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Postcard from Singapore: three weddings, durian pastries and maybe a refuge from Omicron

Should we stay or should we go? That was the opening of a piece I posted from Bali back in February 2020, as COVID was getting a grip on China and starting to spread its ugly tentacles across the region. My wife and I stayed, but by the time we came back to the UK, it was busy spreading across the multitudes at Twickenham, Cheltenham and other large sporting events. Within a couple of weeks, Britain was in lockdown.

I was tempted to begin this dispatch with the same sentence. Just as we were settling into our first long-haul trip since then, news from South Africa suggested that the virus seems to have risen again, this time with many more tentacles.

We’re in Singapore. After an interesting start to our holiday, about which I’ll write at some other time, we’re enjoying the food, the weather – 30C, plenty of rain but enough sunshine to keep us happy – and all the other things we enjoy when we visit this neck of the woods. Normally we would stop at Singapore for a couple of days, and then head off elsewhere, usually somewhere by the sea. This time, though, we’re staying put. There are enough COVID-related hurdles getting into one country with out going though similar hoops for another.

When Variant Omicron reared its head, we did indeed think about making a beeline for the airport to get home before our government decided to confine us in a hotel for a couple of weeks. But we decided not to, on the basis that Singapore, with its ultra-cautious approach to the pandemic, is unlikely to figure on anyone’s red list for some time to come. That’s the calculation, anyway.

So here, for the benefit of the antivaxers and the maskless wonders back home, is a little guide on how Singapore deals with the virus.

The first thing to note is that the unvaccinated are unlikely to get near the country in the first place, unless they’re prepared to be locked up for two weeks and have their noses skewered by numerous PCR tests that turn your brain into the asteroid Bruce Willis drilled into in the movie Armageddon. Unless you have a compelling reason not to be vaccinated (ideological, pseudo-scientific and conspiracy-based reasons don’t qualify) the airlines won’t even let you on their planes.

And those who believe that wearing masks is an affront to their human rights or an insult to God, or whatever other pathetic excuse they can come up with, are in for a shock when they set foot in Singapore. Here, masks are mandatory. Anywhere except when you are eating. No exceptions. Should you transgress, you risk being fined a humongous amount – up to S$20,000 – and banished to Changi jail or some similar institution. Needless to say, compliance is 100%. I was even berated for letting my mask slip between the table and the serving station at breakfast the other day.

In addition, there’s a track and trace app that operates through phones or with a token that you use to beep your way into shops and restaurants. Nodes are in place not only at the entrances of buildings like hotels and shopping centres, but at individual outlets. Guards sit at entrances to ensure compliance. Thus far we’ve heard little complaint about the over-pinging that has plagued the UK’s equivalent system.

The country has a long history of, shall we say, “firmness” when dealing with social transgressions. The hoary old classics include draconian penalties for offences such as dropping chewing gum on the pavement and discarding cigarette butts. As a local we met commented: “Singapore is a fine city”, as he made a ticket-writing gesture on his hand.

So it wouldn’t have been difficult for the authorities to enforce a new set of ordinances when COVID came along. In car parks, white squares three metres wide have been marked out, with an X in each corner. These are the smoking zones. You must stay in your corner and wait your turn, the instruction demands. And people do. Religiously.

The hotels have little bits of tape stuck on the floor that say “queue here” so that nobody can break the social distancing taboo. Until last Monday, no more than two people were allowed to sit or stand close to each other – in restaurants, for example. Now it’s five, a significant relaxation as far as the Singaporeans are concerned.

Even the lions in the zoo can’t escape close attention. The other day, one of them came down with COVID. He and his mates were locked away until his symptoms passed. I wouldn’t have wanted to the one who gave him his PCR, I have to say.

Whatever you might think about the restrictions the government has imposed, there’s is one area in which it puts the UK to shame. And that’s in its case reporting, which is in far greater detail than we see back home. For example, in the UK, the only figures we get for hospitalisations is the number in hospital on any given day. The Singaporeans go further. Here’s what the Ministry of Health provides:

As of 25 Nov 2021:

  • 1,251 cases in hospital
  • 206 require O2 supplementation
  • 31 under close monitoring in ICU
  • Overall ICU utilisation rate: 56.8%
  • 3,233 cases discharged; 481 are seniors aged 60 years and above

Over the last 28 days, of the infected individuals:

  • 98.7% have mild/no symptoms
  • 0,8% require O2 supplementation
  • 0.2% are in ICU
  • 0.2% died

As of 24 Nov:

As of 25 Nov, there are 1,275 new cases. The weekly infection growth rate is 0.72″

Pretty impressive, I reckon. I have no doubt that they have similar statistics on the lions, antelopes and Komodo dragons in the zoo (though I would be prepared to test three lions before I tackled a Komodo)..

