became ordained as a priest in her sixties, and now administers to souls as opposed to bodies. And a brother, after a long career as a teacher, is now a life coach.

At this point, forgive me if I share a few more thoughts on the COVID crisis.

Ageism is a hot topic right now, isn’t it? Should we wreck our economies to protect the old? Is it better to let old people die off because they’ve had their time, or spend precious resources keeping them alive?

I only have one answer to that question. I look at all the people who have passed away in recent years before they reached seventy. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams, Tom Petty, Carrie Fisher to name a few. Would I rather live a shorter life full of achievement, or a longer life, in which I spend my last few years stumbling towards the end with little purpose or motivation?

For me, the answer is this. The important thing is not how long you live, but what you achieve in the time you have.

That said, to ration care to people on the basis of an algorithm seems wrong. In the UK, during the height of the first wave, if you were over 75, the chances were that you might not get treated at all – and certainly not in intensive care – because of a scorecard that was weighted against you. The underlying philosophy seemed to be that people of a certain age no longer had anything to contribute to society if they were “economically inactive”.

Think of the writers, musicians, scientists and thinkers who wouldn’t have survived that brutal cut-off. Think also of the beloved grandparents who bring so much support and wisdom to their families.

When a person dies, are they remembered fondly for being economically active? I don’t think so. Anyway, enough on COVID.

When I look back at the way my life has worked out up to now, and how I came to have three careers, I have to make a confession. None of it was planned.

But had I prepared for it? Hell yes. I’d always wanted to run my own business. I’ve always loved communicating. And I’ve always loved writing. The common denominator between those three things was love – the things I loved to do. And I was lucky enough to do each of them.

Your story will inevitably be different, but if you asked me to come up with three ideas that we should all hold on to if we’re to live lives that aren’t blighted by ageism, it would be these:

The valuable things we do in our lives are not always rewarded by material wealth.

We will never be victims of ageism if we value ourselves.

We will value ourselves if we always seek to do things that are valuable.

An old fart grapples with Zoom – and survives

On Friday night, I had the novel (for me) experience of speaking at an online conference. I don’t use Zoom very often, and my days of declaiming in front of audiences have become less frequent as I move steadily towards decrepitude.

It was that decrepitude, or the perception of it, that my friend Clare, who runs a coaching consultancy out of Qatar and Bahrain, asked me to discuss. That was fine by me, because it’s a topic I’ve never really addressed, except tangentially in this blog. So virgin territory, which is always fun to explore.

The conference itself was a 24-hour marathon with speakers from a number of different countries across various time zones. It’s theme was EDI, which I always thought meant Electronic Data Interchange. But apparently, nobody apart from minor politicians and civil servants who grew up in the sixties uses that acronym any more. So Equality, Diversity and something beginning with the letter I has snuck in and colonised it . Ah, that’s it: Inclusion (sorry, senior moment).

Anyway we agreed that ageism would be my topic. So I started putting a few themes together along the lines that there’s no point trying to campaign against ageism, because it’s been around since the beginning of history, and as soon as you invent some set of rules, people will always find ways of circumventing them. Better, perhaps, to look at ways of immunising yourself against the effect that being thought of as clapped out, past it, no longer able to learn or make any meaningful contribution to humanity might have on your self-esteem.

So that was the gist of what I had to say, on the assumption that the attendees, by and large, would not be as ancient and decrepit as me.

My technique for such events is to write out what I have to say, almost as a speech, and then go through it again and again until I’ve internalised the main themes to the point that I only need notes. This becomes pretty easy if you’re speaking at multiple events, doing stand-up comedy or perhaps delivering the same training course on a regular basis. The more familiar you are with the content, the more fluid you become with the timing, the method of expression, and the variations you might wish to follow depending on the audience. Think of Donald Trump, who’s been saying the same thing in different ways since 2016.

