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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 dubious 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. The likes of Roman Abramovich were left with little doubt that they remained in place on sufferance, and could be taken down in an instant on the say-so of the tsar. As for those whom Putin imprisoned or forced into exile, their fortunes were restored to the state, with large slices hived off to institutions controlled by his cronies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exit stage right, pursued by vengeful variants

My mother with a friend, Cornwall 1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bring it on, I say.

Finding happiness in unlikely places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ascendancy of lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great men are not always the famous ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pockets of evil in England’s green and pleasant land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boris’s Fawlty moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom Tree-Slayer bites the sawdust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom Tree-Slayer of Deepest Surrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London after lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is fine, but I do sometimes get impatient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britain’s latest invasive species – the flag fetish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When two tribes go to war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the Genarians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britain’s National Health Service: a round of applause for the price of a latte?

Incompetence springs from many sources. Thinking without evidence that you know better than anybody else. Making decisions without taking advice. Failure to anticipate the likely consequences of a decision. Groupthink, wherein decisions are derived through ideology rather than known facts. Cultures where loyalty is valued more highly than ability.

I could go on. But I leave it up to you to determine wherein lies the stupidity of the British government in determining that National Health Service workers deserve a 1% pay rise. Let’s explore the decision a little further.

The government’s justification is that the state can’t afford a higher rise. All fine and logical, except that for the past year we have been relying on the NHS to keep more of us alive than at any time in its history. To do so, it has asked more of its staff – more hours, more danger, more stress – than they have ever experienced for a sustained period throughout their working lives. Exceptional times, exceptional demands.

Pay rises have long-term consequences. They raise the running costs of an organisation not just for the year in which they are awarded, but for the years to come. They are hard numbers that affect what can be spent on other aspects of the service – infrastructure, equipment, drugs and so forth. These costs are, to an extent, quantifiable.

So also are costs on an individual level which determine whether people can afford to work for the organisation. Costs of housing, transportation, food and clothing, for example. These are practical considerations that dictate whether a person chooses to become a nurse, a paramedic, a soldier, a police officer or a bus driver.

The question of what people deserve is entirely another matter. Do NHS staff deserve 1%, 5% or 10% increases? That depends on your perspective. If you’re a COVID patient whom the NHS has kept alive against the odds, you might argue for the higher figure. But if you’re a police officer whose mission is to keep the public safe in less dramatic fashion, and you’re told there will be no pay increase this year, you might feel aggrieved and undervalued if the paramedics with whom you work closely are given, say, a 3% rise and you get nothing.

Public sector pay is a rat’s nest of competing claims. How do you tell a police officer who confronted knife-wielding killers at Borough Market, or a fire fighter who saved a young family in a house fire that they are less deserving than a nurse struggling to keep four people alive in intensive care when normal protocols require them to look after only one patient?

So in the small picture, what people deserve is impossible to calculate and, in practical terms, should form no part of the determinations of a government haemorrhaging money in order to keep the economy afloat.

In the big picture, it’s a political issue, and it’s huge. Every spending decision for the foreseeable future is likely to be framed against what nurses, paramedics, cleaners, and junior doctors deserve for their heroic efforts over the past year. You can afford a £2 million communications centre in Downing Street but not more than 1% for the NHS? You can spend money on aircraft carriers, nukes and drones? You can build endless railway links and roads? You can pay head teachers six-figure salaries? Increase the salaries of Members of Parliament? Yet you can’t give the nurse who kept me alive more than a £3.50 a week pay rise. The price of a latte at Starbucks.

Worse still, you splurge public money on a 30-minute video extolling the success of the vaccination programme, which is immediately condemned as government propaganda. Your Test and Trace programme, at the cost of £37 billion is condemned by a former senior Treasury official as the “most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”. And we’re not even talking about those PPE procurement deals, which, even if they turn out not to have been corrupt, still have the smell of cronyism about them. It doesn’t make the government look good, does it?

Going back to the fundamental issue of rewarding NHS staff, here’s another thing to consider about pay rises. I know from bitter experience as an employer that the motivational value of a pay rise is short lived. Give someone 10%, and the result might be a rush of pleasure at increased earning power and a temporary boost to self-esteem. But before long it becomes the new normal. But if the pay rise is seen as unfair, and particularly if it can be perceived as an effective pay cut, the demotivation and discontent it can generate can be long-lasting even if the recipient chooses not to leave. There is an argument, of course, that in public service money is not the prime source of job satisfaction. But if it’s seen as inadequate or unfair, it’s often the main cause of dissatisfaction. Dan Pink makes that argument very persuasively in his book Drive – the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

But the government can only influence non-financial motivation by tweaking the organisation and putting appropriate leadership in place. Which it tries to do with monotonous regularity, assisted by its stable of extremely expensive consultants. So when thinking about what it can do to satisfy both public opinion and the bean-counters at the Treasury, we come back to money.

There is, it seems to me, a solution of sorts. I have no idea whether the government has considered and rejected it, or whether it simply hasn’t occurred to them. If I was world king, I would stay with the 1%, or possibly raise closer to the 2.5% that the NHS was recommending before the pandemic struck. But I would award every single NHS employee – from cleaner to consultant – a one-off bonus of £1,000 in recognition of their outstanding work in our hour of need.

Given that there are 1.3 million people who work for the NHS, the cost would be £1.3 billion, or approximately 3.5% of the cost of the Test and Trace programme. In the big scheme of things, hardly an economy-wrecking number. But a lump sum of £1000, tax free, would make a big difference, especially to the lower-paid staff on whom the service relies. I would also award the same bonus to contractors who work alongside front-line NHS staff. Nobody who played their part in helping us weather the pandemic should be excluded.

You would no doubt get a chorus of complaints from other public service workers who might claim that they also played their part. If you wanted to be more discriminating, you could restrict the payment to those who worked on the front line with COVID patients. Either way, this would be a political decision. And who would begrudge the recognition of a section of the community that day-in, day-out, risked their lives and worked interminable hours to provide us with medical help when we needed it?

In this way, you separate the political from the practical. You recognise achievement beyond the call of duty and set aside the ongoing pay issue for another day, another year. And by making the same payment to everybody, you recognise that this was a crisis that demanded teamwork, where normal roles, status and hierarchies were cast aside in a common effort.

