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Brexit Diaries: fighting battles in fog is never a good idea

Well Brexit’s going well, isn’t it?

Since I’m not a fisherman, a courier, a banana grower, a clothes retailer, a trucker, a cheese exporter, a Nissan worker, a meat producer or an EU diplomat, I don’t have much to complain about. Anyway, we have other fish that are frying us, so to speak.

And in case you’re wondering where all the extra money you’re charged for the Parisian couture you ordered online is going, fear not. Instead, rejoice in the thought that both in the UK and the EU, your money is paying for the employment of thousands upon thousands of form fillers, document stampers, customs officials and sundry other bureaucrats.

More jobs thanks to Brexit! Not something that the naysayers will tell you, but good news nonetheless. Growth industries are hard to come by in a pandemic, unless you happen to be purveyors of PPE, creators of tracking software that doesn’t work or consultants hired at great expense by your mates in government.

No, no, stop now Steve. Sarcasm doesn’t become you. This is a time for unity of purpose and the healing of divisions, is it not? Just like in America, even if, unlike over there, we don’t have a new government that aims to sweep away the Trumpian tendency.

So the rational me suggests that before we start forming into hordes of Rejoiner fanatics ready to break social distancing rules by storming Parliament, we should wait a while. Because it will take many months for definitive conclusions to be drawn over the cost and impact of Brexit. We need to wait until the procedures are bedded in, until the worst immediate effects are ironed out, as many surely will be, and until the whole shebang ceases to be distorted, confused and confounded by the current pandemic. In other words, let’s get the teething excuse over with, so that we can see what the teeth look like.

Only then can we start making a rational case for another change in direction. Re-joining the single market and customs union, perhaps. Or maybe the whole nine yards. And we should remember that such a campaign would be a long slog, not a short sprint. Such changes will only take place over the dead body of the current government, and it’s going to be around, barring an unspeakable catastrophe, for the next four years. Even then, as many have pointed out, who’s to say that the EU will be in any hurry to facilitate the return of the faithful? What’s more, who’s to say that the EU will be in a better place than we are by then?

So in the meantime, anyone with an ounce of common sense will stop the finger-pointing and the insults directed towards the perpetrators of Brexit, and particularly against those who voted for it.

If, as I and many others have always maintained, the project is a long-term disaster for the country, it will still take time for that reality to emerge into plain sight, so that the ambiguous becomes obvious.

And by the way, although sentiment seems to be moving towards independence in Scotland and Wales, as well as a united Ireland, the same argument applies. The incompetence of the Westminster government and the ravages of the pandemic should not be allowed to colour discussions on the future of Britain as a political entity, even though those who favour separation will use whatever opportunity they have to press home their views.

If, on the other hand, we get to the case where we don’t notice the pain anymore, or if we do actually see solid early evidence of the benefits of Brexit, there’s unlikely to be any appetite among the electorate for a drastic change of policy, at least as far as reversing our separation from the EU is concerned.

It therefore seems to me that the most sensible approach will be to document, tabulate and keep exposing the inconsistencies (at best) and iniquities (at worst) of our new reality. And where problems can be fixed, agitate for mitigation or solution, just as we would for any other problem that has nothing to do with Brexit.

Other than that, it seems that we have no choice but to let this government keep blundering on until we can stand them no more. Sooner or later the chlorinated chickens will surely come home to roost. Whether we’ll still be a United Kingdom by then is anybody’s guess.

But first things first. Let’s get through the bloody pandemic. Until that happens, we’re fighting battles in fog.

Biden Day 1: Messages from the Oval Office

There are plenty of pictures across the media of Joe Biden’s newly-decorated Oval Office. Carpet changed, Winston’s bust banished once more, replaced by Robert Kennedy. Pictures of former presidents reconfigured. Andrew Jackson, scourge of native Americans, replaced by Franklin D Roosevelt, who takes the prime spot above the fireplace.

Americans are great lovers of symbolism, or at least journalists are. I doubt whether poor families living in shacks in West Virginia would be bothered one way or another. Contrast this scene with the Prime Minister’s office in my own dear country. I doubt if anyone in Britain apart from his closest minions could tell you what Johnson’s office actually looks like, let alone what pictures are hanging on the walls.

This is partly because his constitutional role is different from that of Biden. He doesn’t sign bills into law. That’s the Queen’s job, though she doesn’t do signing ceremonies. Occasionally we get a peep into her office, which allows the royal sages interpret for us commoners the meaning of her little symbolic tweaks – usually in the form of photos of offspring and relatives. If we’re lucky, we might get to see the electric fire that demonstrates her frugality.

No electric fires on view in the Oval Office. Only a marble fireplace resembling the entrance to a Roman temple, with what looks like a glass screen, suggesting that it’s been a while since anyone lit logs in it.

But here’s an interesting thing, to me at least. Perhaps because I’m stupid and everyone else is smart, nobody has commented on the stuff on top of the Resolute Desk. Biden sits in his executive chair. In front of him you see a pile of Executive Orders ready to sign. There’s a box full of pens, presumably there in case the one he’s using to sign the orders runs out. Ok, I know that’s not what they’re there for – they’re souvenirs given to onlookers and acolytes, not back-ups in case the government procurement system has broken down.

There’s also the phone. Lots of buttons, but no red hotline to Putin. And apart from a coffee cup and saucer, most likely in White House livery, nothing else.

Perhaps that’s because he’s only just arrived, but I was surprised to see no IT. No tablets, laptops, smartphones. No nothing. Is that because he doesn’t use computers, or because an HP laptop or a Mac would lower the tone of the occasion?

When the photographers leave, can we expect him to strip off the mask, kick off his shoes, take out the IPad from one of the drawers and get stuck into some serious browsing. Ratings perhaps. Or shark documentaries like his predecessor. Or will he be completely reliant on his minions, who will print out his emails and give him his security briefings on bits of paper with large letters and even larger pictures?