This was slightly different, though, because I didn’t have much time to prepare the content. For various reasons, Clare had brought forward the date from January to last week at fairly short notice. What made it harder was that I was under the impression that I was due to speak on Saturday, whereas two days before, I discovered that my slot was on Friday. Silly me. One day less to prepare, but no big deal.

Another challenge was Zoom. Now I’m sure that as fellow-casualties of lockdown you’re well used to its little foibles. And I’ve been talking to people remotely for years, though mainly on Skype. But I’ve largely avoided Zoom, because I’m not the Prime Minister, and I prefer not to indulge in mass gossip sessions with friends and relatives. And anyway, I don’t have too many of either.

So I had to figure out how to share a presentation, and how to load a virtual background. The first was fine, but when I tried to activate an image I’d been given that would replace my bookshelves and hide my grandson’s impromptu incursions, I found that it made me look as if my head was on fire. I needed a neutral background apparently, and I don’t have one. Not even in the loo, whose walls are covered with adornments. So my conservatory, which offers a blurry green view of my garden, would have to do.

Another problem was where to put the laptop in a place where the camera wouldn’t pick up on reflected light. Too high and my bald pate would dazzle the audience. Too low and I would be revealed in all my jowly glory. I made this mistake when recording an introductory video that went on Facebook. One of my friends, who is not renowned for beating about the bush, commented that I looked rather odd. But what the hell. I do odd pretty well.

Then there was the multitasking bit, for which men are not renowned. I set up one laptop for Zoom and the presentation, and another for my notes. And just in case, I printed the notes. This was just as well, because as I was getting into my stride, the laptop with my notes fell over. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. I would improvise. But because I was using new material, and because I forgot that it takes old farts longer to internalise stuff than used to to be the case, it wasn’t so easy to wing it.

So I had to leave the conference for a couple of minutes and dash off to another part of the house to retrieve the paper notes, leaving poor Clare, who was moderating the session, swinging in the wind. Never go on stage, even a virtual one, with children, animals and computers.

The other interesting aspect was that so many of the attendees kept their faces hidden. This was a shame, because it took away an essential element of interactivity that I always enjoy on these occasions. Texting doesn’t really do it for me. Perhaps this is a recent phenomenon, spurred by the shaming of a well-known journalist in the US who did something unmentionable while in full view of everyone in an online meeting. But more likely it’s because people don’t like to be seen eating their lunch or indulging in a bit of personal grooming in front of the watching world.

In the end, I think I got away with it. I hope I managed to show the necessary passion for the subject. Clare, as a coach, is a great believer in passion. I do actually believe quite strongly that you can immunise yourself against ageism, by doing stuff – whether or not you’re paid for it – that you consider valuable. And if you live your life according to that principle, you will always be able to stick two fingers up to those who write you off because of your age.

One of the things I said was that I take great pleasure in listening to people who have made it into great old age. Centenarians, for example. But on reflection, I realise that the older I get, the world they describe is becoming closer to the one I remember. Which is quite scary.

The other day, I indulged in one of those whimsical exercises beloved of Twitter users, in which someone asked what was the earliest political event we could remember. Some of the young whippersnappers were coming out with moments like John Major’s resignation as Prime Minister, which happened a mere twenty-three years ago. I pitched in with mine, which was petrol rationing during the Suez crisis of 1956. I almost detected a gasp in the ether, and soon after, someone said wow, how cool.

Was that a reaction similar to mine when I listen to centenarians talking about their lives in the 1930s, or of amazement that at my age I’m still stringing one sentence after another?

I hope the former, because contrary to popular perception, there are a number of old bastards tweeting away about all manner of subjects, especially about the efforts of two other old bastards to become president of the USA. (Actually only one of them is a bastard, in my opinion, but I suppose that’s a mere technicality.) So as long as John Cleese, at eighty-plus, is continuing to puncture the vanity of the fools who troll him, there’s probably a place for me, one the cusp of my seventies, to continue to contribute the odd snide comment in the social media.