You may come up with a hundred reasons why such an initiative might not have the desired effect. To which I can only reply with a single question: would such a measure have the effect of driving motivation and morale within the NHS lower than it is today?

I humbly rest my case.

Britain’s National Health Service: a round of applause for the price of a latte?

Incompetence springs from many sources. Thinking without evidence that you know better than anybody else. Making decisions without taking advice. Failure to anticipate the likely consequences of a decision. Groupthink, wherein decisions are derived through ideology rather than known facts. Cultures where loyalty is valued more highly than ability.

I could go on. But I leave it up to you to determine wherein lies the stupidity of the British government in determining that National Health Service workers deserve a 1% pay rise. Let’s explore the decision a little further.

The government’s justification is that the state can’t afford a higher rise. All fine and logical, except that for the past year we have been relying on the NHS to keep more of us alive than at any time in its history. To do so, it has asked more of its staff – more hours, more danger, more stress – than they have ever experienced for a sustained period throughout their working lives. Exceptional times, exceptional demands.

Pay rises have long-term consequences. They raise the running costs of an organisation not just for the year in which they are awarded, but for the years to come. They are hard numbers that affect what can be spent on other aspects of the service – infrastructure, equipment, drugs and so forth. These costs are, to an extent, quantifiable.

So also are costs on an individual level which determine whether people can afford to work for the organisation. Costs of housing, transportation, food and clothing, for example. These are practical considerations that dictate whether a person chooses to become a nurse, a paramedic, a soldier, a police officer or a bus driver.

The question of what people deserve is entirely another matter. Do NHS staff deserve 1%, 5% or 10% increases? That depends on your perspective. If you’re a COVID patient whom the NHS has kept alive against the odds, you might argue for the higher figure. But if you’re a police officer whose mission is to keep the public safe in less dramatic fashion, and you’re told there will be no pay increase this year, you might feel aggrieved and undervalued if the paramedics with whom you work closely are given, say, a 3% rise and you get nothing.

Public sector pay is a rat’s nest of competing claims. How do you tell a police officer who confronted knife-wielding killers at Borough Market, or a fire fighter who saved a young family in a house fire that they are less deserving than a nurse struggling to keep four people alive in intensive care when normal protocols require them to look after only one patient?

So in the small picture, what people deserve is impossible to calculate and, in practical terms, should form no part of the determinations of a government haemorrhaging money in order to keep the economy afloat.

In the big picture, it’s a political issue, and it’s huge. Every spending decision for the foreseeable future is likely to be framed against what nurses, paramedics, cleaners, and junior doctors deserve for their heroic efforts over the past year. You can afford a £2 million communications centre in Downing Street but not more than 1% for the NHS? You can spend money on aircraft carriers, nukes and drones? You can build endless railway links and roads? You can pay head teachers six-figure salaries? Increase the salaries of Members of Parliament? Yet you can’t give the nurse who kept me alive more than a £3.50 a week pay rise. The price of a latte at Starbucks.

Worse still, you splurge public money on a 30-minute video extolling the success of the vaccination programme, which is immediately condemned as government propaganda. Your Test and Trace programme, at the cost of £37 billion is condemned by a former senior Treasury official as the “most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”. And we’re not even talking about those PPE procurement deals, which, even if they turn out not to have been corrupt, still have the smell of cronyism about them. It doesn’t make the government look good, does it?

Going back to the fundamental issue of rewarding NHS staff, here’s another thing to consider about pay rises. I know from bitter experience as an employer that the motivational value of a pay rise is short lived. Give someone 10%, and the result might be a rush of pleasure at increased earning power and a temporary boost to self-esteem. But before long it becomes the new normal. But if the pay rise is seen as unfair, and particularly if it can be perceived as an effective pay cut, the demotivation and discontent it can generate can be long-lasting even if the recipient chooses not to leave. There is an argument, of course, that in public service money is not the prime source of job satisfaction. But if it’s seen as inadequate or unfair, it’s often the main cause of dissatisfaction. Dan Pink makes that argument very persuasively in his book Drive – the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

But the government can only influence non-financial motivation by tweaking the organisation and putting appropriate leadership in place. Which it tries to do with monotonous regularity, assisted by its stable of extremely expensive consultants. So when thinking about what it can do to satisfy both public opinion and the bean-counters at the Treasury, we come back to money.

There is, it seems to me, a solution of sorts. I have no idea whether the government has considered and rejected it, or whether it simply hasn’t occurred to them. If I was world king, I would stay with the 1%, or possibly raise closer to the 2.5% that the NHS was recommending before the pandemic struck. But I would award every single NHS employee – from cleaner to consultant – a one-off bonus of £1,000 in recognition of their outstanding work in our hour of need.

Given that there are 1.3 million people who work for the NHS, the cost would be £1.3 billion, or approximately 3.5% of the cost of the Test and Trace programme. In the big scheme of things, hardly an economy-wrecking number. But a lump sum of £1000, tax free, would make a big difference, especially to the lower-paid staff on whom the service relies. I would also award the same bonus to contractors who work alongside front-line NHS staff. Nobody who played their part in helping us weather the pandemic should be excluded.

You would no doubt get a chorus of complaints from other public service workers who might claim that they also played their part. If you wanted to be more discriminating, you could restrict the payment to those who worked on the front line with COVID patients. Either way, this would be a political decision. And who would begrudge the recognition of a section of the community that day-in, day-out, risked their lives and worked interminable hours to provide us with medical help when we needed it?

In this way, you separate the political from the practical. You recognise achievement beyond the call of duty and set aside the ongoing pay issue for another day, another year. And by making the same payment to everybody, you recognise that this was a crisis that demanded teamwork, where normal roles, status and hierarchies were cast aside in a common effort.

You may come up with a hundred reasons why this approach might not have the desired effect. To which I can only reply with a single question: would such a measure have the effect of driving motivation and morale within the NHS lower than it is today?

I humbly rest my case.

Brief observations on a family row

I have no intention of watching the interview, but the headlines are almost impossible to ignore. So rather than focus on Harry and Meghan, I only offer a few brief and far from comprehensive observations (or truisms, if you care to think of them that way) about human behaviour, based on my own experience, that arise out of the rumpus.

