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Postcard from France: On Decision Day

As I sat on my patio on a windy, drizzly morning in France, my spirits were lifted by the sight of a young buck sprinting past the garden towards the woods nearby. I know it was a buck because it had little horns. But I suppose it might self-identify otherwise, so perhaps I should call it they.

Here in the countryside, you would be hard put to realise that today France is about to elect a new president. I imagine traffic into the towns and villages will be a little heavier – in other words more than one car every five minutes. But there was no sign of that when I went to the boulangerie. And on the drive back, no evidence of the contest except for a couple of motheaten posters of also-rans, Zemmour and Mélenchon.

I don’t pretend to be familiar with the subtleties of French politics. But one thought occurs. The choice facing the electorate is similar to that available to the American people: between the centre and the right. In the US, the left hasn’t had a look-in for years, if ever. A deeply ingrained fear of socialism, and the inability to distinguish between so-called “progressives” and out-and-out communists has meant that anyone using the word “socialised”, as in socialised medicine, is seen by many as unAmerican.

In France it’s not so long ago that a socialist president was in power – most recently Hollande, and earlier Mitterrand. Now the socialists are nowhere, The two-candidate run-off system eliminated Mélenchon, who was France’s only serious option on the left, so his supporters have to choose between Macron and Le Pen. So now the French have much the same choice as my American cousins.

Who will win, and who should win? People I’ve spoken to are betting on Macron, but after the Brexit referendum and Trump’s victory, I don’t put much faith in received wisdom these days. Either way, as a Brit with a small stake in France’s prosperity, and whose politics lean towards the centre, I would go for Macron if I had a vote. That said, neither candidate seems particularly well-disposed towards my country. Whether that’s because our current government mainly consists of self-regarding clowns or there’s a deeper-rooted animus built on centuries-old rivalry is not for me to say. Certainly I can’t blame them, because the French don’t see politics as a business for clowns.

Another interesting aspect of the election is the argument that has gained traction not only in France but in my country as well. Marine Le Pen has drunk from the Russian money well. So according to her detractors electing her would be “helping Putin”. Likewise the disruption that might be caused if the UK tries to re-negotiate the Northern Ireland protocol signed as part of the Brexit deal would also, it is said, help the glowering dictator.

So it seems that any government with any policy that doesn’t pass the anti-Russia hygiene test is open to accusations that it’s soft on Putin. Just as fifty years ago it would be soft on communism. How gratified Putin must be that he’s become the bugbear-in-chief, around whom the politics of half the world revolves. If he’s achieved one thing, it’s that nobody thinks of his country as an irrelevance anymore.

I have of course been following events in Ukraine as closely as ever. One of my recent diversions has been to use Twitter’s translation facility for non-English posts. That way I get to read posts in Russian and Ukrainian. I can’t say that I’m reading a balanced spectrum of opinion in those languages, but getting away from the anglosphere for a while does provide a richer picture.

For example, I read a thread today in which Russians were discussing an order from the government both to state-owned organisations and private companies to identify employees under the age of 45 who have military training. Does that mean that the Russians are preparing for a general mobilisation? What surprises me is that the state doesn’t have that information already. Perhaps it does, but is using the measure to prepare the population for what might be to come. This is a development I hadn’t read about in any English-language media.

Back to France. As I mentioned earlier, the weather is not great. In the UK it’s often said that bad weather leads to low turnouts. This favours the Conservatives, apparently, because the less privileged voters – or, as the Etonians in government might say, the lower orders – are deterred from turning out in the wind and rain because of the physical difficulty of making it to the polling booths when one has to walk or take the bus. I’m not sure that these days that’s a factor either in England or in France.

Having said that, if you lived on our lonely little hill and you wanted to vote, you’d have a walk of at least three kilometres to reach the nearest polling station. I’ve never seen a bus on our nearest main road, so if you don’t have a car your only option is to walk. Since neither candidate seems to have the kind of community-based organisations behind them that exist in the UK, whose volunteers will drive little old ladies to the polls, I wonder if rural populations are missing out. If that’s the case, then perhaps Macron will benefit, since he seems to draw much of his support from urban areas.

But what do I know? About as much as the beautiful young deer that came visiting this morning. By the time you read this, the result will probably be known. At least one can say this with some certainty: the winner is unlikely to be as mendacious as Johnson or as batshit crazy as Trump. But be sure that whoever wins, the French will always have the ultimate deterrent: the barricades.

At a time when there seem to be so many unresolved crises – social, political and military, – the prospect of a decision is quite refreshing.

Vive La France!

Postcard from France: The garden from hell

I’ve heard it said that when most species, including our own, are wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, cockroaches will take our place as top dogs in the evolutionary hierarchy. That may be, but they’ll need to fight it out for supremacy with the dandelions.

I was reminded of what ferocious colonisers dandelions are when we returned to our recently-acquired second home in France. It was the first time we’d seen the place in the spring. As we pulled into the drive, we were greeted with thousands of the buggers, risen to a height they rarely achieve in England’s green and pleasant land. They’d already shed their flowers, and were ready to spread their seed far and wide.

It’s been eight weeks since we were last here, and what a dramatic transformation! A nondescript, reasonably under-control garden surrounding the house is now a meadow. Aside from the dandelions, we have buttercups, daisies, little pink flowers, irises and other plants that may have been put there by the previous owners or may have drifted in on the wind. Such grass as survived the stiff competition from other species is two feet high, for goodness’ sake.

On the night we arrived I dreamed of sentient green slime slowly enveloping rockeries, capturing the septic tank and heading for the house. I must have been reading too much about Ukraine. My wife’s reaction was “how lovely – our very own rewilding project”.  I have a well-developed irony detector, but in this case, I was unsure about whether she was being serious. But she knows I won’t tolerate incursions by green invaders. And she also knows how much I loathe dandelions.

So I began the fightback this morning. I took out the strimmer that we inherited from the previous owner, with the intention of cutting back the vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the house. Unfortunately my attempt to repel the invader was a failure. Faced with an acre of jungle, the strimmer died before I could cut back more than a couple of square feet. What next? Agent Orange, or risk the monster petrol mover we also inherited?

Another problem is that the designated flower beds are now indistinguishable from what used to be scrubland. And what to attack? The previous owners were keen gardeners. There are plants everywhere that might be weeds or might not. Mme D. told us that there were wild orchids here and there. So when I start my mower offensive, what precious floral treasure will I destroy in the process? Unlike Putin, I have no intention of picking on innocent civilians.

Furthermore, I know no more about gardening than Jeremy Clarkson did about farming when he bought his thousand acres. In fact, the only things I know are how to kill a lawn by overfeeding it, and how to encourage aphids and blackfly to settle on our roses. The sad reality is that my horticultural expertise lies mainly in killing things, such as slugs, ants and other creatures that disturb my quiet enjoyment of our curated nature.

Just as well that in England we have the ever-cheerful Wes, who spends a few hours every couple of weeks repairing the damage I’ve done and generally keeping the place looking nice. It’s also just as well that he’s a diplomat, since over the years he’s had to respond to my wishes, only for them to be countermanded by she who must be obeyed. Since she signs the cheques, guess who’s the decision maker as far as he’s concerned?

Alas, we have no Wes in France. So we have a choice. Either I let rip with the mower and destroy the orchids, or we outsource the job to the guy our predecessors used, who presumably knows where the bodies, or in this case the precious plants, are buried.

Either way, if we don’t do something soon, the rewilded garden will be covered with four-foot tall dandelions and other monsters. At that point I suppose the only solution would be a scythe or some awful weapon of mass destruction we might persuade a neighbouring farmer to deploy on our behalf.

The solution must be found by August, because I very much doubt if our daughter would be too pleased to allow our four-year-old grandson to frolic through a garden of triffids when they come visiting. As a last resort, perhaps we could hire a flock of sheep, but I haven’t seen many of them in the area.

Most likely it will fall to me to do my inept best with the mower. However, since there’s plenty of rain forecast for the next week, will the Honda four-stroke end up being no more effective than a Russian tank bogged down in Ukrainian mud? It’s only now that I realise that one of the most precious hand-me-downs that we found in the house is a stout pair of wellingtons whose previous owner had feet the same size as mine. It’s the first time I’ve worn such footwear in half a century.

All that said, it’s still a joy to be here. As I write this, I’m sitting on a covered patio watching the dandelions leer at me as the rain comes down. Various exotic birds settle on our little barn, also known as the piggery. I haven’t a clue what they are, because my ornithological knowledge is limited to robins, crows, blackbirds and pheasants.

But I do know what I like. At night the owls hoot and what I suspect are nightingales engage in earnest conversation. The dawn chorus is a rapturous symphony of sounds that makes the version in our English garden seem like a string quartet in comparison.

I feel slightly ashamed to be obsessing about dandelions when a nearby country is in flames, people are dying in their thousands and my wretched, Brexit-stricken, COVID-rife country continues to put up with a lying buffoon for a prime minister while I look on with helpless impotence. But at least I can actually do something about the herbal demons invading my little domain. All I ask for is a manicured postage stamp of order. The rest of the garden can have its way, orchids and all.

A sign of impending old age, when your world shrinks and your ability to shape it declines in equal measure. But hey, lovely to be in France, and next week we have Macron vs Le Pen, not that you’d notice in this sleepy little neighbourhood.

The question is: which of them is the orchid, and which is the dandelion?

Ukraine: have we reached peak fake news?

Fascinating is probably not the right word. But as I watch the conflict in Ukraine – or what the media wants to share of it – from the comfort of my suburban English bunker, it occurs to me that people in some parts of the world are getting a crash course in interpreting what passes for news and opinion, both from social and mainstream media sources.

In fact, it’s becoming pretty obvious that thinking about the media in terms of two streams, at least in the minds of consumers, is becoming irrelevant. How many people now rely exclusively on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok for updates on Ukraine and much more besides? How many people still trust just one of the BBC, CNN, Fox, Russia Today or Al-Jazeera to the exclusion of all other outlets?

I suspect that like me they choose a mixture of sources. The common denominator is the level of trust we place in what we read and see. If it’s the case that people stop automatically believing the stuff that the BBC broadcasts “because it’s the BBC”, is that a bad thing or a good thing? Good, I’d argue. Because if we’re stuck in a jungle without obvious paths, we have to find our own way through, rather than rely on the only path available, which might lead us over a cliff.