You would have thought that rather than posing at his desk with objects that would have been almost identical to those used by Truman or Eisenhower, he would at least include symbols of technology. Though probably not the smartphone, because that would remind everyone of the Orange Monster and his incessant tweeting.

At the age of 78, you wouldn’t expect Biden to be much of a geek, but are we to deduce from his spartan desktop that he intends to preside by the pen, the phone and the tone of his voice? On one level, perhaps that’s encouraging. There’s nothing worse than a politician pretending to have skills he doesn’t possess. But on another, it suggests that he’s a relic of an earlier, un-wired age.

I don’t buy the latter hypothesis. His desk is sparse because he’s only just arrived. But it will be worth watching over the next few months as the clutter starts mounting up. Will we see him in shirtsleeves stabbing away at an IPad? Or will the Resolute Desk remain an austere monument, to be used only as a prop for ceremonial occasions?

Should be interesting, or profoundly boring, depending on your point of view. Right now, I prefer the latter.

I can only add one further thought. I spent years sitting at a desk that looked like a volcano at various stages of eruption. How nice it would have been to to have someone available at all times to clear it for me.

A man of steel

I spent most of yesterday afternoon and evening in Washington DC.

Not literally of course, but courtesy of CNN, whose endless coverage started with Trump slinking off through the back door and continued through the endless pomp and circumstance laid on for Biden’s inauguration.

Far be it for me to add to the endless stream of opinion, breaking news and shattered egos that accompanied the transfer of power from Biden’s unmentionable predecessor.

Compelling though the spectacle was, I found myself preoccupied with concern for the new president. How a man of seventy-eight managed eighteen hours of standing to attention, climbing and descending an endless succession of steep stairs and going in and out of the freezing cold without ending up totally wrecked is beyond me. The presidency must confer some supernatural power.

I can’t be the only person who thought of America’s 9th president, William Henry Harrison, who died in 1841 of pneumonia thirty-one days after his inauguration.

I found myself worrying about Biden on three counts. Like Harrison, he didn’t wear a hat, which is not sensible if you want to avoid heat loss in the cold. Then there was the absence of pit stops. For older guys, cold weather has a strange effect on the bladder. Within minutes of stepping out from a warm room, you feel the urge to pee. Not good if you have sit through a two-hour ceremony. And finally, when did the poor chap get the chance to re-fuel? Did he manage a quick sandwich in The Beast on the way to Arlington? Or was there a discreet spread laid on in the Capitol – maybe a cup of warming soup – before he stepped out on to the balcony? Or perhaps there was a acolyte on hand with a hip flask.

These were the questions I wanted to ask, as a man ten years younger than him who would have been a gibbering wreck if I’d had to endure what he did.

I also felt quite anxious for as long as he sat out in the open during the swearing-in ceremony, and even more when he got out of the car to walk to the White House. Could we really be sure that no nutcase would take a pot-shot? I guess the Secret Service felt the same way, as they accompanied him, eyes flickering from one vantage point to another, to the front door of his new home.

I lost interest somewhat after he was safely installed in the White House, safe in the knowledge that he’d be able to have a bit of a lie down and another cup of soup before signing his seventeen executive orders. But I’m still amazed at the endurance that enabled him to go through the whole exercise despite nursing a foot that was broken only a few weeks ago. Clearly a man of steel.

I went to bed before all the celebrations beyond my time zone began. Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi can wait another day.

But as I rose this morning in another continent to welcome a pinky blue sky after the departure of Storm Christoph, I felt a sense both of relief and malicious pleasure. Pleasure because the Unmentionable Predecessor is now skulking among his golden toilet fittings in Florida. And relief because The Plan came to nothing. If you’re familiar with the creed of QAnon, the forces of light were supposed to seize power yesterday and save the world from pederastic lizards.

The first bit did happen, but there was no evidence of scaly creatures or orange monsters anywhere near Washington DC. The Great Liberator was safely ensconced in exile, stuffing down chicken nuggets.

Thus QAnon were exposed as the digital successors of cults whose leaders in earlier times predicted the end of the world. When the end didn’t come, the prophets of yore quickly recalibrated their predictions, but nobody believed them any more. Hopefully that will be the fate of Q and his (or her) batty devotees.

So that was that. Plenty of God, no shortage of American Exceptionalism, ideals, hope and optimism oozing from every pore. America turned a page.

If only we could look forward to such ceremony when our scarecrow of a leader finally cycles away from Downing Street. But unfortunately these days we Brits reserve our pomp and circumstance mainly for royal weddings and funerals. And we do them very well. Though since our state funerals are mainly sombre affairs, and our weddings have an evens chance of ending in divorce, they’re hardly an opportunity to celebrate new dawns.

Yet a new dawn it is. No less worrying than the dawn that preceded it, but at least I get a sense that a weight has been lifted across the Atlantic.

Stay well, Joe.

Corona Diaries: looking above and below the vaccine parapet

One of the consequences of what could best be described as a history of well-meaning disinformation on the part of the British government during the COVID pandemic, or at worst, outright lies and unachievable promises, is that I’m somewhat uneasy about our current vaccine policy.

Much as I applaud the rate at which the population has been receiving first doses, I worry that the entire strategy is based on giving as many people as some degree of protection, while taking the chance, against the advice of the vaccine manufacturers, that the second dose can be delivered twelve weeks later, as opposed to three, and still provides the promised level of protection.

The only fact in which I have much confidence is that because the vaccines are so new, we simply don’t know what the consequences of late delivery of the second dose will be. However, early indications from Israel, that has given the highest percentage of its population the first dose thus far, are that the Pfizer vaccine gives a 50% protection, which is only increased to the advertised 95% after the second dose.

So it seems that the UK is embarked on a policy to give the maximum number of people some protection, rather than less people maximum protection. I get that, even though from a purely selfish standpoint I would like to have two doses in my arm as soon as possible. And even though the US, on the advice of the good Dr Fauci, has determined that the manufacturers’ recommendations should be followed, even at the cost of wider delivery of the first dose.