First, the more rule-bound a culture, the harder it is for an outsider with little understanding of that culture to integrate themselves.

Second, the implicit rules of a culture are far harder for an outsider to grasp or embrace than the explicit ones.

Third, we each have our own reality. You don’t have to be poor and downtrodden to be deprived of basic needs. Lack of sympathy on the grounds of their wealth and privilege for those who experience mental pain is often the result of envy and disappointment in the eye of the beholder.

Fourth, if, for whatever reason, you are sensitive to insult, you will find it whether or not it was intended.

Fifth, there is no such thing as a functional family, because there are no universal rules that define what functional means. Every family, in one way or another, is dysfunctional.

Sixth, words once said can’t be unsaid. However, they can be forgotten or cease to be meaningful.

Seventh, the older you are the less interesting you become. Such is public obsession with (relative) youth that if a couple like Meghan and Harry had given the same interview in their fifties or sixties few people would have paid a blind bit of notice.

Finally, misfortunes are often like heirlooms. They are handed down from generation to generation. What changes is not so much the heirloom, but what it means to those who inherit it.

End of story. At least as far as I’m concerned.

Breathless in India

I will no doubt be accused of being unpatriotic when I say how much fun I’ve had watching the Indian cricket team grinding England into the dust in the series just ended on the subcontinent.

Much as I would have liked my own team to prosper, what could be better than getting up at 6am, in full knowledge that catastrophe for one side or another had already struck, or would certainly unfold before the end of the day?

The series was special because both sides have some special players, though India’s special ones outplayed ours. Aside from the frequent debacles that reduced the England team to gibbering wrecks by the end of the series, there were other distinguishing features.

One was the commentary, not so much by the legendary Sunil Gavaskar and his Indian colleagues, who struggled heroically to remain impartial, but by Graeme Swann, one of England’s most successful spin bowlers of recent years, who didn’t. He was great entertainment, especially when he tried unsuccessfully to wind up his fellow commentators, who seemed slightly bemused at his humour. I could imagine him having the England dressing room in stitches, though at some stage whoever became the butt of his banter might have been tempted to chuck him off the balcony. When test cricket returns to satellite TV, Swann must migrate with it.

Then there were the players. I have learned that on the subcontinent there’s a tradition of printing first names on the back of their shirts. This required a person of limited intelligence like me to have to learn both of their names, since the commentators often referred to them by their surnames. Such as Pant, for example, which is far easier for a foreigner to remember than Rishabh, for reasons more than the fact that there are only four letters. We also had to come to terms with Washington Sundar, whose first name is a sublime anomaly among the Virats, Ishants and Rohits.

If we had to do this in England, we might have a problem dealing with our heroes running around with Dom, Dom, Jimmy and Joe on their backs, even though Leach, our tenacious spinner and lower-order batsman, became forever Jack in our household a couple of years ago, as he clung to his wicket while Ben Stokes destroyed the Australians in Leeds.

I also learned that English is not the only language in which the spelling of surnames can be widely different than their pronunciation. Granted, Cholmondeley and Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Chumley and Fanshaw) sit on a wilder shore than Pant and Axar (Punt and Aksha), but I’m forever indebted to Sunil Gavaskar (emphasis on the first A, please) for sparing me the need to make unfunny plays on Rishabh’s family name (apart from in the title of this piece).

Rishabh Pant (above) was, in fact one of the main reasons why the four-match contest was indeed a breathless affair. In contrast to England’s willowy heroes, Joe Root, Ben Stokes and all, Pant is a pocket battleship, a cricketing Maradona. When he stands behind the wicket, he chirps the batsmen to extinction, rather like Alexa infected with malware. As a batsman, he has that glorious quality that makes him compulsive viewing, which is that you never know what he’s going to do next. He adapts the tactics of the short game to disrupt the long form.

As for the bowlers, the hold that Ashwin and Axar gained over the English batsmen as the series progressed was another thing of beauty. It reminded you that in common with most competitive sport, cricket is a contest of the mind rather than merely one of physical skills. England dealt with the Indian spinners just fine in the first match in Chennai. When the pitches in the following two games became less placid, with the ball making right angles out of the dust, our lot couldn’t cope. And when the fourth match came along, despite the pitch being relatively snake-free, their confidence was well and truly shot.

I’m not sure if the English included a sports psychologist in their back-up team, but if not, surely a few mass hypnosis sessions on Zoom would have paid dividends. Either that, or someone like Graeme Swann to cheer them up now and again.

The first match was played in an empty stadium, which probably muted the normal home advantage for India. But then the fans returned, and so did India’s power. The few thousand (or hundreds, hard to tell which) who came to the massive stadium in Ahmedabad, made themselves heard, even though they looked like ants in the wide expanse of empty seating when viewed from the drone cameras. Yet, as fans do, they huddled together as if COVID was a thing of the past. Barely a face mask in sight, in a country that has lost 170,000+ to the virus. Then again, with Pant slaying all before him, the virus probably didn’t get a look-in.

As we in England crawl towards the ever-expanding horizon of freedom from lockdown, these mornings of madness in India have been, for me at least, a far better antidote to enforced confinement than slumping in front of the TV late in the afternoon for yet another sterile football match where the main cause of excitement is the crunching of bones and muscle, the false screams of agony and bellowed curses in many languages.

Cricket, on the other hand has a universal language in which a handful of words known to all suffice. Cricketing courage isn’t standing firm in the face of a murderous tackle. If you’re a batsman, it’s staying calm as a potentially lethal projectile whistles past your head at ninety miles an hour. It’s also three or four people crouching a few yards away from a batsman who can dispatch the same projectile into your body at the speed of a bullet. Teamwork is trusting that your bowler isn’t going to deliver a ball that the batsman will use to end your life.

And the joy of long-form cricket is that, at its best, it can deliver in real time at least as many twists and turns as you’re likely to see if you binge-watch a TV drama. Though Breaking Bad has an entirely different meaning when you’re an England batsman facing Ravichandran Ashwin.

A while ago someone anointed football with the phrase “the beautiful game”. To hell with that. Even though a vastly smaller percentage of the world’s population would agree with me, cricket is the ultimate beautiful game.