Admittedly it’s a little unfair to compare Singapore’s statistics, from a country with 5.8 million people, a relatively small landmass and a highly centralised government, with those coming out of the UK, or the US for that matter. But I do think that our authorities could do better than to palm us off with four basic numbers: new cases, hospitalisations, deaths and number of vaccinations. Do they think we’re too stupid to comprehend more granular detail, or are they incapable of providing it because they have no dynamic system for collecting the data in real time?

Whether or not you like the heavily top-down approach to controlling COVID – and I could imagine a number of people in the UK and the US blowing a gasket at the thought of it – it’s hard to escape the impression that this is a country that has a handle on the virus even though it can’t eliminate infections altogether.

For this reason, we’ve come to the conclusion that we’re actually safer hanging out here for our intended length of stay rather than baling out and heading home prematurely.

What’s good for the lions is probably good enough for us. Two swims a day, excellent street food, the warm weather and plenty of time to read and write are pretty good reasons also.

COVID apart, life seems to be going on in the city despite the restrictions. A large number of people are still working from home. Tourist numbers are down, but the hotels are still of full of locals taking short staycations. In ours, yesterday there were no less than three weddings. Chefs and waiters were scuttling around with demented intensity. And the lobby was full of people partaking of one British institution that seems to have survived the end of the colonial era: high tea. The full works – cucumber sandwiches, cakes, scones and clotted cream. Enough to make a returning memsahib weep with nostalgia, though I doubt if she would appreciate the durian* puffs.

I’m glad we decided to stay, even if the price we pay, thanks to Omicron, might be a week or so locked up in some dingy Heathrow hotel.

*For those who are unfamiliar with durian, it’s a custard-textured fruit much loved in the region. Unfortunately it’s so foul-smelling that it’s banned from hotel rooms and aircraft cabins. We in the UK are also no strangers to bad smells, though lately they’ve tended to be of the political kind.

Postcard from France: gables, ghosts and gumboots

The other day I wrote about our new holiday home in France. New is not exactly a good description. It’s quite old. Not decrepit, like me, but full of the mysterious quirks that buildings acquire when they’ve been through a few owners. In estate-agent-speak, the kind of things that allow you to describe a place as a character home. Like people, buildings have secrets. The older they are the more baggage they hide.

So we’re now on a journey of discovery. What, for example was the purpose of what looks like two random bits of wood half-buried in the plaster above the front door? Are they the external ends of beams that have half-rotted? How about the three iron bolts in the wall above the wood burner? I hesitate even to touch them, in case the whole building falls down.

What we’ve been told is that once upon a time the place served as a farmer’s cottage. If that was the case, the occupant must have had a diminished sense of smell, because 50 yards away we have what could be a barn, but was originally a piggery. The farmer must also have been well used to waking up to the sound of snuffling, snorting and grunting. Mind you, my wife is used to those sounds emanating from me at night, so I’m sure it didn’t bother the keeper of swine.

The barn currently serves as a repository of all things for which the previous owner couldn’t find a home – power tools, old tiles, planks of wood, ancient bicycles and so on. You might wonder why it’s full of such stuff. Surely the owners were supposed to remove everything from the property? Theoretically yes, but we agreed to buy the place with all its contents, barring a few bits of antique furniture that they wanted to take home to England.

Which is why, when we took possession, we inherited a goodly amount of furniture, thus saving us from spending the first few nights sleeping on the floor. In fact, just about everything we might possibly need to live a comfortable life was still there. Beds, tables, chairs, loads of storage space, crockery, cutlery, cooking equipment. You name it, it was all here.

But then there was the odd stuff. Wellies, camping gear, fishing rods and crash helmets for some purpose that I haven’t yet established. In the mezzanine, enough equipment to decorate a mansion, left in place as if the decorator had just popped downstairs for a cup of tea. Or perhaps fallen to his death off a set of steps so dangerous that they might have been built for Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem. Oh, and there’s the stuff on the walls. A World War 2 steel helmet, a couple of ancient bed-warming pans, hurricane lamps, a thermometer and not one but two barometers.

The strangeness doesn’t stop there. Take the electrics. I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a house with so many plug sockets. The former owners seem to have been obsessed with them. What complicates matters is that for every French socket there’s a UK one. Extension leads are everywhere: on walls, in cupboards. Long ones, short ones, industrial ones. They so multiply the outlets for electrical appliances that you could probably run a small bitcoin mining operation from the house.

Before we completed the purchase, the sellers did the obligatory electrical survey, which pronounced that apart from one issue all was good. But it still looks pretty interesting to me.

No complaints, though. We knew what we were buying. A mutual friend commented that that the owners had spent 30 years doing the place up. He was right. They didn’t finish the job, though at 89 and 91 respectively, they can be forgiven for that.

For me, the jewel in the crown, apart from the ambience and the glorious views of the French countryside, is the books the departing owners agreed to bequeath to us. Novels, many of which I haven’t read, history books and, above all, volume after volume about France.