What I don’t get is that my government should be so coy about its policy. And why there isn’t more discussion on influential media such as the BBC as to the sense or otherwise of delaying the second dose? On yesterday’s BBC evening news broadcast, just about every aspect of the pandemic – the impact on the NHS, the statistics on infections, hospitalisations and deaths and the latest vaccination numbers – were discussed. But no mention of the number of second doses, and no acknowledgement that in our decision to stretch the period between first and second doses we’re an outlier.

Is that because the BBC has taken upon itself to maintain an open mind, or because it has been pushed by the government not to open up a controversial issue that might cause wide concern?

It’s becoming less fashionable these days to say “search the internet and you will find…”, because such an exercise can lead you to all kinds of bullshit. But one article in a mainstream media outlet, The Guardian, provides what seems to be a measured view of the risk we’re taking, based on input both from the World Health Organisation and the manufacturers themselves.

In a matter of such importance, it’s wrong to expect that we’ll simply accept that nanny knows best. The government needs to provide us with an informed justification of its policy. And if, as it seems, the reality is that it’s taking a huge risk, it should say so.

Another aspect of the vaccination effort concerns me. It’s not enough for a few nations to vaccinate their populations. As long as there are large parts of the world where countries haven’t been able to get hold of vaccines in sufficient quantities, or for one reason or another haven’t been able to set up effective vaccination programmes, there’s surely a danger that vaccine-resistant variants of the virus will spread, thereby invalidating successful vaccination programmes, putting countries that have vaccinated their populations at fresh risk.

If ever there was a case for concerted international action, whether or not through the WHO, to ensure that all countries, including the poorest and least equipped are vaccinated as soon as possible, it’s surely now. The largest industrial nations may be preoccupied with their own programmes, but they can’t ignore the worldwide dimension. Are we, the US, the EU, Japan, China and Russia doing enough? That’s not clear. We need to raise our view above the parapet and put pressure on our elected representatives to think globally. Would it not be sensible to consider diverting some of our foreign aid to this end?

The Director General of the WHO calls the inequitable distribution of vaccine throughout the world a “moral failure”. He’s certainly right, but perhaps he should have emphasised that it will also be a practical failure if we allow vaccine-resistant strains to plunge us all into a new crisis.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I await the call for my vaccination. It should come soon, according to my GP surgery. At least they have assured me that my data hasn’t been accidentally deleted, unlike the 400,000 records from the Police National Computer that were wiped out the other day.

These days we need to take comfort from small mercies, as well as worry about big issues.  And looking further on the bright side, what a joy it is that as of later today it will not be necessary to seed every second post with an insult aimed at Donald Trump’s direction.     

Goodbye Donald: a 21-fart salute to a naked president – Part 2

Here’s Part 2 of my fond farewell to Donald Trump. It’s a compilation of quotations from my many observations on a man who, for a writer, has been the gift that keeps on giving. The period covered here is 2019 to the present, which you could describe as Peak Trump.

It would be nice to think that when he boards Airforce One for the last time we won’t hear from him again. Fat chance. But at least he won’t be able to blow up the world for the foreseeable future.

February 4 2019: Donald Trump, by spewing out lies, hatred, paranoia and baseless boasts on Twitter, has shown politicians everywhere that they can prosper with similar methods. America’s diplomats have an almost impossible job projecting consistent and positive messages when their president changes his positions on a whim. And America’s enemies, from states to terrorist groups, have a far easier job justifying their hostility when the most naked diplomat of all reveals his needy personality, covered with psychological warts, boils and running sores, to all and sundry. When he tweets, he speaks for America, and it isn’t a pretty picture he portrays. (From a review of Tom Fletcher’s The Naked Diplomat)

26 February 2019: As I was watching Michael Cohen’s testimony yesterday before the US House of Representatives, one thought kept coming to mind. What an evil person Hillary Clinton must be that the American people chose Donald Trump over her. Either that, or how easily deceived they were by the torrent of lies spewed by the winning candidate, or how indifferent they were to the fact that Trump lied blatantly, flagrantly and more prolifically than any presidential candidate in living memory.

March 14 2019: The only way for Trump’s generation can escape the relentless treadmill created by the technologists is to find a yurt in Mongolia, a tree house in New Guinea or a retirement home in Florida or Surrey. In Trump’s case a secure institution with his very own Nurse Ratched to make sure he keeps up with his medication would do just nicely.

October 1 2019:  I look forward to the sight of the helicopter taking him off, post-resignation, to a well-earned retirement at Mar-a-Largo after his pardon from President Pence. But I will feel a little sorry for all his associates who end up in jail, though perhaps Pence will pardon them too. I hear, however that the Donaldissimo is predicting (or threatening?) civil war if he’s removed. Very similar to the dire predictions emanating from Boris Johnson’s ministers in the event that we’re sensible enough to call a halt to Brexit. Don’t great minds think alike?

January 1 2020: Along with half of America and much of the rest of the world, I have been watching and waiting for the fall of Donald Trump. So much so that it’s hard to remind oneself that a new president wouldn’t necessarily be able to undo the chaos and confusion that Trump has left in his wake. But to see him, his lackeys, backers and maleficent policies expelled down the toilet in a mighty durchfall would be well worth the political equivalent of a couple of Lomatil capsules to restore the digestive balance.

February 4 2020: Trump’s Ukraine behaviour is the tip of an iceberg. The man is a liar, a cheat, a fraudster and a grossly incompetent leader. The one obvious reason why the Senate will acquit him is that for all his manifest faults, he has taken a grip over a substantial portion of the US electorate. His base doesn’t care about his lies or the long-term implications of his policies. They buy into the MAGA ethos and the growth of their 401k pension funds.

February 17 2020: I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that the only way any of the embattled survivors of the race to the (Democratic) nomination will defeat Trump will be through an implosion on his part – perhaps some further revelation about his murky past or present, or his failure to deal with a catastrophe that will repel all but his most fanatical supporters. I don’t wish catastrophe on anyone, but if one serves to end the grotesque career of the current President, then at least there will be a silver lining.