Permission to escape

When you go abroad, it’s quite common in normal times for countries that rank high on the control and paranoia scale to ask you state the reason for your visit. It even happens when you go to America, one of the least paranoid countries (irony alert), with the additional attraction that you’re grilled by grunting hominids masquerading as immigration officials who almost always don’t believe what you said on the form.

But now, it seems, we Englanders are required to go through a hoop that has a distinctly Soviet tinge. Before we leave the United Kingdom, we need to produce a form stating our reason for leaving, and providing documentary evidence to back up our plans. In other words, we need permission to leave.

The UK government has been kind enough to provide a list of “permitted reasons”, which include work, volunteering, education, medical or compassionate grounds and “weddings, funerals and related events”.

Whichever reason we select, we will need to provide evidence that such activity can’t take place without our leaving the country. Permitted reasons do not include that I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this bossy government anymore. Nor do they allow me to declare that unless I get out of here I’m going to trigger a mass extinction event.

I do see some useful potential loopholes, however. It surely won’t be long before some enterprising organisations in various parts of the world miraculously start inviting us to weddings of long-lost relatives in Thailand, or to sign us up as volunteers for some worthy cause from the comfort of a five-star hotel under the palm fronds beside some distant sea. They might also arrange for our appointment as employees of a start-up company in the Caribbean. And goodness knows, there are plenty of people being buried around the world, for whom funeral rites last at least three weeks. As for education, everybody will know that I’m studying for a PhD at an obscure university in Cambodia set up for precisely this purpose.

There’s also a list of exempted occupations which allow you travel without a permit. They include Eurostar train drivers, crown servants, civil aviation officials and border guards. That being the case, I’m wondering whether I’m too old to apply for a job as a temporary roving spy with MI6. A mission to spring Alexei Navalny, perhaps, taking in a few art galleries in St Petersburg enroute.

Failing all these options, I see no alternative: take out the swimming trunks, smear on the goose fat and head for Calais with a suitcase trailing in my wake.

Never did I believe that in my lifetime it would be easier for a Russian, with or without a few vials of Novichok or a payload of polonium, to leave Russia and enter the UK than for an impoverished Englander like me to get the hell out of my own country.

On a more serious note, here’s a quote from a magisterial essay in the Financial Times by Yuval Noah Harari on lessons to be learned from the pandemic:

… surveillance must always go both ways. If surveillance goes only from top to bottom, this is the high road to dictatorship. So whenever you increase surveillance of individuals, you should simultaneously increase surveillance of the government and big corporations too. For example, in the present crisis governments are distributing enormous amounts of money. The process of allocating funds should be made more transparent. As a citizen, I want to easily see who gets what, and who decided where the money goes. I want to make sure that the money goes to businesses that really need it rather than to a big corporation whose owners are friends with a minister. If the government says it is too complicated to establish such a monitoring system in the midst of a pandemic, don’t believe it. If it is not too complicated to start monitoring what you do — it is not too complicated to start monitoring what the government does.

Says it all as far as the UK is concerned, really.

No, Minister

It feels like an act of subtle subversion by the BBC. Despite wetting itself with fear of a government that seems intent on cutting it down to size, Britain’s hallowed broadcasting institution chooses this moment to offer us a re-run of Yes, Minister on terrestrial prime time.

For those who were too young to catch it when it first appeared (or too un-techy to find it on the internet), Yes, Minister is a wicked satire on the efforts of a rookie minister to break free from the self-preserving stranglehold of a cynical civil service. It’s a scream. And despite the absence of modern tech baubles and the obligatory profanity of the current era, it has aged miraculously well.

Episode 2, which aired this week, involved the attempt by Jim Hacker, the minister, to extract political advantage by switching the visit of the leader of an oil-rich African nation to Scotland, where, coincidentally, three by-elections are about to take place. When the leader threatens to embarrass the government by making an inflammatory speech about the curse of colonialism, he manages to extract a whopping great loan on very favourable terms as the price for moderating his language. Oh, and that money will be spent on buying drilling equipment made in Scotland.

It was a joy, all the more so because of the comic fireworks that the writers packed into the short space of thirty minutes.

Forty years on, the writers would surely snort with grim amusement at the antics of the current government, which has just agreed a hefty settlement out of public funds of the law suit by Sir Philip Rutnam, the senior civil servant at the Home Office, for constructive dismissal. His complaint was on the grounds of bullying by the minister, Priti Patel, who had already been found to have broken the ministerial code because of similar behaviour against other civil servants whom Sir Philip claimed he had attempted to protect.

Up in bonny Scotland, an alleged breach of the ministerial code by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon connected with the unsuccessful prosecution of her predecessor Alex Salmond for sexual offenses is being treated by her Conservative opponents as a resignation matter. Priti Patel escaped that fate, even though if Sir Philip’s testimony had been heard in open court she may well have been forced to resign.

Meanwhile, the Health minister, Matt Hancock, continues in office with impunity after having been judged in the High Court as having broken the law by failing to publish the details of COVID-related contracts within the statutory deadline. In his defence, he said that he would do it again if it was in the national interest. So much for the rule of law.

The same approach is being taken in Northern Ireland, where the government is pushing back the imposition of border controls agreed with the European Union a mere three months ago because, surprise surprise, they’re afraid that they will trigger shortages of food and other supplies in the province.

In Yes, Minister, there was always a get-out-of-jail card played at the end of the episode that spared embarrassment and resignations. This government’s failures are clear to see well beyond the dusty corridors of Whitehall. And yet, despite spending tens of billions of pounds on an ineffective test and trace programme and doing murky deals for the supply of equipment needed to protect doctors and nurses from the ravages of the first wave of COVID, in a recent opinion poll the Conservatives have increased their lead over Labour to thirteen percentage points.

Which suggests one of two explanations. Either that Labour are incapable of providing any meaningful opposition. Or, more likely, that the public are so intoxicated by the success of the vaccination programme and the scent of freedom in their nostrils that they are willing to forgive the government almost anything – even the adverse consequences of Brexit as they unfold under cover of a greater darkness.