The old stuff is the most interesting. I give you three examples.

The first is The Concise Household Encyclopedia, a huge slab of a book from the 1930s. Its brief goes so far beyond the household as to be ridiculous. You want to learn about flatulence, hysteria and menstruation? This book is for you. How to build a roof, to apply theatrical make-up and false beards? How to deal with servants? Income tax (1931 vintage)? How to clean your motor vehicle? Everything you need to know about smoking best practice (not a word about lung cancer, naturally)? Plus ducks, dubbin, dry mounting (clearly medicinal jelly hadn’t been invented by then). Electroplating for the amateur, etiquette (some general rules), how to make an espangnole sauce. Guinea fowl, guns, when to plant your kitchen garden. And so on ad nauseam. Over 6,000 illustrations and lord knows how many pages.

The whole thing is like the Middle England of 90 years ago preserved in amber. Not so much an encyclopedia, more a priceless social history. For me, the kind of rabbit hole you can disappear down for days on end. Much more fun than conspiracy theories.

Then there’s Arthur Young’s Travels in France During the Years 1787, 1788 and 1789. Young was an agriculturalist, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Secretary to the Board of Agriculture. He also liked to get out and about, after which he would write about the experience. It must have helped that he made a fortune from his travelogues of Ireland, England and France.

During the years covered by Travels in France – just before and during the French Revolution – Young went from town to town, furnishing letters of introduction from noblemen and dignitaries wherever he went. He developed a strong antagonism against the ancien regime, despite being happy enough to accept the hospitality of various ducs and vicomtes. He witnessed at first hand the grinding poverty of the French peasantry, the arrogance of landowners and meanness of the bourgeoisie.

As the revolution spread from Paris, he saw bands of soldiers intimidating local populations. When he wasn’t preoccupied by political developments, he offered pithy descriptions of over a hundred towns and villages throughout the country: their architecture, the quality of the land, the rivers, the food and estimates of local prosperity. The latter, which he described as “political arithmetic” was a preoccupation that enhanced his reputation as what might be referred to today as a progressive thinker. Just the kind of stuff that feeds my inner nerd.

And finally France, written in 1918 by Gordon Cochrane Home, a water-colourist who was at one time the art editor of Tatler. This book, according to a label on the inside of the cover, was awarded in 1923 to Ellinor Woodesse as the annual Geography Prize by the governors of Ashburne Grammar School. It’s written in the rather stilted language of a turn-of the century “authority”. The author educates us on subjects such as The Genesis and Characteristics of the French, Family Life – Marriage and the Birth Rate, On Education and Religion, Some Aspects of Paris and of Town Life in General, On the Watering Places. He’s clearly a Francophile, even though he delights in banging on about the loose morals prevalent in the cities.

But he makes some interesting points to counter the impression on the English side of the channel that the French are a frivolous nation, devoted to pleasures of the flesh and passing fashions. On the contrary, he says, they’re a deeply serious people, devoted to science, philosophy and big political ideas. He writes in the era of Pasteur, Marie Curie and Jules Verne, but I would say that his assessment still rings true.

When Home wishes to depart from his measured prose, it’s usually by quoting others, as witness this little gem from Rowland Strong about Paris taxi drivers:

“His hatred of the bourgeoise – the “man on the street” – in spite of, and indeed because of, his being a potential client, is expressed at every yard. He constantly tries to run them down, which makes strangers to Paris accuse the Paris cabmen of driving badly, while in point of fact he is not driving at all, but playing with miraculous skill a game of his own…. The cabman’s wild career through the streets, the constant waving and slashing of his pitiless whip, his madcap hurtlements and collisions, the frenzied gesticulations which he exchanges with his “fare”, the panic-stricken flight of the agonized women whose lives he has endangered, the ugly rushes which the public occasionally make at him with a view to lynching him, the sprawlings and fallings of his maddened, hysterical, starving horse, contribute as much as anything to the spasmodic intensity, the electric blue-fire diablerie, which are characteristic of the general movement of Paris.”

Now there’s a man whose other work I’d like to explore! I imagine Ellinor, the teenage geography prize-winner, raising her eyebrows in anxiety as she reads that little purple piece from the safety of her pension on her first visit to Paris.

These delights remind me of three things I often forget about books and reading.

First, if you’re going to spend a large amount of time in a country, it’s worthwhile investing time and effort in delving into multiple views of its culture and history. That’s why I have shed-load of books about the Middle East. Now I have a similar number for France.

Next, I buy a load of new books, and I often forget the vast treasury of non-contemporary writing that I pass by simply because I don’t make time for it. Which tells me that I must balance my reading better between old and new.

Finally, you don’t need to be a cloistered academic to derive enormous pleasure from the perspectives of long-dead writers who have slipped into obscurity.

So the big takeaway must be this: spend less time excoriating our grubby politicians and wading knee-deep in the Twitter sewer, and more time learning about the malodorous sidewalks of 1918 Paris.