March 12 2020: Trump himself has come within two degrees of separation from the virus. A couple of congressmen shook hands with someone who had the virus at a recent conference. One of them was on Air Force One the other day with the president. The last thing I wish is that Trump gets infected, and if he does, I hope he recovers quickly. But a bout of infections at the highest level might persuade the complacent to take the pandemic seriously. (I was wrong on that one!)

March 20 2020: Just as important for the long run, is Trump’s response fatally weakening his chances of re-election, as well as the future Republican control of the senate? Or, if the crisis has abated by November, will sufficient numbers of his supporters believe his inevitable claims to have beaten the virus to assure him a second term?

March 22 2020: Which brings me to the President, without whom no blog post about COVID-19 would be complete. He’s tweeting with an excitement he rarely summons (other than when he’s boasting about the stock market) about the benefits of chloroquine in mitigating the virus, despite the advice of one his most eminent advisors that it’s not approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration, even though Trump says it is. From this one can only assume that the president’s son-on-law has invested in a company making tonic water. Expect large numbers of Americans to expire from gin poisoning before long.

April 12 2020: Happy Easter everyone! Better than Happy Good Friday, despite Donald Trump’s efforts to celebrate the Good bit despite the awful event being commemorated. I guess at the time of his tweet he was focused on the idea that Jesus died to absolve us of our sins. That must come as a particular relief to Mr Trump, though whether he is actually aware of all the sins for which he needs to be absolved is debatable.

April 18 2020: It took the Nazis eleven years to reach power in Germany. It took Donald Trump two years to gain the presidency. Who’s to say that over the next few days, with the tacit approval of Trump and the money of people like (Robert) Mercer, we won’t see the preening exhibitionism of a few rifle-toting good ole boys turn into mass civil disobedience, with armed mobs storming statehouses and governors’ mansions in an attempt to force state administrations to uphold the right to go to shopping malls? And what then? Armed insurrection? The collapse of the rule of law? The National Guard called out? The military? (Got that one right – eventually)

April 25 2020: It seems that he obsessively watches obscure TV channels that run ads and interviews with people who have come up with these cures. They also send emails, which his dutiful minions print out and shove under his nose just as he’s about to speak to the nation. Then he turns up at the briefings, unbriefed, with the latest idea. He runs them past his medical advisers live on prime-time TV, giving us the supreme entertainment of watching Doctors Fauci and Birx putting themselves into an altered state in order to avoid the slightest micro-expression that might betray their amusement or exasperation.

April 30 2020: One upside is that overdosing on TV has given me a fresh insight into the mind of Donald Trump. It’s been reported that he spends hours every day in his bedroom searching for TV news stories about, for and against him. I imagine that the White House has cleaners who on a regular basis have to come in and wipe down his multiple screens after he’s pelted them with cheeseburgers and ketchup.

June 20 2020: Three years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president, I vowed that I would not revisit the country until he was no longer president. If I was an American, I might well make a similar vow to stay away from Britain for as long as Boris Johnson and his third-rate cronies remained in government. Nobody in America will give a second thought about my absence, though we would miss the Americans who come to our country to breathe in our myths. After all, we’re the supplicants these days.

July 10 2020: The (Lincoln Project) ads are highly professional productions that appear very quickly after a trigger event involving Trump. Some seem designed even more than others specifically to get into the president’s head. In Whispers, the narrator acts as a troll whispering in Trump’s ear. She tells him that none of his inner circle are loyal to him, that they’re all whispering behind his back. One person on Twitter observed that the video is akin to a military psyop. Psyops, short for psychological operations, are designed to confuse and disorient the enemy, and thereby reduce his effectiveness on the battlefield.

July 2020: But if both candidates are indeed suffering from some degree of dementia, there would appear to be a marked difference in symptoms. Donald Trump seems to be suffering from the wild, dangerous version that eventually gets the person locked up in a place where they won’t be dangerous to themselves or others. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has the demeanour of a kindly grandfather who would be happy to accept help when he loses his glasses, and is unlikely to rage against the dying of the light.

August 13 2020: How effective will Donald Trump be in recapturing the imagination of the electorate without his rapturous rallies? Not great, I suspect. His live audiences surf his stream of consciousness without much thought as to what he’s actually saying beyond a few communal imprecations, as “in lock her up”. But in the cold glare of the TV cameras, without a screaming audience, he seems far less effective, and far more open to ridicule. Unless he chooses to ignore medical advice and summon his base to a series of infection-spreading rallies, what we’re likely to see in the course of the campaign is Trump the idiot, not the fire-breathing orator. A gogue without his demos.

August 29 2020: That said, she (Hillary Clinton) would still have been ten times more effective than Trump. Even if she had been defeated for a second term, she would, in the long term, have earned the same respect as other one-term presidents such as Carter and Bush senior. She wouldn’t have left the United States a smoking, riot-torn ruin, and she would have paved the way for more women to reach the highest office.

October 18 2020: What I do find chilling is the faces of his supporters at the rallies that are now becoming almost daily events as the US presidential election draws near. Not, however, the faces of the bulked-up white men with military paraphernalia, a few of whom are accused of plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan and have become as much emblematic objects of fear as clean-shaven men with brown skins and rucksacks became on the London Underground after the 7/7 bombings. It’s the mums and dads who disturb me. Smiling, kindly-looking folk who might welcome you into their homes if you were passing by their neighbourhood, and, as long as you steer clear of politics, would epitomise what you thought of as the best qualities of Americans. It’s the clean-cut schoolkids, students and young professionals you might meet on the street and find anything but intimidating.

November 3 2020: Today’s the day. The future of America is in the hands of Americans. They have the power to get rid of the malevolent cuckoo in their nest. If they don’t I can’t see myself visiting the US again. It would make me too sad to see what has become of a country I used to admire and love, for all its quirks and flaws. So do it, America, both for your own sake and that of the rest of us, who crave a rest from the shit-show that is Donald Trump.