There was a moment in the next presentation, when the speaker, who lives in Washington DC, asked a question, and commented that I looked troubled. I didn’t want to say this, but I was wrestling with whether or not to say something unkind about Donald Trump. I resisted the temptation.

But on reflection, one point I might have made in my session was that often enough the most ageist people you will encounter are the aged. A good example is to be found when a 74-year old, whom half the world considers certifiably insane, has the cheek to accuse a 77-year-old of being senile, which clearly he isn’t. A case of two bald old men arguing over a comb, you might think, as someone once said about the opposing sides in the Falklands War.

Though perhaps it’s just that the older we get, the less we’re inhibited from insulting each other. Long may that continue.

So that was my Friday evening, followed yesterday morning by getting totally soaked by Storm Aiden on the golf course. We may be about to be locked down again, but for this old fart, life is still full of interesting contrasts.

In case you’re interested, in my next post I’ll be offering an abridged version of the stuff I spoke about on Friday.

If I can remember what I said, of course.

Naming the nameless: would an end to social media anonymity burst the bubbles of hatred?

Jeremy Clarkson has a point. I don’t always agree with the stuff he writes, but the idea that one way to stop the divisiveness caused by platforms such as Twitter is to “remove the cloak of anonymity behind which social media users can hide” definitely deserves to be chewed over.

Speaking from my middle-class, middle-English perspective, I’ve always thought there are two activities that are most likely to strip the veneer of civilisation away from supposedly ordinary people. One is driving a car, which allows a person gripped by road rage to turn feral. The other is buying and selling property. What they have in common is that both happen under Clarkson’s cloak of anonymity.

In the case of furious drivers, unless they turn murderous, you might only see them screaming obscenities and giving you multiple fingers for some perceived infraction. But if your windows are up, you won’t hear them and usually in a few seconds they’re gone, leaving you equally furious at their bad manners.

House buyers and sellers usually operate at an arm’s length through an intermediary – an estate agent or a lawyer. You may meet them, but you’re unlikely to to know anything more than their names. You may not even know where they live. This enables them to behave disgracefully: gazumping, gazundering and pulling out of transactions with impunity.

What both activities have in common is that they allow people to behave disgracefully without consequences, though dashcams are increasingly being used to hold really naughty drivers to account. Unfortunately, when we bought our house a couple of decades ago, we were unable to do anything about the seller, who, weeks after the price had been agreed, on the morning of the sale, suddenly demanded a substantial uplift for no reason other than that she could.

To these two categories of individual who routinely break norms of civilised behaviour, I add a third: internet trolls.

There are certainly people who use an assumed name for a reason other than a desire to spill poison into the public domain to their heart’s content. Perhaps they fear the wrath of their employers, or the disapproval of friends and family for their views.

But leaving them aside, would the anonymous authors of the most vicious, hate-filled stuff you sometimes see on Twitter and other platforms be happy to stand up and take ownership of what they say by identifying themselves? If not, why not? And what if Twitter and other social media operators announced that they were no longer allowing people to shield under aliases?

They wouldn’t do it voluntarily. They would cite all kind of reasons why people fear to use their own names. Political oppression, perhaps. Freedom of speech, on the basis that some people can’t speak freely under their own names. They would refer to the Iranian protests of 2009, and the Egyptian revolution during the Arab Spring. They would point to the role they played in enabling protesters to speak up.

Fair enough, except that these days, if I was a dissident in either of those countries I wouldn’t dare to use Twitter in case the authorities discovered my identity by fair means or foul. After all, it was only a couple of years ago that another powerful Middle East country made use of a mole inside the company. That person duly revealed the identities of some critics of the regime. Our faith in the impenetrability of the security systems run by social media giants is surely at an all-time low.