Because the ghosts of the past that live in buildings and words will slip away if you don’t visit them occasionally and express your appreciation.

What’s next? Time to put on the ancient wellies and explore the piggery.

COP26 and all that

I’m all for hope, enthusiasm and determination. But I’m trying to understand why I find it hard to pay more than minimal attention to Cop26.

Is it because those who are making promises will be out of office long before they have to deliver on them? Or is it that a number of leaders who have failed to attend feel no need to grandstand because they do not depend on voters to stay in power? Or perhaps because even more leaders (and a notorious former one) have so polluted public faith in information that a large percentage of the world’s population doesn’t believe what the scientists are telling us, even if the evidence is staring us in the face.

I can hardly blame Boris Johnson and Joe Biden for nodding off during the opening proceedings, because the endless procession of dignitaries and notables banging home the same message would probably send me to sleep.

Of course it’s encouraging to hear of the pledges being trumpeted: an end to deforestation by 2030 and a plan to cut back on methane release. But are they achievable? Cutting down trees might be preventable, but how do you prohibit the Siberian permafrost from letting loose vast quantities of methane? Not even Putin can manage that.

And who would bet on the mass closure of coal-fired power stations if the leaders of countries that rely on coal for power faced being skinned alive by angry populations facing economic collapse and existential hardship?

Alas, I fear that human nature will stymie the best endeavours of these who are striving to find solutions in Glasgow. Promises will be made, money will be pledged, but when it comes to delivering, national interest will always trump the common good. If we can’t get entire populations vaccinated against COVID, how can we expect to deliver on the far more arduous task of carrying out a patchwork of measures on a global scale for three decades?

Our problem as a species is that we seem incapable of thinking globally. Whether it’s between families, societies or nations, our natural setting seems to be the zero-sum game: I gain, you lose. Even if we devised a technological solution that would reduce carbon emissions to the desired level, would we be able to implement it without nations and commercial interests seeking to gain an advantage over rivals?

Take nuclear fusion, for example. An international fund to develop the technology, perhaps in the order of a trillion dollars – less than the size of the US infrastructure programme just passed into law – might accelerate the point at which fusion power plants become affordable on a global scale. But who would pay for the plants themselves and the supporting infrastructure required to get power to all who need it? If the basic know-how is locked up into patents in the name of return on investment, it’s hard to see any but the wealthiest nations benefitting in the short term. If that meant that the most prolific carbon emitters were able to cut back more quickly, fine. But what about those countries that won’t be able to afford such technology, yet have fast-growing populations? Might they not undercut the gains made by the wealthier nations by emitting even more carbon?

All this stuff is beyond my pay grade and level of comprehension. Of course I want to see us stay under 1.5%, even though I won’t live to see it. And anyone with an ounce of compassion would be appalled to see the loss of habitat for all species, not just human, that might result from desertification and rising sea levels. So by all means let the COP-26ers come up with agreements on a basket of measures, because every little helps.

Yet I can’t escape this dark feeling that humanity has never before been required to act as a species and isn’t capable of doing so now. We may be able to respond to short-term crises, but not to the slow death that climate change threatens to deliver, because the one is a moment and the other is a process. Our problem is that most of us can’t think beyond our noses – or our back yards.

Does this defeatist talk make me a more of passivist than an activist? Neither, I suggest. More of a realist. My gut feeling is that rather than relying on democrats, autocrats and oligarchs with vastly differing interests to work together for the common good, we’ll end up having to bet on one or two big technological fixes.

Good luck with both approaches. I’ll help with my voice and my vote, but I have no intention of gluing myself to a highway. Hopefully when it all comes together I’ll be watching from a better place, though I’m not counting on that prospect either.

Another country, another home

Like thousands of Brits before us, we have succumbed to the lure of France and bought a holiday home. No matter that we can only spend 90 out of 180 days here. No matter that our national politicians are cat-fighting about fish, submarines and Brexit. No matter that the farmer down the road doesn’t like the English (apparently).

The cheeses are still magnificent, and the Saturday markets are thriving. Even though it’s as cold as England and there’s no central heating in the house, an outsize wood-burner and several years’ supply of wood in the barn keeps us warm. Shame on us, but there you go.

We arrived a few days ago to meet with the notaire and complete the purchase. In France, the notary, a public official, handles both the purchase and sale, so no solicitors. Oh joy. Just one office, and much of the fee goes to the local commune.

There’s a sizeable year-round British population here, but in the winter a distinct lack of what the expats rather grandly call “the tourists”, as you would expect. The Brits who live here seem to have a pecking order that depends on the length of time you’ve been resident. They all have their newly-required residency permits. Some have taken French citizenship. Most of them are retired. They keep themselves busy with activities like line-dancing and pilates classes, neither of which appeal to me. Last time I went line-dancing, many moons ago, I was kicked out for performing a Springtime for Hitler routine. I couldn’t do that now – my legs don’t go high enough.