November 6 2020: I do wonder, when I see one of Trump’s former chief advisors telling us that he would behead the country’s chief medical officer and the head of the FBI, when gangs of heavily armed men threaten to break into places where the votes are being counted, and when a chancer like Nigel Farage is hopping around in Trump’s wake like Mr Toad in search of a pond, why we (British) don’t opt for the calmer waters of the European Union, at least by going the extra mile in order to reach an accommodation on our trading relationship.

November 8 2020: What of Trump, the dethroned lord of misrule? Will he survive, prosper and come again? Much depends on the outcome of the multiple lawsuits and potential prosecutions from which he will no longer be protected once he steps out of the White House. It may be that he will concoct the modern equivalent of a papal indulgence in the form of a pardon for his potential crimes. But that will not protect him from state prosecutions for financial crimes, such as the one that’s looming in New York. Even if they come to nothing, he still has to deal with the creditors who will come knocking at his door over the next couple of years.

November 12 2020: whether Trump sets himself up as the ultimate lie machine, or someone else does so on his behalf, there needs to be an antidote. Otherwise, a new generation will grow up never knowing the difference between fact and fantasy, truth and lies, critical thinking and slavish devotion. You could argue that in some parts of the world, it’s happened already. Unfortunately, lies and misinformation will never effectively be countered by letting a thousand grass-roots activists bloom. They’re up against a juggernaut. Fire must be fought with fire.

December 20 2020: As with most conspiracy theories, this one starts with a proposition, and the theory takes shape when disparate but suitable evidence can be assembled into a superficially plausible case. Trump is planning a military coup. The evidence? Aside from General Flynn’s ranting, which serves the same purpose as John the Baptist in announcing a wondrous event, real stuff is going on behind the rhetoric. A few weeks ago, Trump got rid of a number of senior officials in the Defense Department and replaced them with loyalists. These people have been quietly beavering away at plans for the coup. With Flynn’s help they’ve been sounding out senior generals who might be sympathetic to the cause, with the aim of creating a cadre of plotters who will hold back the military while the goons of Homeland Security take control of the country once the Insurrection Act has been invoked.

January 8 2021: My first impression, as CNN showed a few hundred rioters, protesters, call them what you will, going berserk in the heart of America’s democracy, was that this was not a coup. If it had been, it was a pathetic and incompetent effort. A real coup would have involved shutting down TV, radio and the internet, arrests of prominent politicians and occupation of federal departments including intelligence agencies and the FBI. Tanks on the streets, troops on the ground and drones in the sky. Or perhaps I’m old-fashioned in my thinking, and all it takes these days is a few Vikings aided and abetted by troops on the ground dressed like robocops. Though it might suit rhetorical purposes to describe what happened as a coup, even the most desperate of banana republics would surely have managed something more effective.

January 8 2021: Once an element of calm is re-established, and America emerges both from Trump madness and the ravages of COVID, it will be interesting to see what the TV and movie producers will come up with next. Themes of healing, peace and love, costume dramas from a kinder world? I doubt it. I suspect that cabals, Bilderbergs and lizards will continue to scurry across our screens. But we live in hope.

Amen to that. At least now I can devote myself to sentimental stories about roses, hedgehogs and a parallel universe in which Trump, Brexit and COVID are blissfully absent.

Goodbye Donald: a 21-fart salute to a naked president – Part 1

Rumour has it that Donald Trump will depart from office to the accompaniment of a red carpet, a military band and a 21-gun salute. As far as I’m concerned, his supporters could arrange for him to be carried away on a chariot of fire to the accompaniment of the Hallelujah Chorus, and that would still be fine. So long as he goes.

I was wondering what kind of tribute I could offer the outgoing president, who has provided me with so much to write about over the past five years. Something on a sufficiently epic scale (by my standards) to do justice to his malign achievements. Then I thought of a headline, and everything flowed from there. To go back and look at all my posts that featured Trump is an act of narcissism of which he would surely approve, being an expert in looking at the mirror himself.

So for your delectation, here is a selection of short quotations from everything I’ve written about Trump since September 2015, which was when his presidential ambitions started on the road to reality.

The narcissism on my part is, I suppose, because this is an opportunity to reflect that I had the bastard figured out from the start. But then so did others, so I can’t claim any special insight. I do, however, feel that I was ahead of the curve on the odd occasion, and that maybe I offered a few perspectives as a foreigner looking from afar, that might have helped a few Americans to think differently about their country, and possibly mine.

Conceit? That’s for you to judge.

The post is in two parts. It’s a long read, for which I don’t apologise. Part 1 covers 2015 to 2018, which you could say was the period when Trump’s lunacy was getting into gear. Part 2 takes us up to today. If you want to look at any of the posts in full, you will find them under Donald Trump in the tag map at the top right of this page.

So this post, and the next, is to celebrate the downfall of a busted flush. An emperor without clothes. A naked president.

21 September 2015: Looking beyond the UK, there’s always the theatre of the grotesque in the US: the Republican presidential debates, starring that paragon of self-effacing modesty, Donald Trump. But I’m afraid I can’t look at the ghastly Donald without getting the feeling that the conspiracy theorists who claim that the world is in the control of a cabal of half-human, half-lizard oligarchs might actually be right.

December 8 2015: If thirty percent of Republicans weren’t telling the pollsters that they supported Donald Trump, you would think that he was the star of a reality show in which they dragged the most bigoted, narcissistic bore out of some downtown dive of a New York bar and stuck him on a podium. Along with a bunch of distinctly odd but slightly less extreme individuals.

5 February 2016: Dr Ghada, as a Muslim, is an example of the sort of person whom Donald Trump, if elected President of the US, would seek to deny admittance to his country. Which goes to show what a fundamentally stupid man Mr Trump is, but also what a distorted and one-dimensional the view of Muslims prevails among large swathes of the American electorate whose prejudices he seeks to harness.

24 February 2016: Should Donald Trump become president, America – and the rest of the world – will perhaps have cause to be thankful that the checks and balances of the US constitution exist to curb his wildest inclinations. From afar they may seem a recipe for paralysis, and no more so than over the past six years during which President Obama has repeatedly been stymied by a republican-dominated congress on issues like gun control. But they also mean that Trump may find it impossible to implement some of his loopier policies in the face of fierce opposition, even within his own side.