Our scepticism is a direct result of the so-called information wars. Deliberately-planted disinformation can certainly skew our perception in the short term. But are we discovering that it has a limited half-life? Is Putin’s much vaunted use of disinformation to destabilise Russia’s political and military rivals now working against him? Are we becoming immune to the bullshit because we’ve learned to treat everything as bullshit unless proven otherwise?

That would certainly seem to be the case in the West, where Putin apologists have been widely discredited. Politicians and pundits are having to make rapid about-turns when they realise that those they seek to persuade will no longer buy their arguments. Won’t get fooled again, as The Who once sang. Whether the same thing is happening in Russia remains to be seen. But that country, for all Putin’s efforts to stifle free speech and control the national conversation, is surely far away from Stalin’s Russia, where neighbours were reluctant to speak frankly to each for fear that their words might be reported to informers who lurked on every street corner. The internet is leaky. Stuff will always get through.

Time for a little analogy. I’m currently reading Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. Flyn is a Scottish journalist who takes us to parts of the world that have been dramatically altered by human activity, and subsequently abandoned to nature. The obvious example is Chernobyl. But she looks at many other examples of places seemingly ruined by natural disaster or human habitation, and describes how nature has regenerated in those areas.

Two examples stand out. River estuaries in New Jersey are still toxic after receiving constant streams of chemical effluent from factories dating back to the earliest period of the industrial revolution. Much of the marine life in these estuaries has died out. Some has survived despite exposure to high levels of toxic chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins. One species, the Atlantic killifish, has evolved at extraordinary speed to become 8,000 times more tolerant of these chemicals than its neighbours in nearby unpolluted estuaries.

The second story is of a botanical research station created in a pristine mountainous area of Tanzania more than a century ago. It was populated with hundreds of non-native species of trees and other plants, with the intention of discovering how these alien flora would adapt to different soil and climatic conditions. Over time, funding ran out and the research station was abandoned. One particular tree, maesopsis eminii, prospered. It became pervasive, and changed the eco-system by out-competing with local species. Now, it seems, it has been attacked by a bracket fungus that is causing die-back. In another case, trees producing quinine that were introduced into the Galapagos prospered rapidly, but have also died back, allowing the “substantial regeneration of the native species” beneath the dead wood.

Could it be that humanity has started to develop a resistance to an invasive species of information?

The Ukraine conflict has spawned such a plethora of propaganda that I, for one, have to remind myself to take all the videos, posts and tweets with a pinch of salt. Is it fake? What’s the source? What’s the motive for posting it? I try and be equally sceptical on stuff emanating from both sides.

Just as in Cal Flyn’s narrative nature rarely returns to what was there before, are we moving towards a world in which no information is taken for granted, whether it’s derived from scientific studies of COVID or climate change, or the imagination of trolls in little offices in St Petersburg? I’m not sure. What will continue to matter is what we choose to believe, and the mental processes we go through to arrive at that belief. We will never stop believing in things, even if we cry that “I don’t know what to believe any more”. Nor will most of us who hold on to a religious faith lose that faith, though some will. on the grounds that it’s difficult to believe in a God who allows your entire family to be wiped out by a random missile.

But what will matter will be the journey we take towards our beliefs, which are usually based on life experience, communal values and inherited culture. If much of the disinformation we’ve been inclined to believe becomes discredited in our perception, will we become wiser and less susceptible to new versions of fallacious truth? Perhaps then we will be less easily duped. Or perhaps, as the spreaders of disinformation hope, we shall become so stressed by the effort of discerning truth from fiction that we shall simply swallow the next generation of lies because it’s easier to do so than to apply a rigorous examination of the provenance.

Perhaps the critical question is this. Which comes first: the disintegration of society, resulting in a loss of belief fuelled by fake news, or an initial loss of belief that causes disintegration, helped on its way by misinformation? That’s one for historians and anthropologists to answer. I’m inclined towards the latter. Either way, as we see the real-life consequences of fake news in the form of a deadly war, more of us seem to be are developing the capacity to see through the bullshit.

Scepticism is hard. Most of us don’t have the time or the energy to research the provenance of the information we consume. We rely on others to do it for us. Fortunately, there are more and more people prepared to do this outside the traditional media. So we don’t have to rely on news media owned by Rupert Murdoch and other media barons. In Britain, we have outfits like Bellingcat, that first exposed the identity of the would-be assassins of Sergei Skripal by trawling exhaustively through open-source information, and now trains others on the techniques it uses though workshops. We also have Marc Owen-Jones, an academic whose major area of expertise is tracking bots launched on to Twitter for political motives. And here and there we have characters like the author and radio host James O’Brien, who does a good impression of Socrates as he punctures the prejudices of his listeners.

In other words, we have options. We don’t have to rely on our gut feeling, which often has more to do with our own lived experience than the facts on the ground. We also have evidence of the erosion of cultish belief systems spawned by the social media, such as QAnon. Though some still believe Trump’s bullshit about the 2020 election, and there are still plenty of British voters who still believe Boris Johnson’s lies about any number of subjects, or think they don’t matter, their numbers appear to be getting smaller, if recent opinion polls in the US and the UK are to be believed.

If Putin-style disinformation is losing its potency, it will still be of little comfort to the people of Ukraine, who are being bombed out of their homes by a vicious invasion force. But how many people in that country believe that they’re being governed by a cabal of Nazis led by a Jewish president? And do the thousands of Russian protesters being jailed every day believe what they’re being told by their government?

I may be alone in thinking that we’ve reached a high tide of fake news, and that we’re slowly learning to resist the falsehoods, or at least some of them. Won’t get fooled again? Maybe we will, but perhaps the propaganda merchants will have to think of more sophisticated ways of getting their messages across.

It may be impossible to replace the eucalyptus and bamboo trees in Tanzania with life that once flourished there. It may be that our belief systems have been changed forever since the virus of disinformation has spread across the social media. But if the bitter experience of conflict and division within nations, societies and even families has taught us anything, perhaps it will be enough leave us less prone to lies and manipulation.

Or am I just a victim of a strain of false optimism implanted I know not when, living in a silo of sceptics, while the rest of the world gets on with devouring their favourite falsehoods? Time will tell.

Ukraine: no such thing as an ending

The other night my wife and I went to a one-off screening of The Godfather at our local cinema. Nothing to do with Vladimir Putin, even though the bookshops, both charity and commercial, are full of every book they can exhume about Russia and Ukraine (I bought a couple).

I mention The Godfather because Putin is frequently accused of running a mafia state. I suppose there are similarities in his modus operandi to that of the Corleone family and their rivals. No horse’s heads in the bed, but plenty of unpunished hits using attention-seeking methods that inspire fear, as in polonium and novichok.

But in one striking way, the Putin show diverges from that of the warm but deadly Corleones. Don Vito wouldn’t be seen sitting at a massive table miles away from his underlings. He would be surrounded by his sons, his consigliere and his faithful lieutenants. He would never allow his rivals to see him as an isolated, paranoid leader.

Just an example of how so much that we perceive and experience right now seems to relate back to what’s happening in Ukraine. Like so many people, I imagine, I feel saturated with the hourly stream of news and opinion. I yearn for some sort of ending. An end of the suffering. An end of Putin. And an end of the freshly unsheathed sword of Damocles – the mushroom cloud hanging over us.

Yet there won’t be an end. Just as The Godfather spawned a whole genre of mafia dramas, so this war will have its sequels. If Ukraine somehow emerges intact, what will happen to the thousands of AK-47s handed out to its brave defenders? Will they migrate to organised crime, or to political factions, as happened after the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the Libyan civil war?

And if Putin is brought down by those who brought him to power, or through a popular uprising, will the leadership that replaces him be even more malign? This is the “be careful what you wish for” argument that has held Putin’s regime, for all its nastiness, as preferable to some ultra-nationalist fanatics who might seize power. The counter-argument is that he has turned into the fanatic, and an unstable one at that. So would his demise usher in an even worse regime, trading on the resentment caused not by the frustration of Russia’s imperial ambitions but by millions of ordinary lives ruined by economic collapse?

What will we celebrate when this conflict is “over”? A newly-energised military alliance united against a common enemy? Germany re-arming? China exploiting the chaos? A world-wide recession caused by disruption of the global trading system? Resurgent gangs and militias rushing into power vacuums? The low hum of cybercrime and information wars turning into deafening white noise? Not to mention the mushroom clouds. As if we don’t have enough to contend with already.

Most likely the worst won’t happen and we’ll muddle through. We’ll adapt, reconfigure and get used to a new normal. Those of us who manage to keep our heads above water, that is. And those who don’t will be remembered in seventy years’ time as victims of human folly, or heroes who fell so that the rest of us might prosper. Our descendants will remember the dupes, the evil people and the fatal decisions that led us down the current path. And they will remember the oft-repeated vow: never again.

Perhaps they’ll be wise enough to realise that never again is an unachievable ambition, because each new generation has a fresh opportunity to make mistakes, which they will surely make. The challenges will be different and the lessons learned from the past will only be of limited use.

That’s us humans, I’m afraid. Capable of miracles, yet equally capable of ruining what we create.

Ukraine: porn without shame

Here I am, early in the morning, binging on war porn. Just as I’ve done in every major conflict I’ve witnessed from afar as an adult. Vietnam, Tiananmen Square, Kuwait, the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, 9/11, Tahrir Square, Libya, Syria to name but some.

I witnessed only one first hand: Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain. For the rest, I and millions like me have been reliant on the likes of John Simpson, Peter Arnett, Jeremy Bowen and now the BBC’s Lyse Doucet and Clive Myrie. Brave people, for sure, earnestly presenting perspectives and telling stories that can only ever be part of the picture. For in a conflict, as it unfolds, there are truths, lies and ambiguities. No journalist can fully disentangle the strands. And even when it’s over, whose truth prevails?

Often, in the kind of conflict that has erupted in Ukraine, there’s a brief period – before conventional means of communication are shut down – when reports flood in from everywhere. Very different from events like the Asian tsunami, when a catastrophic disaster wrecks everything, and it’s only hours or days after the event that graphic evidence from people on the ground starts trickling through.

We’re in that initial phase now, when the instigators are unable to sustain their stream of carefully crafted disinformation. When Comical Ali continues to lie as American tanks can be seen through the window behind him rumbling through Baghdad.

Sooner or later we will know Zelensky’s fate. We will see bodies of Russians and Ukrainians. We will see tanks on the streets of Kiev. Will there be any surprises, as happened when Yeltsin clambered on to a tank outside the Russian Parliament and a regiment from Tula crushed the coup attempt against Gorbachev? Unlikely. This drama has been carefully scripted.