Since we are unlikely to be here longer than a few months a year, I suspect that we shall never rise more than one notch above the tourists – the lowest of the low – in the estimation of some of our British neighbours. So no doubt we shall have to put up with more people like the guy in a restaurant the other day who let me struggle away in my eccentric French before revealing himself with a sardonic smile to be a native English speaker. Fortunately, he’s not typical. We also have a number of new neighbours who have been very kind and have served as a mine of information.

As for the cliques, hey, that’s the Brits. I’ve spent enough years of my life as an expatriate to know their little ways. In case we’ve forgotten, the French own this country. I for one get as much value out of speaking to them as from listening to crusty old expats telling me how things were here twenty years ago. Yesterday afternoon, over a long lunch, we happened upon a couple who were in the local town to buy some pottery. He was an executive with Dassault and subsequently the French Civil Aviation Authority. We spent some time discussing the cancelled submarine deal, he with great knowledge and me with a measure of sympathy. He was courteous, measured and remarkably objective about an issue which, if the English media is to believed, has been taken as a national humiliation.

Our first few days as property owners in France have been taken up with nitty-gritty stuff like finding out how to get the token that allows you to take stuff to the local dump, getting the electricity meter read (all digital as we discovered – none of those little discs whirring around as they do in England – the electricity company does the reading remotely), turning on the water and coming to grips with the former owner’s Fort Knox-like security arrangements. Next week, we intend to pay our respects to the local mayor. Should we bring flowers or Cadbury’s chocolate? Probably not. These are questions you don’t have to face if you come down once a year to stay in someone else’s place. There are a few ropes to learn.

That said, I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is an adventure thirty years in the making. Every year we come to France we talk about buying somewhere. Finally we’ve gone and done it. It’s a delight that gets better every time we step out of our little house on a hill and look out on 360 degrees of rolling hills and valleys. Not to mention at night, when the Milky Way shines down on us and the only sounds to be heard are of hooting owls.

After years of visiting France, I’m not naïve enough to believe that we won’t encounter niggles, frustration and endless maintenance. But to own a small piece of this beautiful country, to have somewhere our kids can visit with their kids and a place to invite close friends and family, is deeply satisfying.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I find no shortage of things to moan about – particularly on the political front. But as I sit writing this at an oak table beneath ancient beams, with no TV and only my beloved and Mozart for company, I feel blissfully lucky.

Computer says wait – just shut up and listen to the music

One of the givens of my life is that when it comes to dealing with bureaucracy, my wife is patient and I’m not. So it’s just as well that she deals with banking, insurance and other activities normally associated with nameless, faceless officialdom, but more often than not with computers.

I know we must make allowances. These are not normal times. But it does say something when our doctor’s surgery runs an answering system that pleads with you not to be abusive to staff, among numerous messages about COVID. Chance would be a fine thing, though, because more often or not, especially when you select an option, it hangs up on you. The only way to get through to a person, usually after a half-hour wait, is by selecting no option.

I’m not so stupid as to lose my cool with staff who are struggling to answer all the calls. But what does get to me is the music. Answering systems are destroying our love for perfectly decent pieces of music by repeating the same stuff incessantly, month in, month out. Would it be beyond the operators to rotate different pieces?

Which reminds me of a day at EuroDisney, years before mobile phones, when my wife and I split up, so that she could take our eldest daughter on one of the “big kid” rides – Thunder Mountain or suchlike. My job was to watch the younger one as she spun around on the teacups. We had agreed to meet up in twenty minutes. An hour later, no sign of the two of them, and no means to communicate and ask where the hell they were. Also no point going looking for them because we’d agreed to meet by the teacups, so the chances were that as soon as we went looking they would show up and find us not there.

The upshot was that Nicky and I were stranded, with “It’s a Small, Small World” on endless repeat. That was probably the reason why a little later she threw up on Minnie Mouse’s foot. Ever since then, when I hear that accursed tune, I suffer from flashbacks. My mind goes back to that day as the bloody teacups swirled around and I went slowly demented.

That’s not all. Whenever that ridiculously twee Delibes ditty that British Airways has appropriated for the past decade wails away as my wife tries to speak to a human in their call centre, I close my eyes and imagine myself curled up in a strait-jacket as a BA stewardess leans over and force-feeds me peanuts.

Then there are the government websites, like the infernal NHS app that doesn’t even give you the option of listening to endless renditions of Ode to Joy. Instead, it chooses to keep you amused by asking you to log in with every successive step, as if it thinks that some mugger might grab your phone while you’re in the middle of downloading the latest version of the COVID pass. You get there in the end, but not before your sausage fingers develop repetitive strain injury.