March 1 2016: I do believe that the combination of influences that has led to Donald Trump’s popularity, whether by accident or design, amounts to grooming. It’s happening in his country, in mine, and every other nation where the big bad wolf lurks in the undergrowth.

March 8 2016: It’s reasonable to suppose that whereas Hitler’s best years were theoretically ahead of him, Trump faces only physical and mental decline. Hitler looked forward to perhaps another thirty years in power. Unless Trump uses his money to unlock the secret of immortality, he has a maximum a decade before he enters his dotage. No thousand-year Reich in prospect for Donald.

May 10 2016: Generous, decent and principled America, I’m begging you. Pull back from the brink. Don’t entrust this man with your future and ours. Through your abundant natural and human resources, your competitive spirit and yes, though the ideals implanted in your DNA by your founding fathers, you have become the world’s lodestar, its reference point.

October 15 2016: But should I be so inclined, would I discuss my deeds and desires in a locker room, as Trump claims he does from time to time? Unlikely. I can’t think of any less congenial location for a discussion about heterosexual love and lust than a place where sweaty, half-naked men gather together, no doubt casting envious glances at their team-mates’ personal dimensions. Something faintly homoerotic about that, don’t you think?

October 29 2016: It’s in attitudes towards freedom that Britain today most closely resembles the US. I like to think that a Donald Trump would never flourish on the British political landscape (though Farage in his role as a Donald mini-me together with his pugilistic colleagues cause one to wonder). But Trump is all about Freedom From: immigration again, interference by federal government, terrorism and the corrosive effects of globalisation.

November 2 2016: So the message to Americans who keenly await a new dawn under Donald Trump is that those wire factories and steel mills will never return unless he raises import tariffs so high that the end product becomes cheaper to buy from his own country rather than from abroad. And if he raises the tariffs, how much will it cost his manufacturers to buy the materials they need to create the next generation of computer chips, over which China has a near-stranglehold? Or the next generation of nukes, or just about anything else that it imports?

November 10 2016: It will not be the first time that America has elected a President with a few screws loose, but with Trump at least we know where the screws are. This was not the case last time a potentially unhinged president was in office. Richard Nixon’s paranoia was pretty well known, but it was only after his resignation that the full extent of his obsessive, depressive and drink-fuelled behaviour while in office became known.

November 12 2016: The grim visage staring at you in this picture would be enough to scare the living daylights out of 007, Luca Brasi, ISIS, Kim Jong Un or a pack of rabid attack dogs. Uncle Fester on steroids. The face of a serial killer, a torturer, a Christian-persecuting Roman emperor, a paranoid eunuch at the court of a fratricidal Ottoman Sultan? (The picture was of Trump’s hairless head being sculpted by Madame Tussaud’s)

November 22 2016: In my fevered imagination, Belardo is the Anti-Trump. A chain-smoking ascetic stands opposite Trump’s teetotal self-indulgence. A pope who is loyal to nobody (not even to God, it seems) and a president-elect who prizes loyalty above all things. (From a review of Sorrentino’s The Young Pope)

December 6 2016: But thanks to Trump’s (and possibly Vladimir Putin’s) efforts, we’re now at the stage when we either choose to believe what we’re told because of who tells it (Trump, the New York Times, the imam, the pastor, our parents or the family doctor) or we believe nothing without going to great lengths to convince ourselves of the bona fides of the teller and the information they convey. To do the former is easy. To do the latter can be an impossible burden on our time.

January 19 2017: (Lyndon) Johnson, himself thin-skinned, endured the opprobrium for four years before he threw in the towel. Would Trump, who is a more fragile individual than LBJ ever was, last that long? I doubt it. It would probably be a matter of how long before he tried to do something irrational and catastrophically stupid, at which point one would hope that more grounded people around him would either thwart him or declare him no longer competent to continue in office. (Almost true, as it turns out)

January 25 2017: If Trump can induce such a striking personality change in people like Simon Schama, he’s well on his way to fulfilling one of his campaign pledges already – he’s creating an industry of Trump insulters, not only in America but across the world. Jobs galore!

January 30 2017: Trump doesn’t care about completed staff work. He cares about the transaction, and the wave of gratification he receives from adoring supporters to whom he made his promises, now kept, during the election campaign. He will bathe in the acclamation of the yes-men who surround him. If thousands of people are suffering because his actions were not thought through, so be it. What he lives for is the moment he signs the order and waves it in front of the cameras with a triumphant snarl.

February 21 2017:  Trump is far smarter than the average protozoa. He even knows where Sweden is – which is more than can perhaps be said for some of his supporters. And he has great words.

February 28 2017: The very fact that the tactics used to put Trump in the White House and drag the UK out of the European Union are becoming increasingly known and understood is some assurance that they will not be so effective next time round. The element of surprise will have been lost.

March 10 2017: Will Trump’s world really turn out to be even more gruesome than those of Carrie Mathison and Frank Underwood? You might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.

22 April 2017: Abuse makes nothing better – not the target, not the originator and most likely not the situation. Advice to myself that I shall no doubt forget next time I hear some self-righteous lemming-herder remind us that the people have spoken, next time I see a vicious headline in the Daily Mail calling out traitors and saboteurs, and next time I hear Donald Trump’s whiney, sneery voice and his piggy eyes bulging with faux anger.

April 25 2016: I suspect that come 2020, if he hasn’t been impeached by then, Trump will have learned that walls built to keep people in are far more effective than those that keep them out. So expect in his next campaign a promise to build more beautiful walls. This time they’ll be rectangular, and full of bars. “Round’em up – lock’em up”. That’ll go down well with his supporters, I would imagine.