There are times when I want to turn away from clips of the defiant wounded, of tearful refugees and of relatives grieving for victims of bombs and shells. Please, no more, I want to say, yet I still turn back. Because war is addictive. And if you ignore it you feel guilty for blanking out the suffering of others. But if you watch it, perhaps you do so out of more than concern for those involved. You do so because it’s so far from your own lived experience, because a thousand fictional portrayals of war are less powerful than the real thing, yet your constant gorging of fiction, history and perhaps video games prepare you for the raw meat, but when that comes along it almost feels mundane.

Do you watch with a shudder – there but for the grace of God go I? Do you ask yourself whether you would find the courage to resist the inevitable? Do you wonder what’s in it for you? How will your life be affected? Do you feel that your beliefs are vindicated and pump yourself up in a self-righteous fury? Stop the War, Let’s Go Brandon, or fuck Boris and his oligarch-enabling chums? Or do you watch with a knowing smile at the naivety of those who thought that our somnolent continent would never again witness a war on our doorsteps? All of those things, perhaps.

No matter. War is different things for different people. For the reporters it’s a mission to explain, and sometimes persuade. For their employers it’s a business – a means of upping the ratings and revenues by serving up the tastiest morsels of action and opinion to us consumers. And for us, it’s OK to watch. We can do so without the furtiveness with which we might view writhing bodies on grubby little websites.

In other words, it’s porn we can watch without shame.

But I still feel ashamed. And weary. And yet still fascinated.

The dogs are unleashed

If ever there was an appropriate moment to watch Munich: The Edge of War, the film of Robert Harris’s book, it was probably now. We watched it a couple of nights ago, just as presidents and prime ministers were lining up to sit at one end of Vladimir Putin’s battleship of a table in Moscow.

Not that I’m a believer in grand historical parallels, but Harris’s imagining of a different outcome that might have arisen from the meeting of Hitler and Chamberlain in 1938 keeps coming back to me as we watch Putin making his moves on Ukraine.

Will nobody within his own ranks stop the dictator? When does blind obedience reach its limits? When it comes up against fear and the instinct for self-presentation?

Then my thoughts turn to the home front. We’ll be alright, won’t we? Yes, there will be consequences. Cyberattacks, energy shortages, restrictions on long-haul travel if Putin shuts down Russia’s airspace. But surely the thing won’t go nuclear. Is Putin’s cause so important to him that he’s prepared to risk the destruction of his country in order to gain a few hundred thousand square miles of irradiated wasteland?

For that reason alone, this is surely no Munich moment. Unless, of course, those in the US – and there are many – who care not a jot about “a quarrel between people in a far away land about whom we know little” win the argument that America should leave Europe well alone. Unless there are too many interests here in the UK potentially undermined by the prospect of our role as the Godfather’s bankers coming to a speedy end. Unless Germany is too spooked by the prospect of energy starvation that might result from the closure of Nord Stream 2.

No need to worry, you’d like to think. The grown-ups have got it covered. We children of failing democracies should belt up, prepare for turbulence and sit tight. Just as we did in 2008, and just as we’ve been doing during COVID. It’ll be OK, but if it isn’t, there’s not a damn thing we little people can do about it. So throw away masks, eat, drink, catch the virus and be merry.

And if we do (not including those far-away people of course) come though this crisis relatively unscathed, will we look back and reflect that maybe we earned another year to prepare for the worst, as Robert Harris has Chamberlain believing? Perhaps not, because if the worst was unthinkable in 1938, today it’s all too thinkable, because we’ve been thinking about it ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Perhaps Putin has a point. That Ukraine belongs to Russia. That the end of the Soviet Empire was an aberration that need to be reversed in order to restore an international equilibrium that kept the nukes away for fifty years.

You may think that. You may also ask whether democracy is worth a fig anyway. After all, the Chinese are doing OK with their dictator, aren’t they?

If Putin’s tanks roll across Ukraine with minimal resistance and bee-sting sanctions, we might wish to consider what lessons are to be learned. Or possibly what lessons we have forgotten. The one conundrum those who have survived upheavals in the past have failed to solve is how to deal with a competent psychopath who has gained the power of life and death over nations, empires and all who defy them. Because they have a habit of cropping up under all manner of circumstances, we may see them coming but there is no universal manual on how to deal with them.

While we cling to our sense of moral rectitude over abuses of human rights by the psychopaths who care little about who they kill, how much attention do we give to the rights of other species as we gaily preside over their extinction?

But enough of this prattle. If there’s one thing most of us share with the people of Russia and Ukraine, for all our much-vaunted freedoms to speak and act, it’s a sense of powerlessness. Only a few powerful people can make a difference at this point. The rest of us, however much we’ve been encouraged to believe that our opinions count, have no choice but to wait and watch.

The dogs are unleashed.

Postcard from Aquitaine: the delights of midwinter

A few days ago my wife and I drove through France to our new second home deep in the countryside south of Bergerac. It was the first time we’d stayed there in midwinter. Whereas last time was in November, when the remaining embers of the summer were still glowing, In February the province of Aquitaine takes on an entirely different complexion.

The house itself was freezing – a reminder of my student days living in a draughty house huddled over a gas fire with broken elements. In those days we used to put cling film over the windows to keep what little warmth came from within, and to prevent the ice from forming on the inside of the glass at night. Luxury. Used to dream of having glass in t’windows, as the late Barry Cryer would have said.

Not quite as bad as that, but in rural France most houses that serve as summer homes don’t have central heating, so in the winter we have to rely on wood fires and a couple of electric radiators. It took two days to reach the point at which I didn’t have to wear a woolly hat inside.

The garden hasn’t changed much since last time, though some strange weeds that look like cabbage have sprung up around the place. I must find out what they are, since I’ve never seen them in England. Perhaps we can eat them.

The land is soaked, which explains why it appears so verdant in the summer with what appears to be minimal rainfall apart from the odd violent thunderstorm. The surrounding fields are starting to look green again. What was ploughed earth a couple of months ago is coming to life with little shoots that will eventually become sunflowers, corn or perhaps winter vegetables. Which shows how much I know about agriculture.

Yesterday I saw a wild boar cantering across a nearby field towards some woodland. It was good to know that some have so far survived the hunting season. Though I suspect that given the presence of a couple of guys with rifles whom we passed by this morning, the poor boar is probably by now no more.

On our first night we went down to our local town to eat. In the summer it has about five restaurants catering for the tourist trade. Not a single one was open. The square was empty but for a couple of teenagers having a laugh about nothing.

So the day after we went to another town for lunch. The only restaurant in the square was packed. A four-course meal for thirteen euros, all served within an hour so that the locals could get back to work. Potage, salade, poulet roti with ratatouille and crème brulée, not to mention the demi-carafe of wine and the coffee.  Magnifique.

We hadn’t intended to come down at this time of the year. But most roads into the Far East, where we usually spend February, are closed to all but the most dedicated form fillers. After our experience in Singapore, where my wife was locked up for a few days following a false positive COVID test, we decided not to bother. Plenty of stuff to be done in the French house, so why not?

As everywhere in France, COVID seems to be rife. We’d planned to meet a local carpenter to kick off a project that would make our mezzanine habitable. He and his family are isolating, so no guarantee that we’ll be able to see him. Other people we know in the vicinity have come down with the virus. So despite the mandatory face masks and the requirement to produce a pass sanitaire at restaurants, the bug is getting though, as it is in England only more so.

One aspect of our trip that sent me into raptures of childish excitement is the little tag we bought that enables us to pass through the motorway toll booths without having to stop and feed euros into a machine. This thing goes beep, and we sail though the barrier. The toll charge gets debited from our bank account automatically. Oh joy! No need to wake the sleeping partner every time we hit the peage. I’ve been known to rain about the tyranny of apps. But this is big tech at its best, and you still have a choice whether or not to use it.

The French do this stuff well, which is more than can be said for that well-known multinational, Orange, whose incompetence is monumental They were supposed to connect our internet service in November. Ten weeks on, still nothing. After a couple of conversations with arrogant call centre agents and a visit to the local Orange shop (whose surly indifference to our problem could have been inspired by Aeroflot), we’re still not much closer to resolution. Fortunately, mobile data gets us by.

I can’t use Orange’s attitude as a typical example of the French approach towards customer service, because EDF, our electricity supplier, were quick to resolve another problem, which was that every so often, with the radiators radiating and fan heaters blowing, the power supply would cut out. A call to the English-language help centre diagnosed the problem, which they fixed remotely. No need for a visit from an electrician, sucked cheeks and a massive bill. All done through a little green box at the end of our garden.

The next few days will be spent clearing all the crap from the mezzanine, figuring out where to pay the local taxes, introducing ourselves to the maire of our commune and picking up a token that lets us use the municipal dump. Exciting stuff, huh?

As for entertainment, in the absence of places to go out to at night we’re spending quiet evenings in front of the fire reading books. Just like our grandparents, I guess. Next week there’s the brocante (flea market) to look forward to in the nearby town, followed by another four-course feast in the same restaurant.

Without the complications of Christmas, winter can be a simple season. I love coming to places in hibernation. What better than a few days in your own home, where your isolation is voluntary and you’re as likely to see a wild boar as a person outside your back window?

Hard to believe that in a few months’ time the ground will be baked, the temperature will be in the high 30s and producer’s evenings in the local squares will be thronged with Brits, Belgians, Germans and Dutch. No bad thing for the local economy. But as I look out over the fields and hills dotted with the occasional house, I sometimes feel that I’m in ancient Gaul, not France. Perhaps that’s because the area is said to abound with undiscovered Roman villas and settlements, and what lies beneath the soil seems to speak as quietly as the empty fields above. Perhaps also because the brick canopy above our wood fire contains masonry that would be familiar to anyone living here two thousand years ago.

But dreams of Gaul, garam and Gaius Julius Caesar are quickly dispelled as we turn out on to the main road, where several posters bearing the face of Eric Zemmour, a right-wing rival to Emanuel Macron in the forthcoming presidential elections, are slapped up on a billboard. He’s the only candidate whose posters are to be seen in the vicinity. Does this suggest that his politics – anti-immigration and no friend of France’s Muslim population – strike a chord round here? Maybe, but perhaps he doesn’t have it all his own way. Because on every poster we’ve seen, someone has given him a red nose. Clown, populist, journalist and, er, admirer of women…sounds familiar?