I applied to renew my passport six weeks ago. The whole process is done online, but ground to a halt when I tried to take a photo of myself that complied with regulations. You know the drill. No glasses, no smiling, only grimacing mugshots allowed. I tried six times to get it right, and each time the computer said no. Too shadowy, wrong background and so forth. Eventually I thought I’d got it right after posing in front of a white sheet, much as Osama used to do in his famous videos. No room for the AK-47 though. That one seemed to pass muster. Or at least the computer said maybe, which was good enough for me.

The weeks passed and our date of departure drew close, and then ping! A text arrived informing me that Her Majesty had rejected my photo. So I galloped off to my local Timpsons, where a nice chap took an HMG-compliant pic, which I duly uploaded on to the website. All the while, I was thinking “WHY DID YOU WAIT FOR SIX WEEKS TO TELL ME THE PICTURE WAS CRAP?”

If there had been a hotline, I would have called to ask whether I’d been sent back to the end of the line, in which case our travel plans would have been toast. But it’s impossible to speak to a human, let alone request an express service (which pre-COVID you could do for an extra fee). And anyway, it would probably have told me “please wait, we are dealing with an exceptionally large number of calls”, played The Ride of the Valkyries twenty-seven times and then hung up on me.

Fortunately, I wasn’t dispatched to the back of the virtual queue. A few days later a text arrived telling me that my shiny new passport was on its way, and would I make sure I sign it with a black ballpoint pen. I marvelled at our meticulous post-Brexit civil service – EU blue would not suffice, it seems.

The only upside was that for the next ten years my public face will be that of an ancient curmudgeon, as opposed to the football hooligan who stared blankly from the previous passport.

Until some AI genius figures out how to have the computer chat merrily away about the weather, or perhaps entertain us with a quiz about endangered species, or even regale us with the entire canon of Shakespeare’s sonnets before allowing us to proceed, our fate, it seems, is to spend much of our allotted span waiting, and waiting, and waiting, without even the shipping forecast for company.

When the end finally comes, my most fervent hope is that St Peter, or the celestial computer acting in his name, doesn’t require me to fill out nine forms – one for each of Dante’s Circles of Hell – before determining me fit to enter the Pearly Gates. That would be truly infernal.

Farewell to a Navigator

Howard Brown was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things. The same could be said about many of his generation who took part in World War 2. Their obituaries have filled countless newspaper column inches over the past couple of decades.

Howard, who died last month at 98, didn’t make the obituary pages of a national newspaper, yet was no less deserving of a mention than those who did.

My wife and I went to his funeral yesterday. The ceremony was in a handsome church in a quiet town – “somewhere in the south of England”, as the war reports used to say.

I looked around the church before the service began. Inscriptions on the walls remembered both local notables and less celebrated parishioners. A Speaker of the House of Commons. A young naval officer who died of a fever in Calcutta at 22. Another man of similar age who died of septicaemia in Pretoria in 1900, perhaps a casualty of the Boer War. And a tribute to the people who died in a bombing raid on the town in 1943, and after a V1 flying bomb caused many deaths in 1944. A tiny snapshot of the rise and decline of empire, through which the person being buried lived for almost a century.

Howard had served in the Royal Air Force. A doughty veteran in his eighties was there to honour him, bearing medals from several wars. He had brought an RAF pennant, beside which he stood throughout the ceremony. Two serving officers in uniform were also in attendance, as well as a bugler who played the Last Post at the burial. A good send-off for a man who was devoted to the Air Force, and who, after the war spent many years as a reservist and a volunteer with the local veteran’s association.

He had more than one finest hour. He was a navigator who flew Stirling bombers during the latter stages of the war against Hitler. On the morning of D-Day, his aircraft towed a glider into France as part of the airborne force that landed in advance of the invasion. The glider, full of soldiers, also happened to be carrying Chester Wilmot, the BBC correspondent, whose radio broadcast described the experience of landing in the midst of heavy German flak. Wilmot later commented that his glider landed within 100 yards of the target and two minutes late – a tribute both to the pilot and to Howard’s navigational skills. You can listen to Wilmot’s broadcast here. I can hardly imagine the burden of responsibility that each pilot and navigator carried for the safe arrival of those men in their rickety wood and canvas craft.

Wilmot was lucky. Not all the gliders landed on target. Some were miles off, and there were many casualties as the result of bad landings and collisions with obstacles on the ground. In an understatement typical of his peers, Howard would later describe flying though flak as “rather dangerous”. A far cry from the emotional incontinence that typifies the age we live in today.

D-Day and other wartime sorties were not his only experience of mortal peril. After he left the Air Force, he joined British European Airways in time to participate in the Berlin Airlift, the massive international effort to break the Soviet blockade of West Berlin between 1948 and 1949. Over a quarter of a million flights carried everything from food and fuel to salt to the city without the help of ground navigation beacons, which the Soviets had switched off. During the airlift, seventeen US and eight British aircraft crashed. At one stage a flight was landing in West Berlin every thirty seconds. Hardly a walk in the park for a navigator.