May 11 2017: In my experience, firing people, especially when they are part of an organisation that is under stress, can cause a further dip in morale even if the firing was justified. People wonder who’s next, and take steps to cover their backsides. If the firing is done as a demonstration of power – management by thunderbolt as I call it – the danger is that those who have independence of thought, initiative and creativity either leave, or form disgruntled cells of resistance. Those who remain in power are the yes-men (and women).

May 13 2017: I’ve often heard it said that for the Republican leadership, power, and the interests of the party, are more important than the national interest. If this is true – and it needs to be said that it’s certainly not the case with some senior figures such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham – then it’s easy to understand why, from their standpoint, getting rid of Trump might feel like turkeys voting for Christmas. (Clearly I misread Mr Graham at the time)

May 15 2017: Imagine a day in the life of the unfortunate Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff. Surrounded by a web of poisonous relationships between scheming courtiers who hate each other. Walking corridors where staff nervously eye their mobile phones, occasionally muttering “POTUS is tweeting again…Jesus!” Constantly dealing with outrage and confusion over Trump’s utterances, and fending off lawsuits triggered by his flawed executive orders. Bombshells to the left and tantrums to the right.

May 16 2017: Since Trump became president, the echo chamber, full of the sweet sounds of reason, has started to feel like a pressure cooker. The voices of reason were sounding like angry wasps trapped in a fish bowl. Over the past couple of weeks, since the Comey firing, the wasps have turned into buzz-saws. And now, with the allegations about Trump playing fast and loose with America’s most sensitive intelligence, the buzz-saws are morphing into swarms of shrieking harpies.

June 7 2017: I fear that from now onwards we shall have to endure both styles of discourse: politicians like (Theresa) May being clear and saying nothing, and incontinent orators like (Boris) Johnson and Donald Trump saying the first things that come into their heads in incoherent lumps of brown, disconnected verbiage.

June 23 2017: For this avid follower of the Trumpian madhouse, one moment of sublime comedy has changed my perception of the president’s utterances forever. After Andy Serkis’s appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show, I will never again be able to read a Trump tweet without filtering it through the voice of Gollum.

June 30 2017: The most extraordinary aspect of Scaramucci’s stunning impact on the US political stage is that to me at least – and most likely to the vast majority of people like me who watch the reality show from afar – his existence was unknown a week ago. It’s as if some TV producer invented him for Trump’s benefit and our amusement, like some new character parachuted into the Truman Show, or a contestant inserted into Love Island half-way through the series. What’s next? Caligula’s horse? The Terminator? Coco the Clown? Your guess is as good as mine. One thing’s for sure, if he continues to recruit such colourful characters, Trump will put Broadway out of business.

January 15 2018: Theoretically, Donald Trump can bring the world’s economy to its knees with a serious misstep. He can also trigger conflict in any number of regions without directly involving his country. It’s some consolation that he is constrained from precipitate action by separation of powers enshrined in the US constitution. His freedom to act is also curbed by the growing counter-weight of China and Russia. But his ability to take the ultimate step – to spark a nuclear war and thereby wipe out most of humanity – is not so constrained in the event of an imminent threat – whether real or imagined. Which is why we should be pleased that every incoherent rant and tweet increases the likelihood that the person who really does have a button on their desk will think extremely carefully before pressing it.

February 15: If the top secret organisations are indeed using time travel, I’m surprised they haven’t lifted The Saviour out of Nazareth on an assignment to bring forth the End of Days. That would certainly appeal to Mike Pence. However, I suspect that JC would be so horrified by his gun-toting, immigrant-hating, camels-passing-through-the-eye-of-a needle American disciples that he’d make a quick getaway back to Gethsemane. Should time travel already have been invented, you can certainly bet on Trump controlling it rather than the Democrats.

April 4 2018: I suppose the fact that the “leader of the free world” hasn’t yet graduated from venomous tweets and blunderbuss lawsuits to more extreme tactics is some cause for comfort. Leaking is a chequered profession, but who knows? Perhaps a leaker will end up bringing down the President. Plenty more to come on Donald Trump, I suspect.

April 15 2018: When the real president is spewing his narcissistic vomit on Twitter, firing his staff like a medieval potentate, causing fear and uncertainty both within his own country and outside it, and pandering to every special interest prepared to grease his palm with campaign dollars, it’s comforting to think that there might be another way, even if it’s in the imagination of a TV scriptwriter. (From a review of Designated Survivor)

July 13 2018: Yesterday, as I was strolling through a leafy side street in north London, the air filled with the kind of low-frequency music you sometimes hear coming from a car with high spec sound system, throbbing with menace. Shortly afterwards, the source of the noise came into view: two black helicopters, each the size of London buses. Down below, a couple of builders working on a house refurbishment, stopped, looked up and pointed. “Oi, look”, one of them yelled, “it’s fucking Trump. Shoot the bastard down!”

December 2 2018: The next juicy bone of contention is the claim by demagogues that overturning Brexit and the ending Trump presidency would result in civil unrest and violence. You would expect such assertions by the likes of and Farage and his US counterparts. But when the same arguments are made by mainstream politicians and commentators, then we have reason to be concerned.

Part 2 will appear shortly. I bet you can’t wait.

Political bias at the BBC? Perish the thought.

Roadkill is an average-to-good political drama about a corrupt and adulterous Conservative politician who wants to privatise Britain’s National Health Service, a very touchy subject given the nation’s adulation of our healthcare workers.

No matter that the current government is outsourcing everything it can relating to the coronavirus pandemic, preferably to businesses owned by supporters, who thereby multiply their turnovers and profits many times.

David Hare, who wrote Roadkill, is well known for his scathing “state of the nation” plays. Now, according to The Times, Richard Sharp, whom the government has chosen as the next chairman of the BBC, has his own take on the corporation’s political impartiality, or lack of it. He says about Roadkill:

David Hare as a writer is not considered to be impartial. In producing those four episodes of Roadkill, with Conservative villains, that was a partial view that could influence people in the way they view the Conservative Party.

Well yes, the same could have been said about House of Cards (the British version), featuring a corrupt and murderous Tory politician. Yet I don’t recall anyone at the time complaining about political bias.