But Zemmour cannot rival our clown-in-chief, so I intend to forget about him unless or until he becomes president. Instead this is a time to savour the bread, the cheese, the solitude and the winter sun. We’re already planning the next trip down, and the one after that, by which time the countryside will have exploded into spring.

I’m a lucky man, I reckon.

Boris Johnson – Britain’s angel of redemption

If I was a religious person, I might well theorise that Boris Johnson is an angel sent by God to remind us that what goes up usually comes unglued. Just as people get sick, recover or don’t recover, so do societies. And just as people, as they rage against the dying of the light, deceive themselves into believing against the evidence that they’re still young when they’re on the road to decrepitude, so do societies believe charlatans who tell them that thanks to them a great national revival is nigh.

Leaving God out of the equation, perhaps we should thank Johnson for his corruption, incompetence and bombastic lying. Just as we should be glad that the Brexit dividend promises to be endless chaos, re-opened wounds, stunted economic growth and megatons of additional red tape. We should also thank COVID for reminding us that without a multi-national workforce we would have been incapable of muddling through the pandemic with only 150,000 deaths. And we should pay tribute to Jacob Rees-Mogg for showing us that a top-flight education is a neutral thing. Like a decent suit, it can be used to hide the ugliness within, especially if it equips us with an array of long words that most of us don’t understand when defending the indefensible in TV interviews. Because every dodgy turn this government makes is a stab in the heart of our destructive self-belief.

Politicians in every country like to make the case that their nation is special. But we British seem over the past few decades of decline to have turned positive self-image into psychosis. The less our power and influence, the more our masters talk it up. Which leaves us with half the country believing them and the other half depressed by the awful truth.

Nowhere is that tendency more evident than in my MSN “news” feed. Not a day goes by when The Daily Express (a paper I haven’t read in print for fifty years or so) doesn’t trumpet some brilliant “Brexit Success”. Likewise the Daily Mail, which recently had a bit of a Prague Spring under a new editor that was duly crushed when the old one returned with his immigrant-bashing, judge-smearing, Boris-boosting headlines.

The Guardian and The Independent, however, tell us the bad news, which is no less demoralising than the good because either way, you end up feeling manipulated. What is truth – the conundrum of our times.

So yes, Boris Johnson is doing us a favour. By making us a laughing-stock among our international peers, by enabling fraud and corruption on a massive scale, by placing talentless nonentities in key ministerial positions, by undermining the rule of law and eroding many of our precious institutions, not least the National Health Service, he is shattering any illusions we may still cherish about who and what we are as a nation. Not special. Not punching above our weight. Not softly powerful. Just one country among many, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and failings.

You could argue that it’s only taken us eighty years to get to this point. But Boris Johnson has delivered the coup de grace to our illusions of grandeur.

And that’s no bad thing.

I’m currently reading Checkmate in Berlin, Giles Milton’s gripping account of a city in ruins after the fall of the Nazis, pillaged and raped (literally) by the Stalin’s conquering armies, its people left starving and helpless among the rubble. Milton’s book, and Harald Jahner’s Aftermath, an account from the perspective of the defeated Germans, are telling reminders of what a desperate starting point Germany faced after the war. Its moment of humiliation was more devastating and traumatic than ours. A dramatic implosion rather than a slow wasting disease. And yet it took until the 1960s before a new generation of Germans came to terms with the bestiality of the Nazi regime and of those who supported it. Those who survived the collapse put the Holocaust and other crimes into a dark closet and kept the door locked. It was all they could do to survive from day to day. They saw themselves as the victims until their children outed them as perpetrators. Unlike Germany, we have never been forced to come to terms with our failings. Until now.

As Sathnam Sanghera points out in Empireland, in which he explores the legacy of the British Empire in terms of its effects on modern mindsets, many of us British are still in denial about the negative consequences of our rise to global prominence. We are only now arriving at a sense of historical balance, three centuries since the beginning of the slave trade and the foundation of our empire. It’s a painful process, and even now it causes us to re-evaluate what it means to be “great”.

Is greatness about power, wealth and prosperity, even if it’s at the expense of others? Or is it about cooperation, compassion and fairness? Is it about ruthless self-reliance, or is it about our contribution to great projects designed to secure the future both of our own species and all the others with which we share our planetary home?

And what of humiliation, since that’s a commonly-used word to describe our current situation? Does being humbled make you humble? Not usually. It tends to make the humbled lash out. And depending on your political outlook, there are plenty of convenient scapegoats to blame.

But Boris Johnson and his minions are doing us all a favour by showing us that arguably we only have ourselves to blame for our humiliation. If we start from that point, perhaps we can buy into a concept of greatness very different from the flag-waving, zero-sum, petty patriotism peddled by the shower we elected over the past decade.

So thanks Boris. You’ve helped us to come face to face with our awful truth. You’ve given us the opportunity to see ourselves as we really are. We may fall deeper into your pit of self-deceit and mediocrity. But at least we can see a way out. And we can start by discarding the great from Great Britain. Call me a miserable, self-righteous git if you like, but good would be good enough for me.

Orbanizing England: are we sliding into autocracy?

A friend emailed me the other day to ask what I thought of an article in the New York Times about the current state of my country. He’s an expatriate Briton who has lived in the US for a number of years. I suspect he’s as well-informed about the UK as I am – he in his North Carolina redoubt and me in my Surrey bunker. Anyway, we share an interest in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, so it’s always good to bat ideas back and forth.

The article in question is by Maya Lothian-McLean, a British journalist I’d never encountered before. She seems quite proud that she’d never been tainted by association with the so-called mainstream media. Her thesis, which clearly went down well with the NYT people, is that Britain, or more specifically England, is sliding towards authoritarianism. She rolls up all the proposed legislation that Boris Johnson’s government has tabled into a package of evidence pointing in that direction. Her view is that new laws allowing the government to strip dual nationals of citizenship, clamp down on protests, overrule inconvenient decisions by judges, deter social media criticism and lock up refugees as criminals are part of a strategy. The Orbanisation of England, if you fancy using Hungary’s creeping descent to illiberal democracy as an analogy.

I think she’s wrong. What passes for strategy on the part of Boris Johnson’s government seems to me like a series of political sandcastles liable to be washed away by each incoming tide of events that are only dealt with by improvisation and tactical response. In other words, government by the current crowd is a game of political whack-a-mole.

There might be one or two clever people in and around the centres of power with an overarching vision of hostile environments, but collectively they don’t have the wit or the will to hack through the political undergrowth and achieve their aims. Ask Dominic Cummings about the limitations of the machete.

Will they pull off this potpourri of regressive law? Maybe. But Lothian-McLean in her article imagines only extreme examples of what the authorities can do with their new powers. In the real world, if, say, someone who holds British citizenship since childhood and breaks some law unrelated to the original trigger for the measure – terrorism – has their citizenship revoked on the whim of the Home Secretary, the result could be a wave of outrage, and not just among the usual suspects who lurk in the dark ponds of Twitter. And if a group of people who lie down on a motorway in protest against something or other are given substantial jail sentences, their supporters will find other ways to protest. The government would face an endless procession of appeals and angry headlines. How would that go down at a time when successful prosecutions for rape are at an all-time low, when burglaries and car theft are rarely investigated and when the courts are barely able to function without defendants having to wait months and sometime years to come to trial? And when some lockdown parties are punished and others aren’t?

To establish a truly and permanently repressive state, you would need to get the police, the judiciary, the civil service and the armed forces on board. But Boris Johnson and his last two predecessors have all managed to upset powerful factions in each of those institutions in one way or another since 2010. Their cooperation would be far from guaranteed.

So would the removal of the posturing buffoon at the head of our government slow down the widely-feared march towards autocracy? Maybe not. There might be a watering down of some measures. This would allow the new leader to differentiate from the previous regime. But the fact remains that whoever replaces Johnson is going to have to deal with a large tranche of members of parliament who share the authoritarian instincts of Johnson and his Home Secretary, Priti Patel.

The ultimate question is this: do the voters share those instincts in sufficient numbers to return yet another Conservative government at the next election? If not, I’m pretty sure that the worst excesses of the proposed legislation, if passed, can be unpicked by whatever government replaces them. My guess is that the electorate will, unfortunately, stand for an authoritarian agenda promoted by a competent government. After all, Mussolini made the trains run on time. But a combination of heavy-handedness and incompetence? Highly unlikely.

Ironic though, that 150,000 COVID deaths, policing and justice failures, the cladding scandal and the disastrous handling of the Brexit negotiations have not so far brought down this government, but the amorality exemplified by a bunch of parties in 10, Downing Street threatens to do the job. Whether the next election reduces the Conservatives’ grip on power or wipes it out altogether remains to be seen.

But like it or not, it won’t be a set of reactionary and poorly-conceived laws that will see them off. It will be that every time the voters listen to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s supercilious drawl, or see red-faced, blustering back-benchers like Sir Edward Leigh sounding off about their pet obsessions, they will be reminded that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

Eleven favourite countries – I love you despite

From England

It’s the time of year to be kind and generous, to avoid discord and look on the bright side. In that spirit I thought I’d remind myself of my favourite countries, and what I love about them. And why I love them despite.

My inspiration? Once upon a time, a couple of friends. Phil Kirwan and Andy Morton, wrote a song called I Love You Despite for their band, Slender Loris. I remember it as much for the title and the bitter-sweet lyrics as for anything else. I’m incapable of Phil and Andy’s lyricism. But in the spirit of the song, sweet is often best served with an undertone of sour.

France: I love you for the beauty of your countryside. For Saint-Saens, Debussy and Satie. For Notre Dame and Chartres Cathedral. For your cheese, your outdoor weekly markets, your bread and your brocantes. For putting a Russian folk singer/accordionist and a cellist in a tiny church in front of a tiny audience in the middle of nowhere. For your roads, péage or otherwise. For your language and your pride in your history. I love you despite your cussedness, your impenetrable bureaucracy and your intolerance of those who don’t speak your language.

Italy: I love you for Vivaldi and Verdi, for your art and architecture. For Venice, Tuscany, Rome and Puglia. For Pompeii and Herculaneum. For Paolo Sorrentino and Bernado Bertolucci. For your humour, your brightness of spirit, your cuisine and your love of life. I love you despite the litter, the mafia and your bloody national football team.

Germany: I love you for having a conscience. For Bach and Beethoven. For your engineering excellence. For helping to keep the peace in Europe (more or less) since 1945. For being serious, well educated and yes, for having a sense of humour. For welcoming the oppressed and dispossessed. I love you despite your economic success, which has often been at the expense of others, because whose country wouldn’t like some of that?