But if you had asked Howard what was his finest hour, most likely he would have answered that it came when he married Maura, to whom he was happily married for fifty-eight years, and who survives him. Their love for each other was obvious to all who knew them.

Later in life he enjoyed a long career with Customs and Excise. After he retired, he opened a brewery, and for many years he worked as a volunteer with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB), often representing clients in court.

My wife and I only got to know Howard during the last thirty years of his life. He was modest, kind and had a dry sense of humour. A perfect foil for his effervescent other half. They shared a love of travelling, especially to the vineyards of France. Whenever we came to dinner the wine was chosen with exquisite care.

He wasn’t a closed book on his military experience, yet he never assumed you would be interested. He only spoke of it if you asked him. But he was quietly proud of his service with the RAF, and maintained connections with it throughout his life.

On the order of service were photos of some of the highlights of his life: his wedding day; in uniform at an RAF flypast; receiving the MBE from the Queen in recognition of his work with the CAB. But the picture that best brings him back to me was at taken at lunch, as he roared with laughter over a glass of wine.

Howard was much more than a person with a distinguished war record. For me, part of a cosseted generation, most of which never knew the terrors of war, he was one of the few people of my acquaintance who was able to say “I was there”. That wasn’t why I treasured his friendship, but he gave me a direct connection with events whose consequences dominated my life. Just as a couple of decades ago we watched as the last of the First World War veterans departed, Howard was one of a dwindling band of veterans of the second global conflict. As a lifelong student of history, I feel lucky to have known him.

We bade farewell to a navigator not just because of his wartime occupation. He was a navigator in many other ways. Calm, measured and above all someone who could be replied upon, as those whom he helped in his later years with advice and guidance would surely agree.

After the Second World War, veterans quietly returned to civilian life. To meet them you would hardly know what extraordinary times they lived through. Howard Brown was one of them. This brief tribute is not only for him, but for all the others to whom the living in my country should remain profoundly grateful.

The only bucket list worth making is of stuff you’ve already done

Travel broadens the mind. Not travelling turns it into a wrinkly old walnut, slowly pickling with each passing day. At least that’s been my experience.

Now, with a hole in each arm, flu-jabbed and COVID-boostered, I’m ready to set out again to foreign lands, in full awareness that for me, at the start of my eighth decade, the future isn’t a big sky, but a rapidly shrinking horizon – a decade, maybe, during which ability matches motivation, after which I get to the point where I can’t be arsed anymore.

But why travel, and to where?

Since we’re encouraged to view every journey beyond the local supermarket as a crime against the generations we’ve spawned, who suffer from our fossil-fuel profligacy through no fault of their own, every decision to fly or drive to some far location is accompanied with a measure of guilt.

It would seem that the most energy-efficient travellers of this age are the backpackers, who may take a long-haul flight to some exotic destination, but don’t fly back again for months or possibly years. Which is fine if you don’t have an employer awaiting your return in short order, or arthritic knees that no amount of spiritual nourishment will return to their original flexible state. But not fine if you don’t fancy sleeping on plastic-strewn beaches or curling up among the bedbugs in a ten-dollar-a-night dormitory. The last time I went backpacking was in the 70s, and I’m not about to start again now.

My travel since then has usually been for a purpose other than the joy of exploration. Work, perhaps, or simply the desire for a warm climate, especially at this time of year, when the only warmth to be had at home is between four walls. I’m not like a dear friend, whose main purpose in travelling is to see as many “places of interest” in the shortest possible time, and whose fridge looks like a painted armadillo, hardly visible underneath a densely-laid mosaic of little magnets. There are only so many cathedrals that I can appreciate in a given day.

But when my wife and I set out for somewhere new, it’s in the expectation that the primary purpose – be it work, or long hours reading, eating and swimming – presents the opportunity to do other stuff. Though not surprisingly, it’s the landscapes, the edifices, the people and the wildlife we meet along the way that we remember long after the original purpose has been fulfilled.

In this age of Corona, we’ve had to rely more and more on other people’s voyages.  Michael Palin’s TV series, for example, or the books of Colin Thubron. They often provide the additional attraction of historical context. Palin, for example, went through the Soviet Union on his Pole To Pole journey shortly before Gorbachev coup. To meet people sitting on the cusp of change, warm and welcoming and yet always with one eye open for those who might be watching them, feels like a window into an age of relative innocence – before 9/11, Iraq, ISIS, financial crises and now COVID.

Fortunately, everybody with the semblance of celebrity is making up for our relative inability to travel by making journeys for us, lucky bastards. So we get to see Alexander Armstrong in Iceland and Richard E Grant trolling around the great hotels of the world imagining the rich and famous having sex on the beds. Can’t wait to see Jeremy Corbyn in Colwyn Bay and Cleethorpes.