Clarkson, writing in yesterday’s Sunday Times, contends that previously stable democracies are disintegrating as the result of groups of people in their social media bubbles referring only to what is fed into those bubbles, often by anonymous agitators. Whoever is behind QAnon is probably the epitome of such actors.

So here’s a new version of an age-old conundrum. Is it better to unmask the liars, the hate spreaders, the conspiracy theorists and the psychopaths who contribute to the toxic polarisation of our societies, and accept a certain limit on our freedom of speech, or should we just let them have at it, even if it means in the long term that they might help to unleash the dogs of war?

Should we sacrifice the liberty of people who want to be anonymous for what we might accept are good reasons in order to suppress the activities of people who are operating at the very edge of the law, or possibly even beyond it?

The problem is that there are laws and laws. Speaking against the regime might be illegal in some countries, whereas in the UK the law regulating free speech is mainly confined to statutes that make hate speech a criminal offense, and common law that provides a civil remedy for libel.

Twitter is a US business. Like Facebook, it is subject to US law, which is underpinned by a constitution that under most circumstances guarantees the right to free speech. If it ended anonymity for its users, lawyers would doubtless have field day debating whether a private company was violating rights under the First Amendment by changing its policy on anonymity, especially if it claimed that it was not preventing free speech as such, merely the ability to do so under an assumed name.

It would also fear that many of its users would leave the platform and go underground to encrypted platforms, as some already have.

But if the United States were threatened with an actual civil war, as evidenced by calls to arms and incitement to violence, I wouldn’t bet against Congress trying to enact a law banning anonymity, with the possible exception of current rules that protect government whistle-blowers.

Would I go along with such a measure in the UK? Possibly, even though in my country there aren’t more guns than people, which makes the prospect of civil insurrection less likely than in the United States.

But would it be the right thing to do? In the hands of a government intent on suppressing free speech, a law banning anonymity in the social media would be a potent weapon, since it would open those who speak up to retaliation by one means or another. One only has to look at the number of people working in the National Health Service who have spoken to the press about the British government’s alleged abandonment of old people during the COVID crisis earlier this year. Most have spoken on condition of anonymity for fear of falling foul of their employer.

It’s possible that if the objective is to heal social divisions, we’re picking the wrong target by blaming sad people with few friends spewing bitterness from the safety of a back room in their homes. Should we not concentrate our efforts on eliminating the replicants implanted among them in the form of bots created by foreign governments that seek to weaken their adversaries by fostering chaos and confusion?

We should also recognise that most of the influential voices responsible for spreading the hatred are far from anonymous. Alex Jones, David Icke, Nigel Farage, Tucker Carlson and yes, Donald Trump, are more than happy to put their names to the stuff they disseminate. In fact, their egos and livelihoods depend on it. But it’s the foot-soldiers following in their wake that give them power. And many of those followers are not prepared to stand up and be counted.

Perhaps the problem of divisive social media content is for society to address, not the law. But we come back to the original conundrum of how we effectively aim our disapproval of the activities of people who can act with impunity at an arm’s length. And, given that people within social media bubbles eagerly embrace malign, false and divisive content, who “we” actually are. And how close we are to the point where those “we” think of as insane take over the asylum.

This is not an academic discussion. In a couple of week’s time we might look across the Atlantic and find a partisan divide erupting into a full-blown constitutional crisis. And in the UK, how close are we to a serious breakdown in law and order among people who are at their wits end as the result of a second COVID crisis?

I don’t have an answer. But under most circumstances, I have no more respect for those who don’t have the courage to speak under their own names than I had back in the day for those who used to send their neighbours poison-pen letters.

The dog ate our doorbell

Exciting news. We have a new doorbell.

The old one was rather temperamental. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. All the efforts of generations of electricians failed to figure out what was wrong. In the end, it died.