The USA: I love you for your kindness to strangers. For your ability to adopt, adapt and improve the inventions of others. For your ambition, your restlessness and your relentless positivity. For New York, Boston, Seattle and New England. I love you despite your corrosive mythology (ask Jose Mourinho how hard it is to be The Special One), your divisive politicians and crass blockbuster movies. I’m not ready to re-visit you yet. Please decide quickly whether you’re a democracy or an oligarchy.

Saudi Arabia: I love you because you welcomed me when my life was going nowhere. For your mountains, deserts, wadis and baboons. For souks, shwarmas and coral reefs. For your kindness and your sense of humour. For the idealism of your young, and your respect for the old. For giving your foreign workers a reason other than money for their presence. For Jeddah, a city of character. For inspiring in me a lifelong interest in the history, the cultures, the beliefs and the traditions of your region. I love you despite your pockets of intolerance, your crazy drivers and the mistakes of your rulers.

Thailand: I love you for your tolerance of the bad behaviour of your visitors. For your glorious cuisine, for your green mountains and fertile valleys. Because (as far as I know) you’ve never invaded anybody and you’ve never been colonised. I love you despite your turbulent politics, your scams and your fake Rolex watches.

Ireland: I love you because I’ve married into you, and I’m still married. For your education, literacy and contribution to the English language. For the way you’ve evolved over forty years from a semi-theocracy into something resembling a collegiate European nation. For your golf courses, your feckin’ rain, for your quirks, your jokes, your gombeens, gurriers and gobshites. For your music, for Tayto World (the world’s only theme park inspired by a packet of crisps?), for your bogs and leaping hares. I love you despite your incessant feuding, your bungalows and all the Oirish pubs around the world run by shysters and fake Paddies.

Canada: I love you for being the refuge in The Handmaid’s Tale. For Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Margaret Atwood. I’ve only visited you once, and long to see you again. For surviving so long as America’s neighbour. For your lakes, the Rockies and the frozen north. If I love you enough will you let me in when your country turns into a tropical paradise? I love you despite your terrifying wildlife (ie wolves and bears), your ice hockey (boring) and your obsession with cutting down trees.

Antigua: I love you for Viv Richards, Curtly Ambrose and Andy Roberts, the fiercest cricketers that ever walked the earth. For incomparable boat trips round your island. Because your waiters refuse to be deferential to tourists. For your parishes, a weird throwback to ecclesiastical England. For the view of an active volcano a few miles offshore. For the wood-panelled cathedral in St John’s. I love you despite your rocky beaches and the ever-present threat of seasonal hurricanes.

Turkey: by which I really mean Istanbul, which is one of my favourite cities in the world. I love it for its visible layers of occupation: the walls, the mosques, icons, the mosaics, the cisterns, Topkapi and the incomparable Ayasofia. You have much else to offer, but Istanbul is the jewel. I love you despite, well, let’s say that Britain isn’t the only country with a leader who wants to be World King.

Vietnam: I love you for your history and your willingness to let bygones be bygones. For Hanoi, Hoi An, Hue and Halong Bay. For your stunningly beautiful terrain. For your cuisine and the charm of your people. I love you despite the motorcycles in Saigon, and the loudspeakers in Hanoi – a reminder that Big Brother is still watching.

Any my own country? Too complicated to express in one paragraph, but so many good things soured by so many despites. Just as it’s easy to use a broad brush when looking into a country from the outside, as I have done above, the view from inside out defies objectivity, no matter how fine the portrait.

So about England, I can only quote from I Love You Despite:

If I sat right down
And I wracked my brains
And I made a list
Of the things I feel about you
When the book was closed
And the ink was dry
And the fire was low
I could still not live without you

Andy Morton and Phil Kirwan

Christmas Greetings to one and all.

Getting ready for the Big One

Everyone ready for lockdown then? If the British government can finally decide which way is up, that seems to be where we’re heading. The good news is that in this country we’ve had two (or is it three?) lockdowns so far, so we’re probably getting quite good at it. The bad news? Don’t go there – too many negatives to think about.

As for me, lockdown prep is more or less done. In anticipation of a visit from a couple of relatives yesterday, I tested negative yet again. We’re reasonably well stocked with lateral flow tests, even if the country isn’t. We have plenty of food. The freezer’s full. Once the turkey’s bought, that’s Christmas week sorted. We have a habit of wringing every last bit of goodness out of our seasonal fare, down to the turkey soup, stiffened with celery and potatoes by Day 7. With a bit of luck and an absence of greed we could last ten days on leftovers.

Just as important, I have my reading sorted. Two history books: Checkmate in Berlin by Giles Milton and Aftermath by Harald Jahner. Both cover the same era – Germany’s struggle to survive after World War 2, and the geopolitical re-alignments that took place with Berlin as the centre stage. Social history: British Summer Time Begins, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Cricket: Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket, by Stephen Fay and David Kynaston. River Kings, Cat Jarman’s history of the Vikings and their far-ranging influence. A primer on ancient Roman cookery, and Infamy, Jerry Toner’s study of the dark side of Roman morality. Three historical novels: Hurdy Gurdy, by Christopher Wilson, Cathedral by Ben Hopkins, and The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor. A couple of spy thrillers – Slough House by Mick Herron and Judas 82 by Charles Cumming – round off the list.

That lot, plus a backlog of unread books from earlier in the year, should keep me going for a few months. Unless, of course, I have another go at clearing out the crap in the garage, or start some other ghastly Project.

Exercise? We have fields and a lake at the back of the house, so plenty of time to discuss Omicron with the ducks and geese. We also have a cross-trainer which I’ll be cranking up as an alternative to golf if things get that desperate.

Things that might get in the way? Mass insurrection against new lockdown measures. World War 3 conjured up by Boris as a distraction from his current political troubles. So-called “Brexit Hard Man” MP Steve Baker (who looks as hard as the wobbly Charlotte Russe in my fridge) mounting a coup to prevent our Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Straightjacket from screwing up Brexit. And perhaps less likely, massive celebrations, including dancing, drinking and group hugs in the streets as England’s cricketers regain the Ashes by whupping the Aussies in the last three matches of the current series.

It’s more likely that the days of quiet contemplation and stoic resilience will return. Likewise, sincere or otherwise, a new wave of adulation for the National Health Service.

As in previous lockdowns, I’ll have to get used to watching the news on telly again. This time, I might also plan a few provocations. It’s too late to register my displeasure about the hideous Christmas decorations that adorn some of the houses in the neighbourhood by sneaking out at night and sabotaging their power supplies – all in the name of saving the planet (Santa Rebellion, anyone?). But it’s never too late to indulge in a spot of internet trolling. Even better, maybe I should try and create a few conspiracy theories and see how quickly they fly through the social media. Or possibly invent a new variant of Consequences in which existing theories are merged into one super-conspiracy. Except that QAnon got there first. Rats.

One way or another, when Boris Johnson appears on our screens in his usual verbally incontinent nodding-donkey mode, mangled analogies at the ready, to tell us that we must lock down again, I too will be ready. And if things get too bad, I shall also be ready for a spell of confinement in some secure institution at Her Majesty’s (or Priti Patel’s) Pleasure. It’ll just be a matter of which provocation I choose to achieve that result.

But let’s not forget one thing. Whatever mitigating measures we wearily take against COVID, nothing will stop the pandemic of ignorance, stupidity, bigotry and brain malfunction that’s causing even more pain and suffering than the virus. and for which no effective vaccination has yet been found.

That’s the really big one the scientists have been forecasting for donkey’s years. And we hardly even recognised it as such it when it arrived.

A shout-out for Britain’s health service

This year’s cool expression when you want to praise someone is “shout-out.”

OK, so here’s a shout-out for my country’s beleaguered National Health Service. As hospitals start to clog up once again with COVID patients, and Boris Johnson orders another warp-speed vaccination programme at less than a moment’s notice, I went to a doctor’s appointment at 7.40 this morning. The GP in question was able to work early because the schools are out, so no need to drop her kids off.

She agreed to prescribe a chest X-ray and order an ultrasound for another condition. On my way out, I booked a blood test. The result? Within an hour of the meeting I get a phone call telling me that there was an X-ray appointment at 12.30 this morning. The blood test will be at 11.30am tomorrow. Neither of these appointments is needed because I have a particularly urgent problem that demands immediate attention. But still, it was pretty amazing to get them within a day or so of the original consult.

My local health centre isn’t doing booster jabs, which probably explains why my appointment went ahead as scheduled. I’d expected it to be cancelled. But based on my experience today, I will never let it be said that the NHS can’t be fit for purpose. Nor, either on cost or efficiency grounds, does it need be to subjected to creeping privatisation.

When appropriately funded and supported, at least at the primary level the NHS seems to work fine. It certainly does in my area. I should add that I’m part of three screening programmes. Each of them are excellent also.

Of course there’s room for improvement. Any organisation that denies its own shortcomings isn’t worth a sniff. But perhaps it’s time we focused on what works well in the NHS, rather than constantly harping on about its failings.

We should be building it, not slashing or burning it. And instead of sending slushy messages of love (often insincere, especially when coming from the mouths of certain politicians) for all our NHS staff, we should give them a decent pay rise, and congratulate the service for also continuing to do its job quietly and efficiently away from the COVID hotspots.

My experience may not be shared by all other users of the service. But I can only tell it as I see it.

Hence this shout-out. Well done all. Long live “socialised medicine”.

Apps are the spawn of the devil

It must be my age. All I wanted to do was watch the cricket, even if this was, for an England supporter, an act of supreme masochism. What I didn’t reckon on was that subscribing to the channel that delivers the England-Australia Ashes series would be an act of even greater auto-flagellation.

In England, the channel we need is BT Sport. I wanted it on TV. Not on my phone. Not through an app.. On TV. So we tried to subscribe. Unknown to us, what we subscribed to was the online version, which would have condemned me to watching the cricket on a tiny screen via an app. No thanks. I don’t commute anywhere in the morning, so I have no need to sit on a train among COVID-breathing anti-maskers watching England squirming like rats on a skewer.

In fact, when I discovered that we had to access the coverage via an app, my heart sank. Or, to be honest, I went into a frothy, carpet-chewing rage. Especially when I tried to access the app and the BT website said that it’s broken but that they would fix it soon.

This seems to be the story with many apps, which seem to have been developed by ten-year-old manatees.