Which brings me to bucket lists. For me, making a list of things I want to see and do before I die is not a priority. While we all need things to look forward to – reasons to get out of bed perhaps – or for some, the motivation to keep on living, my experience has been that truly memorable moments are not planned. They happen by accident. Such as stumbling into a choral mass one evening in a Venetian church we didn’t know existed.

Besides, depending how close we are to the end, by the time we get round to fulfilling our wish list we may well be too clapped out to enjoy the things we set out to do. One temple is more than enough for one day. And when you’ve been there and done that, so what? What profound reflections will you derive from the Kremlin, the Great Barrier Reef or Wolverhampton that you couldn’t arrive at from the comfort of your own home? And why reflect at all if before long you’re destined to take your reflections to the grave? To whom will you bequeath your fridge magnets?

A slightly extreme view, perhaps, but certainly in tune with the times. We’ve been to a few places that have been so overrun by fellow tourists that quiet contemplation of what we see is almost impossible. Did we really need to go to Angkor Wat or stand before the hollowed pit where the Twin Towers came down, all in the company of a polyglot throng taking selfies?

A matter of perception, of course, and certainly I wouldn’t have missed the quieter pleasure of seeing orangutans in the wild or a perfectly-preserved Roman amphitheatre on the Turkish coast. I’ve also cherished meeting people along the way who would share with me stories of their lives and beliefs. And I’ve adored the food we’ve encountered along the various ways.

For now we shall continue to visit places – those that will have us despite my country becoming a world leader in COVID statistics – and treat each encounter as an opportunity to add to a long list of memorable experiences.

Because for me the only meaningful bucket list is when it’s retrospective. In other words, things I’m glad I saw and did before the bucket goes flying.

Mine contains plenty of experiences that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, for example. Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Taif Escarpment in Saudi Arabia. The Kinabatangan River in Borneo. Whales off the Sri Lankan coast. Walking down the limes in Germany – the furthest extent to the Roman Empire in Northern Europe. A cabin by a lake in the Rocky Mountains. Brunch in Manhattan. The British Museum, many times. And so on.

But since it’s unhealthy to be focused purely on the past, I do have a Live To See List – stuff that I’d love to see happen during my lifetime. No need to be personally involved. I have no desire to meet the Pope or the Dalai Lama, because any such encounter would be brief and most likely perfunctory. I would, however, dearly love to spend 24 hours in a prison cell next to Boris Johnson or Donald Trump.

There’s no point hoping to see the planet saved. Even if we hit the targets the scientists are urging upon us, something else will come along to scare the life out of us. And anyway, I’ll be dead before we get to find out whether or not we’re on the right track.

No, relatively modest stuff – at least in the big scheme of things – would be fine by me. The election of the first female president of Afghanistan, for example. Blue whales, hedgehogs, orangutans and gorillas no longer considered endangered species. One week without knife crime in the UK or firearm deaths in the US. A year without civil war in the Middle East. A year when more trees are planted in the world’s rainforests than are burnt down. The rediscovery of classical manuscripts in Herculaneum – plays, histories and philosophical treatises. A measurable decline in hacking and trolling and fraud on the internet. Food priced according to its proximity to the point of supply. Vaccines for dementia. The prevention of pain without addiction. A natural – rather than an enforced – end to debates about statues, slavery, gender politics and sexuality.

This is a wish list over which I have little or no control. There are of course places I long to see – the temples of Sicily, the mosaics of Ravenna, the churches of Georgia, the Auschwitz Museum and the cities along the Silk Road. But they don’t feature on any bucket list. If I don’t visit them, so be it.

Far more important, whatever your age, is surely to remain open to any experience, seemingly mundane or otherwise, that might pass you by unnoticed if your eyes are constantly focused on an unachievable horizon.

That way your bucket will always be full.

On levelling up and other fantasies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberation – a ferry crossing away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Old Lie, Wilfred
Owen, 1917

Once more with feeling (and taste and smell)

One more time then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afghanistan: the Monkey and the Sonnet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virus-dodging in the Home of Cricket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upping Sticks: Part 3 – The Move

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It really was over.

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

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

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

Upping Sticks: Part 2 – the Faithless and the Fickle

No, this is not our house….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upping Sticks: Part 1 – Thinking About It

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

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

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

The event in question was a house move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 has all the gory details.

Ten thousand fans and a hundred wedding guests

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

Now I have another beef.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I once was lost, but now am found

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m with Don Henley: they’re not here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I grow up, I want to be a shrink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Reading: Putin’s People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exit stage right, pursued by vengeful variants

My mother with a friend, Cornwall 1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring it on, I say.

Finding happiness in unlikely places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ascendancy of lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great men are not always the famous ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pockets of evil in England’s green and pleasant land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boris’s Fawlty moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom Tree-Slayer bites the sawdust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom Tree-Slayer of Deepest Surrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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