I suspect that Sir Humphrey Appleby, the conniving head of department in Yes, Minister, would have succumbed to apoplexy by now. Or, if he was still alive today, enjoying a comfortable retirement in Surrey, he would have been amazed that his successors have not managed to rid themselves of their shameless and incompetent political masters. Or at the very least, that they haven’t had the courage to say No, Minister.

How do you punish a ruler without punishing the ruled?

Even among governments with the most benign and enlightened intentions, there comes a time when morality and values run up against political realities. That’s when hard decisions, or a lack of them, come into play.

There are plenty of people offering Joe Biden advice on what to do about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the light of the CIA report that blames him for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi (above). I’m not about to join them either in praising or criticising Biden’s response. But drawing on my own experience of living and working in Saudi Arabia, which admittedly ended at the start of the MBS era, I do think it’s worth exploring the underlying factors in play.

First, why was a report written two years ago only released now? Donald Trump, keen to maintain a close relationship with MBS, ordered it to remain classified. In the recent Senate confirmation hearings, Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence, undertook that after her confirmation it would be declassified and released. From that point onwards it was clear that the new administration would be taking a different approach with Saudi Arabia. Other policy decisions, such as the suspension of sales of offensive weapons to the Kingdom that might be used in Yemen, followed.

Among some of those commentators who don’t believe that Joe Biden is doing enough to hold MBS to account, there seems to be a delusion that the United States somehow controls Saudi Arabia, and that therefore it has the power to determine whether or not Mohammed bin Salman becomes king. This tweet, linking to an article in The New Arab, is an example: “A US decision to spare Mohammed bin Salman over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi has frustrated campaigners.” The article refers to the lack of personal sanctions against the crown prince, but the tweet, read in isolation, suggests a power that United States doesn’t have, which is to remove the head of a foreign government other than by force.

The Washington Post, for whom Khashoggi worked, responded to the release of the report with an editorial that pointed to the argument for a pragmatic approach in future relations with Saudi Arabia. Iyad el Baghdadi, a friend of Jamal’s, writing in the same newspaper, believes that rather than focusing narrowly on MBS, the US should promote a return to the relatively free speech that prevailed before he came to power.

I agree with him, up to a point. As I mentioned earlier, the last time I was in Saudi Arabia was when MBS began his path to power. At the time the social media was a vibrant forum for opinions of every shade. Yet even then, although (to paraphrase the rallying cry in China that preceded Tiananmen Square) a thousand flowers bloomed in the desert, the ability to speak out never came close to the freedom of speech that we enjoy in the West. In particular, criticism of the individual members of the royal family was always a red line not to be crossed.

The analogy with Tiananmen Square is relevant because if there is a model that most closely resembles MBS’s policy of social freedom constrained by strict controls on freedom of expression and political activity, it operates in China, even though the Chinese Communist Party is a pervasive and mature establishment, and MBS’s concentration of personal power more closely resembles that of Vladimir Putin in Russia.

For all the pressure on Biden in the US media to “do something” about MBS, the president and his administration have some difficult choices.

The US State Department is well aware that if it tries to turn MBS into a pariah, the crown prince will look for friends and allies elsewhere. Most likely he will pivot towards Russia and China, who will be more than happy to gain influence in the region. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will be unlikely to be squeamish about supporting a leader who uses extreme measures to crush opposition.

It will also be aware of another factor that the more breathless analysts sometimes forget. If the people of Saudi Arabia turns en masse against Mohammed bin Salman, it will not be because of the murder of Khashoggi or the incarceration of dissidents. It will more likely be because of a decline in their living standards, as well as a sense of insecurity brought about by the intervention in Yemen, the perception of threat from Iran and the continuing presence of ISIS sympathisers both within and just beyond their borders.

Much as it pains me to say this, but the hard reality, I suspect, is that most Saudis don’t care about Jamal Khashoggi, Loujan Al-Hathloul, Raif Badawi and other celebrated dissidents. They have watched events in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria over the past decade. What happened to Khashoggi may be shocking to the West, but for many Saudis anxious to live in peace and prosperity, the gruesome murder of one person pales into insignificance when set against repeated and well publicised acts of cruelty perpetrated both by regimes and insurgents very close to home.

Certainly, there are plenty of people who want more personal freedoms, including the right to speak out about religion and politics without being locked up. And for sure there are people who live in fear of Mohammed bin Salman. But as many if not more are terrified of the consequences of a violent disruption of the status quo.

Of course there are grumbles of discontent. Among those who want increased social freedoms to be matched by freedom of speech. Among those who resent the mixing of men and women, the cinemas, the music and the sporting set pieces, and yearn for the days when the religious establishment controlled education and aggressively policed the morals of the nation. And especially among the unemployed youth, whose standard of living has steadily declined despite the government-mandated exodus of millions of foreign workers that was intended to open up new jobs for nationals.

But a crown prince who controls all the levers of state, including all the elements of the defence and security establishment that were previously controlled by rival factions within the royal family, would be difficult to dislodge without a concerted effort by members of that family.

No doubt Joe Biden regards MBS as irrevocably tainted. But he will be aware of the baleful consequences of regime changes in the region. While the removal of Mubarak, Ghaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen may have produced regime change, in every case the effect on the populations has been catastrophic.

The most obvious tactic short of fostering regime change would be sanctions against MBS and his closest associates. That way, people argue, you can hurt the leader without making the people as a whole pay for their misdeeds. But you could hardly say that the Magnitsky Act has weakened Putin. Sanctions against members of Assad’s family have not moderated his behaviour.

Sanctions against countries designed to encourage the people to rise up against their leaders failed in Saddam’s Iraq, and to date have failed in Iran. All they have achieved has been to strengthen the rulers’ determination to stay in power by the use of ever more repressive measures, and amplified the suffering of the population. Anybody who doubts that should ask Kim Jong Un.

What some of Biden’s critics perhaps fail to understand is that you can cancel a celebrity for saying the “wrong” thing, you can cancel an elected official for lying or sexual harassment, but you can’t cancel the ruler of another country without cancelling that country in the process.