Take the NHS app. It gets there eventually, though it refuses to give me my medical records (as it says on the tin). But to get anywhere useful, you have to overcome at least three hurdles in the form of logins. This presents a formidable challenge to my fat fingers attempting to get the letters right on an ancient iPhone (six years old, which in tech terms might as well be prehistoric). All this for an infernal COVID pass.

This morning, when I arrived at my golf club to play in a competition, I was told that I had to sign in online. Since I don’t have the appropriate app, and don’t have the password to a website where I could sign in, my score will not count (not that it was worth counting, I hasten to add). The creeping domination of dumb software continues, and everywhere, people seem to be enthusiastically falling for it.

Another thing that pisses me off about apps is that I have to access them via the Apple Store, which means that I have to look up my Apple password before downloading them.

So here is a generational marker more significant than the clothes you wear, what you think about Boris Johnson (or Keir Starmer for that matter), knowing the name of the capital of Guatemala or whether you like documentaries or Marvel movies. Are you OK with apps or aren’t you?

I’m not only not OK with apps. I loathe them with a passion. I loathe their intrusiveness. I loathe their hidden agendas (how much money they make out of me, what they do with my data and so forth). I loathe their clunkiness. And most especially I loathe it when I’m told that to do this or that, I have to load a bloody app.

How dare governments, institutions and companies assume that you have the equipment to run apps, or, if you do, you wish to pollute your life with things that do absolutely nothing to enhance your existence and in most cases induce neuroses that never afflicted you before? I mean, who gives a damn whether on a given day I took five, ten or twenty thousand steps? And why do I need to be constantly reminded about how many beats a minute my beleaguered heart is forced carry out? Or, for that matter, how much quality sleep I’m getting? If I get tired during the day I can take a nap, for God’s sake.

This is not a howl of frustration on the part of an old fart who sees that he’s been left behind by technology. I’m quite capable of downloading apps. I just don’t see why I have to join the millions who walk into lampposts while ambling down the street. My phone is supposed to serve me, not me it.

Do apps enhance the quality of life? I doubt it. They just turn ordinary people into addictive personalities at best, and techno-zombies at worst.

When Vladimir Putin turns space into a no-go area and brings down the internet, I for one will not rage against the dying of the app. But I will allow myself a quiet smile at the stupidity at relying for most aspects of our daily lives on computers being able to talk to each other.

In the end, we subscribed to BT Sport’s infernal channel through Sky for the princely sum of twenty-seven quid a month, on the basis that we can cancel it when the cricket’s done and dusted. Not so long ago it was six quid. And what did I get? England being ground into the dust by a bunch of grim-faced Aussies to the accompaniment of yappy local commentators revelling in our discomfiture, laughing like hyenas at their stupid in-jokes. Not an English commentator in sight.

Come back Ian Botham and Geoffrey Boycott; all is forgiven. I bet they don’t like apps either.

COVID: herd immunity may be far away, but herd thinking isn’t

This morning my grandson, who’s nearly four, sneezed in my face, not once but twice. What else headed my way apart from half-masticated bits of toast remains to be seen. It would be a bit of an irony if, after thousands of miles of travel and countless PCRs and lateral flow tests over the past couple of months, COVID finally found us (again) through an explosive juvenile eruption.

Because here’s how it might happen. Our grandson goes to nursery. One of his mates has a brother at primary school. They get it through another pupil, who got it through an uncle who commutes to work on the train and doesn’t mask. So the other kid’s family gets it, and our family gets it. Boom! All the more likely with Omicron breaking out everywhere.

Since my wife and I are both triple-vaxxed, the chances are that we would be relatively OK, but we’re not counting on it. Hence a long-planned Christmas gathering (which is the word we must us to avoid calling it a party) is off. Actually, we’d planned to cancel it anyway.

The news that someone has died from Omicron in the UK will probably focus the mind, though I doubt if it will motivate people in sufficient numbers to meet the government’s unlikely stretch target of vaccinating a million people a day with boosters until the end of the year. Nor is it likely to change the minds of the rebels on the government side who plan to vote against the new measures Boris Johnson has proposed to curb the spread of Omicron. Their principal argument seems to be “enough is enough”. Well, it might be for them, but it clearly isn’t for the new variant, which seems to be rather voracious.

I was surprised that one of those who, according to The Spectator, are planning to vote against is Ben Spencer, who until a few months ago was my local Member of Parliament (I’ve now moved away from his constituency). The said Mr Spencer, until he was elected to Parliament in 2019, was an NHS doctor. Admittedly his speciality was mental health, and he appears to have escaped the NHS before COVID struck. But I find it hard to believe that he doesn’t have friends who are still doctors, and who are telling him about the dire experience of spending the past two years on the front line against the virus.

But I suppose I’d forgotten that the ruling party, like the Republican Party in the US, is in thrall to groups of influential politicians whose adherence to extreme positions across a range of issues defy logic, common sense or scientific evidence. Once you’re within the orbit of these people, I imagine it’s hard to escape, so you end up buying into the whole package, just as the QAnon folks seem somewhat unselective over which conspiracy theories they adopt as gospel truth.

Sad, really, that we seem to be light years away from the much-touted herd immunity to COVID, yet there are large groups of people across the country, exemplified by MPs on both sides of the House, who seem incapable of breaking free of herd thinking.

Stories from Singapore: The Prequel

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing from and about Singapore. I decided to save one story until our journey ended and we’d left the country. It began when we arrived, days before Omicron reared its ugly head, at a time when the country was starting to ease up on its COVID restrictions.

While Britain was partying away, Singapore had only just announced that more than two people were allowed to mix in public. Masks were and are mandatory – indoors and outdoors. If, as we did, you fell into conversation with fellow diners at an outside restaurant, nervous waiters would ask you to keep your distance. They were afraid that if you were noticed chatting at close quarters, their restaurant might lose its licence and they might lose their jobs. Noticed by whom? The police, perhaps, or maybe vigilant fellow-citizens.

It would be wrong to describe Singapore as a police state without first defining what a police state is, even though some people bandy the phrase about in private. Let’s just say that the authorities are pretty uncompromising when it comes to enforcing the law. In COVID terms, that’s fine by me, coming from a country where people routinely travel on trains without masks even though the operators mandate their use on all journeys. And where last year the government threw Christmas parties while the rest of us were confined to quarters.

But what happened to us after we arrived in the Far East, or more specifically to my wife, seemed to dent the country’s image of remorseless efficiency.

When we arrived, as is now the case in England, we were required to take a PCR test. That was on top of the test we were asked to take before we left, which was negative. The testing centre was at the airport. After getting through immigration, we were escorted there from the plane. We were given a PCR test, and were then under instruction to go to our hotel and remain there in quarantine until the test result came though by email. Both results came back negative a few hours later. The hotel then told us that we could leave our room and move about freely. Which we did.

Things got rather strange shortly afterwards. Someone claiming to be a doctor working for the Ministry of Health contacted my wife and told her that her test was “inconclusive”. She was unable to continue the conversation because the battery in the phone died. We decided to ignore the call, because we’d heard that there was a scam going round wherein someone claiming to be a government official was calling people, telling them they were positive, and demanding credit card details to pay for a new test.

A few hours later there was another call. It was not a scam. This time the caller said that the test had been positive. How so, asked my wife, given that the testing centre had formally told us that it was negative? To cut a long story short, it seems that the ministry were looking at a detailed analysis of the test which, according to them, showed that she was highly likely to be shedding the virus. Therefore, apparently, they needed to do more tests. What’s more, they would have to be done at a government facility. Under a written order from the ministry, she was to remain there for up to ten days, or until they were satisfied that she was actually free of COVID.

Within a couple of hours, three people in hazmat suits arrived at the room and escorted her through a service lift to a waiting bus. On the way to the facility, the bus stopped and collected another person who was showing COVID symptoms. The facility itself was a hotel east of the city that had been commandeered by the government to house people suspected of having COVID, or newly discharged from hospital.

When she arrived she was told that she might have to share her room with someone else. This was a good thing, apparently, because the two of them could give each other support during a difficult time. So it was possible that she, who had twice tested negative within the previous four days, might might have to spend days in the close company of a stranger who was either suspected of having the virus or had been discharged from hospital. She kicked up about this, and in the end was not required to share.

The room was OK. It had a balcony and Wi-Fi. In the grand tradition of quarantine hotels, the three meals a day were of indifferent quality. She was required to pay for the room, the food and for the tests that followed.

The next day, she had her first PCR. It was a pretty brutal exploration of her nose, almost as if the person doing the testing was under instruction to leave no part of her nasal passage un-probed. The next day the test came back negative. She was then given another test and had blood taken for a serology test, which, according to the best advice she could find, served no purpose in establishing whether or not she had COVID.

The following day, by which time she had been locked up for three days, the second PCR came back negative, and she was finally released. Meanwhile, she had heard from staff at the facility that there were four hundred other people who had also tested negative, and were also locked up. In conversations with two others who were waiting leave, she learned that they had had similar a experience to hers.

While all this was happening, I was free to go out and about, despite having been at close quarters with someone suspected of having the virus.

Fortunately my wife is made of strong stuff, and easily came through what to some might have been a frightening experience. Because neither the airport testing centre nor the ministry were prepared to share the detailed test results, she was unable to challenge the decision. All they would do was confirm, both by phone and text message, that her original test was negative.

The whole thing was bizarre in the extreme. What you could say is that while England, where we live, has adopted a laissez-faire approach to COVID mitigation over the past few months, Singapore has adopted a belts, braces and, to put it unkindly, straitjacket regime. So much so that you have the ministry of health seemingly not trusting the test provider it appointed to be the gateway that catches incoming COVID sufferers.

Was my wife’s incarceration the result of internal politics within the ministry of health, a culture of arse-covering or an “abundance of caution”? Who knows? Perhaps they were aware of Omicron even then, and were being ultra-careful.

But to induce people to visit the country with the promise of a clear and straightforward process that would enable them to go about their business within hours of arrival, and then lock them up against the advice of their own testing facility, seemed wrong.

For the two of us, who were there for a much-needed break, the impact was two days of uncertainty followed by three days of confinement for my wife. We really didn’t know how the whole thing was going to play out, except that there was a distinct possibility that for ten of the sixteen days of our holiday, one of us would be involuntarily locked away.

As it turned out, she was released early, the tests having proven beyond doubt that she didn’t have the virus. For the rest of our stay in Singapore, we had a great time, until the British government, by imposing a vaguely-worded requirement for pre-departure test before returning to England, provided the chaotic bookend to the trip that I described in an earlier post.