And no, the dog didn’t really eat it, though she would have happily done so if she could jump that high. But the doorbell’s demise was the cause of great disappointment for Poppy, who would let out an earth-shattering cannonade of barking every time it rang. It was worse still when she was sitting beside me. Every time she burst forth, I recoiled with the shock, so much so that I considered buying one of those portable defibrillators in case my heart finally gave out. Not that it would have been much use to me, and I doubt if the dog could operate it. So it would have been down to my wife, who fortunately has experience with such machines.

Poppy died a couple of years ago, but we did nothing about the doorbell. So what if visitors had to bang the door, and Amazon delivery drivers had to leave their stuff in the “designated place”? And so what if we didn’t even have a door-knocker?

That said, the new doorbell is a source of great delight to our two-year-old grandson. He’s a bells-and-whistles kind of guy. Anything that can be pressed that produces a tangible result, such as a light switch or one of those ghastly toys that triggers an audio recording on pressing a button, and he’s up for it. So now, when he comes to visit, he insists on pressing the bell at least three times before entering the house. So easy to please. No doubt it won’t be long before he’s learning to code.

As for us, now that we’ve re-joined the 20th century with this exciting piece of technology, what’s next? The internet of things, perhaps. Maybe we’ll acquire one of those video cameras with which you can see who’s approaching your front door while you’re lounging on a beach somewhere. Even better if it has a built-in taser that you can activate to repel invaders.

Until then, we cluck with delight at every sound of the doorbell, because we know that someone’s waiting at the door to deliver good things. Or, at the very least, to welcome us into the arms of Jesus.

Such simple pleasures are the stuff of life these days, as social pressure and the near indecipherable instructions of government keep me mainly confined to quarters. Would I rather be out and about, busy calculating the risk of exposure to COVID based on Japanese models, worked out by supercomputers, of the likely spread of the virus through aerosol transmission, with and without masks, as I step into a shop or sit down in a socially distanced restaurant table? I think not.

I do miss shopping in supermarkets (my wife has taken on that onerous and dangerous burden), because therein is another simple pleasure to be had. Not so much people-watching, because half the fun of that activity is observing the faces of fellow shoppers, which are now only partly visible.

More, basket watching. I find it fascinating observing other people’s shopping when I’m in the checkout line. I try and work out from the products in their basket whether the person is single or has a partner. Whether they have kids. Whether the kind of food they buy is for them, based on their physical shape and apparent level of fitness, or for someone else.

I delight in asking myself how on earth could anyone buy frozen this, hydrogenated that and processed something else. Every basket tells a tale. Perhaps of prissiness, fad obsession and perhaps even a dangerous love of alcohol.

I can feel quietly superior, though I would never admit this to anyone except you. I can also be unaware – because I don’t care – of the impression my shopping basket gives to others. It’s probably a bad one, because I usually buy the stuff that’s not good for me, despite the disapproval that greets my purchases when I get home. This is how pork pies creep into our lives.

Meanwhile, outside the little window on the world that lives in my laptop, sound and fury rages. Hysteria, hatred. Bald men fighting over combs. Governments failing, politicians melting down, people suffering.

The other day, I went for a check-up at my local clinic. Everything OK? came the question. As much as can be expected, I answer. How’s your mental health? That was a new one, presumably because of COVID. Fine, I said, in a confident voice. I expected to be asked about the state of my waterworks, which is a common question put to men of my age, to which I would have answered: as well as can be expected. Perhaps mental health these days is deemed to be more important than the state of a person’s prostate.

Anyway, all seemed well, though I was a bit surprised that a routine blood test was scheduled to take place after the check-up rather then before. I made that point. It seems that this is because of COVID, like everything else, I guess. Can’t think why though.

Why this conversation about doorbells, shopping baskets and the state of one’s prostate? Because the real meaning of “take back control” is not being frustrated by all the fires that rage around us and nurturing an illusion that we, or our politicians, can do something about them. It’s actually all about finding ways not to be swept away by tides of negative emotion.

And taking pleasure in small things. All good? Good.

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.

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