Given its strategic position in the Middle East, the importance of its purchasing power and its role as a counterweight against Iran, Biden most likely believes that if, in America’s terms, he were to cancel Saudi Arabia, he’d probably have to cancel the whole region. Why? Because trade, diplomacy and military power come as a package. If he were to cede influence over Saudi Arabia, the knock-on effect would be that neighbours in the region would be encouraged to deepen relationships with other powers that they might consider more reliable partners. To an extent, that’s already happening. Russia is in Syria. China’s economic involvement with the region is deeper than ever.

For as long as America sees the world in terms of competition with powerful rivals, the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia at its centre, will remain a key piece on the global chessboard. And Joe Biden, for all his belief in what Robin Cook, the Tony Blair’s foreign minister, called an “ethical foreign policy”, will find it hard to turn away from alliances with dictators and absolute monarchs who resort to unethical means to stay in power.

For that reason, at the risk of coming over as a cold-hearted cynic, I see no other outcome for US-Saudi relations in the medium term than the continuation of the underlying status quo, even if its superficial characteristics are dressed up for political purposes as a reset.

No matter how much the friends of Jamal Khashoggi might yearn for a different future for Saudi Arabia, that would seem to be the cold, hard reality.

Anti-vax: what influences the influencers?

Today is a big day in my family. You could call it Maximum Vax Day. Why? Because it will be 22 days since my wife and I received our first dose of the COVID vaccine. According to the manufacturer, it’s the day on which our immunity to the virus reaches the expected level of effectiveness.

We plan to celebrate by making a cake. I admit it’s a strange way to mark a milestone that has arrived without any noticeable change in physical make-up or function. It’s not as if we’ve grown a couple of inches or developed the rippling bodies of Marvel heroes.

Physically, it’s just another day. The same aches and pains of advancing years are still there. In fact, they’re probably worse, thanks to three months of lockdown inactivity.

But psychologically, the impact is immense. The sense that our personal defences against the invisible fiend that notionally swirls around us every time a puffing jogger passes us in the park, or when we fearfully set foot in a supermarket, have been boosted to the point that we are unlikely to get seriously ill or die if it colonises our noses or lungs, is immensely reassuring.

As much as anything else, we feel that we can now safely catch a cold without fearing that we’re on a path towards the ventilator. Though strangely enough, in the past year neither of us has suffered a hint of the sneezes and sniffles that normally come at you from nowhere as surely as the seasons change. That’s what comes of living in a bio-bubble, I guess.

The basis of our relative ease, when it comes down to it, is faith. Faith in the science behind the vaccine, faith in those who developed it and faith in the public health officials who have pronounced it to be safe.

Take that faith away, or undermine it, and everything changes.

Which brings us, of course, to the anti-vax phenomenon. I won’t call it a “movement” because I don’t think that’s what it is, at least on the evidence of a documentary in the BBC’s Panorama series that I saw last night. Panorama was once a current affairs flagship. It has predated all others in Britain by several decades. It’s somewhat diminished these days, in the face of rival terrestrial offerings, and also the myriad of channels on YouTube.

But its most recent offering made a fair stab at exploring the fears of those who are hesitating to take the jab, and the disinformation that is stirring up those fears. At the heart of the programme was a YouTube film that showed a succession of medical professionals repeating many of the standard anti-vax messages. It will make you infertile, it will modify your DNA, it uses animal products, it’s a plot to control you and so on.

There were interviews with anti-vaxxers, as well as with a focus group whom they asked to watch the video. Most of the group expressed misgivings after watching it, although they were sufficiently reassured by an immunologist who answered their concerns and debunked the disinformation.

It turned out that a number of the people on the video have been barred from medical practice. One who was interviewed, a British nurse, had been the subject of a story a couple of months ago. Though this was not mentioned in the programme, her son claims that she has become so obsessed with vaccination conspiracy theories that he can no longer communicate with her. A classic case of down the rabbit hole, it seems.

It disappointed me, though, that Panorama didn’t delve into the motivation of the people were featured on the anti-vax video, and particularly of those who put it together. Why would you try to sabotage the best hope of mitigating the catastrophic effects of the pandemic? How can you claim, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that COVID is a hoax?

They didn’t manage to interview the video makers, leaving one to speculate that their motivation was simple: to make money through repeated viewings on YouTube and Instagram. The effect of such disinformation seems undeniable. Here’s a graph from a survey in the US. It may or may not be reliable, but the trends are telling:

Whatever the motivation of the instigators, the techniques behind much of the misinformation are clear. To understand them, a useful reference point is the six principles of influence defined by Dr Robert Cialdini, an American psychologist, a couple of decades ago. Three of them seem to be obvious sources.

The first is authority. People look to figures of authority – in this case medical professionals – to establish and reinforce their beliefs. Then there’s commitment and consistency. People hold beliefs that are consistent with their values. So if you’re a believer in one conspiracy theory, you’re likely to believe in another. And the third principle is consensus. If all members of your peer group believe in something, you’re likely to believe in it too.

By understanding the methods of persuasion employed by the anti-vaxxers, you can then come up with counter-strategies. Hence the use in communities where hesitancy is widespread of authority figures with credibility within those communities to debunk the falsehoods. Local doctors, celebrities and religious leaders, for example.

The toughest nut of all to crack would seem to be consensus. I still find it incredible that within groups most severely affected by the virus, such as black and Asian communities, resistance is highest. And in America, the idea that among white Republicans 60% might either be unsure or committed anti-vaxxers is equally strange, until you realise that this section of the population is most likely to buy into the likes of QAnon.

To me, Cialdini’s principles make so much sense that they should be part of the curriculum at every school and adult education institution. We need to understand how influence works so that we can recognise the techniques being used on us both for benign and malign purposes.

Calculated, malign and well-presented disinformation is one of the themes of the past decade. Vaccine hesitancy is just one of the by-products. Countering the lie machines has spawned a whole industry of counter-influencers, analysts and communicators.

But the principles haven’t changed, only the vectors, in the form of the social media. You could argue that there’s nothing new under the sun, excepting only the intensity of the light.

What influences the influencers? No easy answer. But if we’re to fill the gaps in the vaccination programme, and not just in the UK, we need to use every tactic in the book to counter the malign and reassure the fearful.

Now for the cake. Coffee, chocolate or vanilla? No easy answer either.