It was our first long haul trip since COVID emerged. Perhaps we had a false sense of security after making two road trips to France in the autumn that were as smooth as silk. The lessons learned (which I thought we knew already), are assume nothing, don’t place absolute trust in the assurances of governments either in your home or host country, and be prepared for any eventuality.

As I mentioned in the previous post, ours was a first-world problem. Not in the shock-horror category. More a pain in the arse on both ends of the journey and for different reasons. On reflection, perhaps we should have waited a little longer before venturing further afield than our European backyard.

But hey, it’s an interesting memory to add to our archive of hoary old travellers’ tales that will one day bore our grandchildren into catatonia.

That Party

I can’t resist adding my tuppence-worth to the million words flying around about The Party (or parties) and its fallout.

First, I’m prepared to give Allegra Stratton the benefit of the doubt after the infamous mock press conference video was released. To me, she seemed embarrassed rather than amused. When people are embarrassed, they often laugh. It seemed as though she wasn’t expecting the question. If she had been, she surely would have checked “the story” with her masters in advance of the rehearsal. In other words, she was blindsided.

Doubly awkward for her, she knew that the session was being recorded. Therefore she improvised, and not very well. Once the video was released, she knew she was toast. Whether or not she waited to be asked to resign, she knew that the end was nigh. A convenient scapegoat. I feel sorry for her.

Second, the Metropolitan Police have declined to investigate, citing lack of evidence and a convenient policy not to investigate breaches of the COVID regulations retrospectively. As many people have since pointed out, it’s the job of the police to investigate alleged offences. In this case, the evidence should be easy to find in the form of visitor logs for 10, Downing Street. If most of the attendees were working at Number Ten, count the number of people already in the house, add the visitors and divide by the number of rooms.

Third, if an investigation is to be carried out by the Civil Service, it should be done by somebody who was demonstrably not at any of the alleged parties. Therefore, in the light of allegations that the person tasked with the investigation – Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary – was at one of the parties, that person should not be Simon Case. If I was the Cabinet Secretary, whether or not the allegations were true, I would stand aside from the process on the basis that Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion.

Better still, since civil servants were alleged to be at the parties, the investigation should be carried out by a member of the judiciary. This is not to impugn the integrity of the Civil Service, but to maintain both the actuality and the appearance of impartiality.

Too many people embroiled in this affair, from the Prime Minister to the Civil Service and the Metropolitan Police, have much to gain from suppressing a genuine, thorough inquiry into what took place in November and December last year. Mainly their jobs and reputations. If the allegations are false, so be it. But they must be shown to be false through an unimpeachable process. Otherwise, given the current national obsession, especially across the social media, with cover-ups and conspiracies, this story will never go away. And since it’s spread way beyond the social media into the wider population, it will further enhance the disillusionment, shared by many, not just opponents of the government, with politics and politicians.

Boris Johnson may ride out this crisis, because turkeys, in the form of ministers and members of parliament who owe him their jobs, are unlikely to vote for Christmas, unless they see the possibly that next Christmas they will be end up trussed and stuffed. And voters, other than those who lost loved ones around the time of those alleged parties, might chose to have short memories. As long as Boris’ balloon keeps afloat, they might decide to disregard the evidence that he’s a lying charlatan and vote for him again. After all, Donald Trump, the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief, only narrowly failed to be re-elected last year.

I have no secret sources or friends of friends, but which ever way it goes, I can’t see this story ending well.

Postcard from nowhere: COVID, chaos and confusion

There’s been lots of stuff in the media about chaos and confusion around the new travel rules introduced by the UK. They specify that those travelling back to the UK must take a COVID PCR or lateral flow test within two days of their return to the country. This article on the BBC website talks about the impact.

In our case, thanks to a simple misuse of language, my wife and I came within a whisker of missing our flight home from Singapore. We were lucky. About fifty others, it seems, didn’t make the flight.

The confusion arose through the use of the word “travel”. Here’s the wording from the Government website:

Does travelling mean the point at which you leave a country, or does it mean the point of arrival? We were due to leave Singapore well before the 4am Tuesday deadline, which led us to believe that we wouldn’t need a pre-departure test. However, we were due to arrive at 5.30am, 90 minutes after the deadline.

So we went to great lengths to clarify the government’s clear-as-mud language. We twice called British Airways, who twice told us that we didn’t need to test. In other words, they agreed with our interpretation, as did many others on a couple of well-known aviation website to which my wife subscribes. All good, we thought.

So we arrived at Changi airport three hours before departure, only to be told by the check-in staff (who didn’t work for British Airways) that we needed the test. Panic. After half an hour of patiently explaining that we didn’t need a test because BA had told us so, we got nowhere. The agent even told us that if we arrived without a test, the UK would send us back to Singapore! So they wouldn’t let us board without one.

Fortunately, there’s a testing centre at another terminal at Changi airport. We rushed over there and managed to get a lateral flow test which, of course, was negative. We made it back to the BA desk as the flight was closing. We understand that fifty others, who also had not done a test and were too late to get the test at the airport, missed the flight. They included a guy who had waited in the check-in queue for an hour. When he got to the desk, he was also too late. If the check-in staff had made an announcement that tests were, in fact required, he and many of the others who ended up missing the flight would have been able to get the test in time to fly.

So who was responsible for this monumental cock-up? British Airways, whose agents refused to let these people fly? The British government, who, by the simple expedient of using the words “before departure” and “before arrival” in their guidance would have avoided the confusion? And if we alone were were guilty of “misinterpreting” the rule, how come fifty were also culpable?

When we arrived at Heathrow we went straight to the e-gates and sailed through. It’s highly unlikely that our negative test at Changi would have been added to the passenger location information we filled in before departure. So the kindest interpretation would be that British Airways were covering their arses to the detriment of their fifty passengers. The unkindest would be that in some way the Singapore government was involved in the decision. But why? Overenthusiastic misinterpretation of the British government’s intention? I can’t think of any other reason. I have no evidence either way, but our experience on arrival in Singapore, about which I shall be posting shortly, might explain our suspicion.

We also have anecdotal evidence that people arriving at Heathrow after the deadline from other countries were not required to test before departure. Apparently at least twenty people leaving Mauritius at the same time as us had the same problem. But in their case the BA staff made four phone calls to the UK Border Force and were finally assured that the passengers didn’t need the test. Why this didn’t happen in our case we have no idea. It probably didn’t help that there was no BA representative at our check-in.

We are seasoned long-haul travellers. I like to think that we’re not stupid. We did everything we could to establish that we didn’t need the pre-departure test. The result was that despite being triple jabbed, we had to do four tests, all negative, for one trip. My wife had to do another two plus a blood test, which is the subject of my next post.

I appreciate that ours was a first-world problem. But the survival of the travel industry, on which many jobs depend, is more than an issue affecting a privileged few. Living through a pandemic is bad enough, but when governments compound the problem with poorly drafted regulations, it feels more like economic suicide by pandemic.

PS: It gets worse. According to a contributor to one travel website, an entire planeload of people from Newark in the US were denied boarding last night at BA’s direction. They have been asked to do PCRs (not lateral flows, as permitted per the government rules) and will be put on today’s flight. They were sent an email with this news three hours before they were due to depart. At least they got an email, which was more than we had….

Postcard from Singapore: dogs in diapers and moral dilemmas

Our fortnight in Singapore is nearly over. It’s not been without the odd hairy moment, mostly COVID-related, but also dog-related.

The other day my wife and I met up with a British friend who has been living in Singapore for 12 years. He was rather surprised that we were here for such a long time. Until lockdown, his life consisted of weekday trips to neighbouring countries where he has business interests. He and his partner would then spend their weekends here.

But lockdown has been different. He’s been suffering from a touch of islanditis, which explains why he finds it hard to understand why we would wish to be here for such a long time. After all, the country is not exactly overrun with tourist attractions.

Another friend, on reading my description of people-watching on our balcony that overlooks a boardwalk and marina, launched into a bit of a grumpathon about exploitation, and Priti Patel’s aspiration to turn Brexit Britain into Singapore-on-Tees.

To the first comment, I would reply by saying that we came here with very limited objectives. We wanted to exist for a few days somewhere miles away from Boris Johnson and his malevolent turd of a government. Somewhere in a warm climate where we can swim every day, enjoy fabulous food and can get through half a dozen books. And now, retrospectively, you could say that we’ve come to a place where we can avoid Omicron by spending as much time as possible in the fresh air. Plus take PCR tests in exotic locations. As a guy who no longer has a career to obsess about, what would I be doing differently at home? Apart from the alfresco dining, the swimming and the PCRs of course.

And anyway, travel doesn’t have to involve running around doing lots of stuff in the cause of broadening the mind, especially if you’re visiting somewhere you’ve been to many times before. But it does shake up the perspective for a while. It reminds you that not everyone gives a stuff about Britain. Nor are they bothered about Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine. They care about their jobs, their kids and maybe about China’s designs on Taiwan.

And, of course, their dogs. How much was evidenced by a woman we saw pushing a small mutt in a pram with a nappy on its hindquarters, and a couple who ordered a birthday cake with a candle for their dog in a restaurant  where we were eating. It wolfed the cake down. God knows what it produced on the owners’ carpet a few hours later.

Watching such people reminds me that not all of us have the inclination to sit around thinking great thoughts.

As for my dear friend whose dyspeptic remarks lit up my morning, I can only say that on Facebook you shouldn’t be grumpy, only old. According to some Gen-Zers interviewed by Robert Crampton in last Saturday’s Times, the place to go if you’re angry is Twitter. Though try telling that to the conspiracy theorists, insurrectionists and bigots who swarm to Facebook like bears to a rubbish dump.

Be that as it may, I’ve long given up trying to find a country whose government and population live up to my lofty morals. Where to you go if you want to be in a place where people aren’t exploited. France? New Zealand? Denmark? Cleethorpes?  It’s only a matter of degree, surely. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. The bigger the better, so that I can bow before them in admiration.

I’ve certainly been to some countries that have pretty dodgy records when it comes to exploitation. Some were founded on it. The United States, Australia and most of the British commonwealth can point to a greater or lesser degree of exploitation in their histories, though most of them can point the finger of blame at my ancestors. Most of them, however, continue the tradition in different ways with different masters.

My point is that exploitation, depending on how you define it, is as endemic as COVID.  So should you refrain from travelling for that reason? Or do you make a judgement, and chose countries to visit that are a only bit exploitative, as opposed to heavily so?