The diminishing power of three

One of the things I used to speak about when I ran communications workshops was that messages are best delivered in groups of three. Nothing new about this. People figured this out long ago, as Lincoln did in “of the people, for the people and by the people”. It’s often referred to by hacks like me as The Power of Three.

But rhetorical devices tend to have a weaker effect the more they’re used. When a technique that resonated so powerfully at Gettysburg turns into a default feature of a government communications handbook, it loses credibility. A case in point is now, when the British government, in the middle of a pandemic, flush with money it doesn’t have and delighting in new powers undreamed of in times other than war, makes use of the opportunity to lecture us about subjects way beyond the remit of public health.

The other morning, for example, I was assaulted on Twitter with a message from the UK’s National Crime Agency that told me to “know the gun, know the law and know the consequences”. It was, of course, intended to deter us from owning and using firearms.

Though I absolutely agree with the sentiment, I have no intention of going to gun class so that I can tell the difference between an AK47 and an M16, or between a Luger and a Beretta. As for the law, is there anyone over ten years old who is unaware that in the UK it’s illegal to own a gun? OK, they might know that the police are allowed guns, as are farmers and posh people who like shooting animals. But by and large, the vast majority of people know that you can’t buy a shotgun at Tesco.

And the consequences? Do we really need to be told that if we fire a gun at someone they might die and we might go to jail?

So what’s the point of splurging public money on telling us what we already know? Are our masters worried that, crazed as we are by lockdown, we’re about to bring out our hidden weaponry and start shooting each other, or worse still, that in tribute to our unruly American neighbours we’re about to storm Parliament?

It’s almost as though different branches of government are starting to compete with each other in coming up with the most inane three-pronged messages. Not content with “stay at home, save lives, protect the NHS”, which in many homes is now enough to evince piercing screams of fury, the government is turning the power of three into a nauseating cliché.

And by the way, why are we constantly bombarded by videos of our prime minister, dressed in a tight-fitting shirt that shows his nipples and ill-fitting trousers that thankfully show nothing, lurching around like a drunken gorilla and inviting people in hospitals and vaccination centres to crunch elbows with him?

Fortunately there’s only one of him, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

I wrote these words yesterday. Coming back to them a day later, as I often do when I want to leaven irritation with a wider perspective, I’m wondering why I reacted thus to a message that under normal circumstances would flit across my eyeline and depart without ceremony. Why is the mere sight of Boris Johnson is enough to raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels? And why do Matt Hancock, Gavin Williamson, Priti Patel and all the other usual suspects provoke a similar reaction?

Is it lockdown psychosis that causes me to swear at the TV whenever these characters start spouting? Or is it, as my wife delicately put it, because they’re in our faces all the time?

A bit of both, perhaps. We started watching the evening news on the BBC during the first lockdown. As a couple, we’ve always got our news from different sources – some by subscription and others depending on our diverse interests. The BBC News has acted as a common reference point, much as it did for our parents in other times of crisis. So it’s not surprising that we should be exposed to the same faces week in, week out. Not just the politicians, but the journalists whose idiosyncrasies either annoy or amuse. Hugh Pym, for example, whose pained smile suggests someone trying to put a brave face on a severe case of constipation, and poor Laura Kuenssberg, who you sense measures every word against a terror that she will be accused of bias.

Another factor for someone like me who has watched the Trump era with horror and fascination, is that America has started to move on from the orange monster. New faces abound, even if some of them are old ones re-animated. There’s a freshness about Biden’s presidency, even if eventually it will turn sour and tired. And yet here in the UK, we have many of the same old characters who have been in our faces for much of the last eleven years. When new ones appear, they don’t seem much different from those they succeeded. Their rhetoric has become ever more robotic.

Does this bother us as a country? It seems not, if opinion polls are any guide.

Still, there’s plenty of outrage about. Among fishermen whose businesses are being destroyed by Brexit. Pressure groups who are challenging the legality of the government’s procurement practices. And plenty of people like me, for whom the success of the vaccination programme doesn’t redeem the incompetence of test and trace and other initiatives. And yet the majority of us still seem to be willing to give Boris Johnson and his crew the benefit of the doubt.

Is this because we British are not so easily influenced by the wilder voices from the social media? Or is it because enough of us have succumbed to the same cultish indoctrination as Trump’s base in America? Or are we stoically awaiting better times, on the basis that it’s unwise to change horses in mid-stream, just in 1945 our parents and grandparents waited until after the defeat of the Nazis before ejecting Churchill?

I can only speak for myself. This morning I listened to an MP called Mark Harper, who belongs to a group in the Conservative ranks that refers to itself as the COVID Recovery Group. Their agenda is to push the government into the earliest possible easing of the current social restrictions. Although I didn’t object to his argument, I still so bridled at his hyperbolic use of language – “our wonderful this, our marvellous that” and so forth – that he could have said almost anything and still had me swearing at him.

So in this respect, how am I different from a Trump supporter in the hinterland of Pennsylvania, for whom nothing a Democrat might say or do will ever gain their approval?

Not so different, perhaps, though I suspect that my affliction is temporary. Also, I like to think I’m prepared to give credit where it’s due, such as for the vaccination programme. But what really sends me off the cliff is listening to the tired old communications clichés, which suggest the arrogance of people who believe that their audience will swallow any old rubbish, as long as it’s coated in Johnsonian rhetoric.

The clichés, the slippery language, the arse-covering and the barrage of bombast have become as tiring as the effects of lockdown. Boris Johnson might be an admirer of Churchill’s rhetorical style, but he forgets that Winston spoke to the nation only on rare occasions, not every day on the TV news.

Less, in those days, was definitely more. And so it should be today.

Let us now praise famous men (or erase them)

Sir Redvers Buller was a famous British general who fought against the Zulus and subsequently the Boers. Even though he wasn’t much of a general, he was a brave soldier who won the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour.

He’s fairly typical of those imperial figures without whom the British Empire would not have been built. Unlike some of his peers, such as General Gordon (known as Gordon of Khartoum), who was something of a religious fanatic and met his end at the hands of the Sudanese Mahdi (someone we’re not allowed to call a religious fanatic), Buller was considered at the time to be a decent and level-headed chap.

So decent, in fact, that his mates organised a public subscription that paid for a statue to be erected of him on Biffin, his favourite horse, in his hometown of Exeter.

According to The Times, the local council had put the wheels in motion to remove Buller from his plinth after the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Those wheels included commissioning an “equality impact report”, presumably at public expense, that concluded:

The General Buller statue represents the patriarchal structures of empire and colonialism which impact negatively on women and anyone who does not define themselves in binary gender terms. The consultation will need to ensure that the views of women, trans-gender and non-binary people are captured and given due weight.

So the statue debate continues, with the added spice that we must now consider the views of trans-gender and non-binary people in determining whether the likes of Sir Redvers should be banished to a mouldering outhouse far from the public view.

And yes, of course the views of trans-gender people should be taken into account, though not because Sir Redvers offended them particularly. I should have thought that descendants of the Zulus might have a prior claim to be offended at his veneration. The Boers don’t count, we’re encouraged in certain quarters to believe, because they were white supremacists and the ancestors of those who created the wicked apartheid regime in South Africa. So they were as bad as Sir Redvers, even though he didn’t, by the way, have anything to do with our notorious concentration camps in which so many of them were incarcerated.

But as for women, non-binary and trans-gender people, their views matter not because of who they are, but because they are people. Like the rest of us.

Far be it for me, as a binary, male, non-oppressed person to mock those who feel that they are defined by their identity rather than their humanity. And yes, the historical record does need to be revisited so that the context of events can be seen through the eyes of more than binary, male, non-oppressed people.

But that’s happening already, through the efforts of female historians whose voices are as popular as those of their male counterparts: Mary Beard, Margaret McMillan and countless others. Although widely-read trans voices are a bit thin on the ground, we still have the late Jan Morris, whose genius has long been recognised, even if her transgender back story has always taken second place to admiration of her skills as a writer.

Where does this end? Are we at the point where any eminent person of British extraction who lived from the seventeenth century onwards is subject to censure because directly or indirectly they benefited from the colonisation of the New World, the African slave trade, the rape of South-East Asia, land grabs in Africa, the extermination of indigenous Australians and the robbery of opium-addled China?

Surely we should not be limiting our attention to Robert Clive, Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes and other flagship targets of the statue hunters? Should we not be condemning every monarch, prime minister, merchant adventurer and banker who benefited from empire, which is just about all of them? And as for the rest of us, who even today study, work and participate in the institutions they endowed, should we not insist that their dubious origins should be expunged, so that their existence appears to be a miraculous thing, conjured out of nowhere?

We’ve not yet arrived at the point at which all aspects of our lives are reviewed to ensure that they meet the guiding principles of compliance with “the views of women, trans-gender and non-binary people”. Yet already those whose views are deemed non-compliant are subject to cancellation. Ask JK Rowling.

As of today, there is no high priesthood and no dominant creed. Just a number of influential advocates and their followers. Although there is no scripture, the various shades and flavours of opinion make me think of clouds of matter in the universe as they steadily congeal into suns and planets. Already we are being encouraged, as Lionel Shriver noted in The Sunday Times, to expunge the language of biological difference with bizarre replacements. Chestfeeding instead of breastfeeding; individuals with cervixes instead of women; “perinatal” instead maternity services; human milk instead of breastmilk. Anything, it seems that serves to acknowledge the difference between men and women.

Not that I’m seeking to brush away the pain of those who have suffered from gender dysphoria. But I worry that sooner or later there will be the ossification of belief, followed by rigid orthodoxies, that gain wide acceptance. And at that point there will surely emerge institutions. Governments will create departments in order to scoop up the votes of the faithful. No longer the over-broad Ministry for Women, but soon perhaps a Department for Gender.

Fine, so long as compliance with non-binary and trans orthodoxy doesn’t lead us down the path towards something equivalent to religious observance, wherein self-appointed censors issue fatwas such as the one dictating that cucumbers and tomatoes should not be sold next to each other since the former is symbolically male and the latter female. (This little nugget comes from an Iraqi cleric quoted by Brian Whitaker in his book Arabs Without God.)

But back to statues. You could argue that such monuments to famous people as remain in place can have a role as the cultural equivalent of graphite rods that prevent a meltdown in public discourse. The key, some believe, lies in explanatory plaques. While the statues themselves should remain in place as reminders of people who shaped events, influenced others and achieved extraordinary things, the plaques beneath them should be mutable. They could be temporary things that reflect the consensus of the current era, but would be subject to change as the received wisdom changes, which it undoubtedly will.

The plaques could also feature barcodes that link to sites moderated by museums, enabling you to discover more about the subject and to contribute your own perspective. Or perhaps not. We have enough online equivalents of Speaker’s Corner already.

As it happens, I agree with those who suggest that erecting statues of historical figures is an outmoded way of celebrating famous lives. There are very few historical figures who will not provide an opportunity for some section of the population to object to them for one reason or another.

And this, it seems to me, is the point of the fashion for targeting long-forgotten sculptures mouldering away in obscure corners of the country. The objective is not so much to get rid of them, but to stir up debate and discussion by trying to get rid of them. Whether that debate is based on fallacious reasoning, poisonous ideology or a genuine attempt to re-think historical orthodoxies depends on the campaigners, and whether the campaigns succeed depends on the willingness of officials and politicians to take up the cause. I like to hope that our willingness to think for ourselves also plays a part.

As for the “reappraisal” of icons such as Winston Churchill, I’m fine with that. A conference at the Cambridge college named after him in which he was roundly vilified as a racist monster is unlikely to do more than illustrate that no reputation is sacrosanct. Even if we end up re-writing school history books to reflect new orthodoxies, those orthodoxies will be challenged and replaced. The woke will fall asleep and wake again. History only dies when we forget it. The more we argue about it, the greater the chance that it will stay alive.

Besides, don’t we have more to worry about for the next few years than the reputations of Sir Redvers Buller, Winston Churchill and Cecil Rhodes? And however we describe them, breasts, cervixes and prostates have been around for all of recorded time, and they’re not going to disappear at the urging of a tiny minority that wishes to re-invent the English language.

“Let us now praise famous people with prostates” is not a phrase likely to echo down the centuries.

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