And how do you rate Britain, with its vast gig economy that relies on minimum wage labour, where young girls in poor districts are preyed upon on a scale that makes Jeffery Epstein look like a minor offender? Where kids are bribed to carry drugs from one town to another and illegal immigrants scrape a living in nail bars?

That said, since I live in a rathole of bigotry, lies, incompetence and inequality, I’m not in a rush to visit another one any time soon, which Is why I’ve avoided visiting the US got the past five years.

Yes, I know I’m straying into “what about” territory here. As my old Mum used to say in her dotage, I don’t know what the answer is.

But what I do know is that if you live in a country that gives you a vote and doesn’t punish you for making the “wrong” choice, you should use your vote whenever you can.

Meanwhile, I shall continue travelling far and wide in the hope that I will learn a few things on each journey, and in the knowledge that for those who exploit others, what goes around eventually comes around. Maybe not immediately, but certainly sooner or later, even if you have to wait until you’re a statue before you’re torn down.

A parent’s nightmare from the underbelly of the internet

What’s a parent’s worst nightmare? It’s hard to think of anything more frightening than finding out that your child is in trouble, even if they’re independent adults. All the worse if you’re thousands of miles away from them.

So that was what faced us when early this morning, at midnight UK time, we had a text message on WhatsApp from our daughter, letting us know that her phone had crashed and that she was using another one for the time being.

Then followed a disturbing text conversation along these lines:

“Mum, I’m embarrassed to ask you this, but I have an old debt that needs to be paid. I need you to send £2,500 to this account immediately.”

We smelt a rat straight away when the language used didn’t appear to be authentic. But what if it was being dictated to her? Was she kidnapped? After some toing and froing, we asked her if she was being threatened. She said no, everything’s OK. It was just that her partner’s phone didn’t support internet banking.

As the conversation continued, she seemed to become more desperate. Eventually she said “OK I’m being threatened, but don’t tell anyone. No cops”

At this point the rat we smelt originally had turned into a giant cockroach. We decided to test her identity. We asked her twice to provide a bit of personal information no scammer would know. She gave no answer, just a couple more texts ratcheting up the pressure. “Please pay”, and “Help”. Eventually, whoever was on the other end seemed to give up. The conversation ended with a sinister threat that would never have come from our kind and gentle daughter.

We reported the exchange to WhatsApp. The conversations then disappeared, but not before we took a screen photo of one of the exchanges.

They nearly got away with it. When a loved one is in trouble, you’re tempted to act without thinking, just as you would if you witnessed someone physically attacking them.

Once we’d satisfied ourselves that there’d been a scammer at work, I did an internet search on “UK WhatsApp extortion scams”. And bingo, on the first page of results came this story from the BBC. It described an approach identical to the one that we’d been subjected to. Blow by blow. Same story about a crashed phone. Same demand for a bank transfer.

The scammer used a UK phone number, which has no doubt now disappeared. The language suggested that they were in the UK, or at least using British idiom. If they’d been American, they would probably addressed the text to Mom. The “tell no one, no cops” routine was straight out of a second-rate TV kidnap drama.

Still, the basic premise was smart enough. No doubt some people have been frightened enough to part with money. Fortunately we weren’t among them. But the experience was disconcerting, to say the least.

So a word to the wise. If one of these bastards trys it on you, keep calm, call the police, ask for corroboration of identity. If they can’t give it to you, tell them to get stuffed. And report them to WhatsApp. They’ll be further down their list of calls by then.

But hopefully they’ll get nicked before they try a new scam.

Postcard from Singapore: a ringside seat at the beauty parade

We’re spending the next few days in people-watching heaven. Not the “this is life on the street” kind of people watching. And certainly not the voyeuristic type either. Just a subset of prosperous souls who pass by on a boardwalk three stories below the balcony overlooking a marina on the resort island of Sentosa.

People jogging or walking. Most of them are taking their dogs, their children or their mobile phones for a walk. Unusually for Singapore, by no means all of them are masked. In fact there seems to be a consensus that joggers and cyclists don’t need to be. Which is certainly a good thing as far as I’m concerned, because if I started jogging with a mask, I would probably inhale it, with fatal consequences.

So who lives on Sentosa? I’m not sure, and I’m not about to make any attempt to find out. But what I do notice from my balcony is plenty of what you would describe as westerners. Also, as you would expect, a majority of people who seem to be locals

Some take their dogs and phones for a walk simultaneously, while also managing to consume what looks to be large ice cream cornets but surely aren’t. Not early in the morning, surely.

The women walkers outnumber the men by two to one. Many of them have that look popularised by women golfers. Baseball cap, pony tail, shorts and well-formed physiques. Young ones on segways and electric scooters whizz by. Plenty of golf carts too. A pair of women walking past – one with headphones and one without. How unsociable is that? About as unsociable as whole families sitting at breakfast tables in silence as each member engages in animated finger dialogue on their phones. Other women jogging past, glancing at their biometrics as they go. Checking what? Heart rate, O2 levels, steps or just is it time for breakfast?

Middle aged guys with big bellies out jogging. A concerted effort to do something about the bellies, or a long-time habit just about surviving the march of time? There goes a gyn bunny, ripped, baseball hat he wears backwards, being towed along by a small dog, not ripped.. Oh, here’s a good one. Hairy little pooch in a basket in front of a bike ridden by golfing woman.

The kids are all cute, until they dissolve in a pool of red-faced, teeth-gnashing fury about something or other.

Then there are the boats in the marina. Row upon row of them. Gleaming white confections. Stink boats, as a crusty old sailor who once worked for me would call them. The cumulative value of all the boats (or should I call them yachts?) going nowhere in the marina must be in the hundreds of millions, or even billions.

Who owns them? Certainly not the people who, as the morning wears on, start washing the sides and hosing the decks after last night’s thunderstorm. One boat has bicycles stored on one of its decks. Another, kayaks. Most of them have jet skis, ready to churn up the calm waters and frighten the dolphins. People cleaning everything that could be cleaned. Not an owner in sight. No sweating of assets, it seems. Only a slight glowing in the armpits.

There are even a few boats with masts for sailing, but it’s hard to imagine that they don’t have powerful motors that enable them to kick on without wind power. Especially as one of them boasts a US flag. The one with the tallest mast, naturally.

Since we have no dogs, children or phones to exercise, we do lengths in the pool. This is not as simple as you might think. It’s a huge pool. Our corona-cautious hotel rations out swimming time in chunks of two hours. If you’ve booked in to one of the slots, you can swim. If not, go away.  Our status is indicated by wrist bands. The colour depends on what time-slot you’ve booked. Plus black if you’re fully vaxxed. That way, I guess, you can take evasive action away from anyone without a black wristband. Including kids, of course.

Singapore is a takeaway culture. Is that just since COVID, because people don’t like sharing space with others? Maybe so. Whatever the case, hardly a minute or two passes without someone riding past with a bag of something, ready to be consumed in whatever boat, hotel or apartment they happen to be hanging out.

Breakfast. A most gorgeous menu placed in front of us. Crab cake eggs benedict. Smashed avocados with poached eggs on sourdough. Singaporean laksa. Fresh fruit and bakery. Proper coffee. All delivered by waiter service – another COVID innovation, no doubt. All around us families. Locals perhaps, or Malaysians or Indonesians. None of the harsher tones of the mainland Chinese in evidence. Nearby, a couple of westerners. He on a conference call. A banker? His partner (or colleague?) a rather hard-faced woman who summons waiters and asks for stuff in single words – no please or thank you. She’s banging away on her laptop replying to emails.

On our way back to our room, past walls adorned with illuminated sculptures that look like misshapen, milky breasts, I notice a cupboard marked “Talent”. By which presumably the hotel mean staff. Seems like everyone is a talent these days, even if they have none. Very HR.

And what of the guests? We’re here for ten days. In case you’re wondering. we’re here with the help of the air miles that the memshib had been assiduously collecting over years by using the right credit cards at Waitrose. We’re rarities according to the front desk. Most people are here on what they call staycations. Singaporeans’ options for travelling are limited since COVID, even more limited now that Omicron is taking a grip. It’s the school holidays, so many of them choose to spend one or two days in a luxurious hotel living the life, rather than spreading their holiday money over a longer period in a more humdrum place.

Down the way, five minutes’ walk from the hotel, there are plenty of eating options: fresh seafood, tapas, Italian, Aussie burgers and Thai. No Indian restaurant, surprisingly. Last night we tried the clam chowder and red snapper at the seafood place. It was fine, but took a while to arrive. A corpulent American nearby with a little beard and a loud voice also had to wait. He let the staff have both barrels. A very Trumpian performance. I think he was trying to impress his guest, who was a rather embarrassed-looking local.

This place feels like another world, far from downtown Singapore, where we stayed for our first few days. Highly manicured, no street food, very genteel. An enclave, in fact. It even costs visitors six Singapore dollars to enter the island. Whatever COVID privations Singaporeans are going through elsewhere are not in evidence here. Golf courses, trees in abundance, wealth in abundance. Christmas decorations in abundance. Twinkly lights everywhere at night.

Do I feel comfortable here? Yep, as much as I did in the well-appointed compounds of Saudi Arabia, walled in from the outside world, insulated from all the stuff that was going on outside. Places where normal rules of the country didn’t seem to apply.

Could I live here? I doubt it. If I was here for work, I might have a high-status job that enabled me to live amongst all this wealth. But in the end, I suspect I would fall victim to the same ennui that caused me to leave the Middle East decades ago.

There are enclaves like Sentosa in many parts of the world. Perhaps not as pretty. Perhaps not populated with so many identikit residents who make it easy for me to categorise them. I doubt if I could live in any of them, because I would be afraid of becoming so insulated from other worlds less fortunate that I would be tempted to forget about them.

And that would never do.

After a few hours on the balcony, punctuated by swimming forays, I’m still waiting for a boat owner to arrive and sail their vessel out to sea. Will they come via helicopter, and then be driven over to their property on a buggy? Or will they sweep in a motorcade through the arch in the distance that looks like it belongs on the Jurassic Park set?

No sign so far, but what an enjoyable way to spend a day. Singapore might boast a magnificent botanical gardens. But for me the human zoo is just as entertaining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As of 25 Nov 2021:

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

Over the last 28 days, of the infected individuals:

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

As of 24 Nov:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcard from France: gables, ghosts and gumboots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COP26 and all that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another country, another home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell to a Navigator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why travel, and to where?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That way your bucket will always be full.

On levelling up and other fantasies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberation – a ferry crossing away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Old Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Old Lie, Wilfred
Owen, 1917

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