More recently, The Thick of It, about a government communications team led by Malcolm Tucker, a foul-mouthed maniac, didn’t lead to complaints about bias against the Labour Party, despite the fact that the central character was said to be inspired by Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s chief of communications.

Presumably we shall still be allowed to laugh at politics and politicians, but under the new regime, if the assumption is that we poor babies are unable to distinguish fact from fiction in “serious” drama, we’re in dangerous territory.

What Mr Sharp, who until recently was a senior partner in Goldman Sachs, seems to have failed to notice is that almost all political drama is biased one way or another. The best playwrights always have a view. That’s why they’re the best.

So if the new chairman believes that the BBC should only show impartial political drama, that suggests that he wants the BBC to avoid the genre altogether. Or perhaps they should include trigger warnings, such as:

This programme contains scenes of sleaze, sexual misconduct, corruption and political bias that some Conservative voters might find distressing.

That should sort it. Otherwise, his BBC could end up being a dreary repository for reality shows, true crime, natural history documentaries, dramas about long-dead monarchs and all the sport that other channels don’t want to show. No room for Berthold Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein or David Hare. Nor, for that matter, for re-runs of I’m Alright Jack (a 50’s classic starring Peter Sellars, pictured above, as a union boss) or the collected wisdom of Alf Garnett, whose every second word would be expunged before we were allowed to re-visit him today. And satire? Heaven forbid.

I hate to say this, but if Mr Sharp’s words haven’t been reported out of context, his chairmanship doesn’t bode well for the inventive, risk-taking side of the BBC, which was already on the wane because of relentless criticism by the corporation’s political masters.

From now onwards, we will probably have to look to other channels for the likes of Cathy Come Home, Our Friends in the North, Edge of Darkness and so forth.

Must stop now. Mrs Brown’s Boys is on. Courtesy of the BBC of course.

Corona Diaries: vaccines – in the absence of facts, feelings take control

As I sat this morning draining my second cup of coffee, I came across an article on the front page of The London Times. It was about how if you’ve had COVID, you have an 85% chance of being immune to reinfection – for the time being at least. That, apparently, gives you a better chance of staying well, (assuming of course that you are well) than the AstraZeneca vaccine, two doses of which give you 62% immunity.

The article also refers to the Pfizer vaccine:

“Although the Pfizer Vaccine has a headline efficacy rate of 95 per cent, that figure is based on symptomatic infections alone, so the mildest cases were ignored.”

Good news then, that after gasping for breath in hospital, or suffering from various agonies at home, you’re unlikely to have to go through the same thing again.

But what about the rest of us, quivering with fear at the prospect that every letter or parcel we receive at home might be impregnated by those nasty little bugs that are just waiting for the chance to infect us? Or that the bananas we buy at the supermarket might also be lethal?

It seems that we must put up with uncertainty that arises out of the fact that we simply don’t know as much about the effect of the vaccines as we do, for example, about the flu and polio jabs. That’s because these vaccines are new, and we haven’t had time to study their effect outside clinical trials. In the real world, so to speak.

Not that I’m an anti-vaxxer. I would drive fifty miles wearing a Boris Johnson gorilla suit at 3am if offered a jab.

But it does bother me that well-regarded media outlets such as The Times assume so much knowledge among their readers.

Take the AstraZeneca vaccine, for example. When the trial results came through, there was a conclusion reported that a half-dose followed by a full dose would give you 90% immunity. What happened to that claim? And why are we not following that protocol? Also, and this applies to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as well, what happens if you don’t get the second dose within the time specified by the manufacturers? “You’ll probably be fine” seems to be the best answer that our medics can come up with.

Another concern is that that if the information in The Times is correct, even after getting the AstraZeneca jab, you still have two chances in five of catching the virus. Not exactly a licence to let your grandchildren slobber over you, or to hug the postman. Still, better than having no immunity. And as experts point out, a better immunity than you get from the flu jab. As someone who has been having the flu jab for years and hasn’t succumbed to a dose for as long as I remember (he says, tightly grabbing the wooden table at which he sits), I find that quite comforting.

But if I was a betting man, I would find 9-1 against getting COVID after the Pfizer jab a good deal more comforting than the 3-2 odds offered by AstraZeneca. The question then arises whether, if one had the choice, one would be better off waiting longer for the Pfizer jab, which is more expensive and difficult to store for any length of time, than for the AstraZeneca jab, which is cheaper, of which we have more doses ordered and can be kept in the fridge. A trade-off between availability and efficacy, it seems, with the little matter of cost thrown in.

Anyway, that decision is being made for us by our all-knowing government.

But turning to the Pfizer vaccine, Tom Whipple’s article in The Times raises more questions. What does “headline efficacy” mean? And if the 95% figure excludes asymptomatic infections, what is the efficacy rate for ALL infections? Which then leads us to ask whether the same trial protocols were followed for the AstraZeneca jab. Does their result also exclude mild infections? And how do we define “mild” as opposed to “severe”?

At which point, it seems, one has three choices. Become an expert in immunology and clinical trials, which takes a while. Succumb to derangement and start burrowing down into conspiracy theories. Or simply stop asking questions and trust Dr Fauci and Sir Chris Whitty.

None of these options feel particularly attractive, but feeling has nothing to do with it. It’s facts that matter, though when facts are absent or hard to determine, the space they leave is rapidly filled by emotions. Especially when you sometimes get the impression, no doubt unfairly, that our experts appear to be only one step ahead of the rest of us.

The reality would seem to be “give me the bloody vaccine”, and, as the government recommends, behave as though we haven’t had the jab.

Or to put it another way: “Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition”.

Brexit Diaries: the banana worm has turned

One might as well refer to the confluence of problems facing the United Kingdom at the moment as Covexit. Or possibly BREXID. I say this because our politicians rarely miss the opportunity to wriggle out of accepting responsibility for the one by blaming the other.

I take no pleasure from the struggles of Scottish fishermen in their attempt to export their fish in the face of a welter of paperwork, sanitation checks and certification requirements so onerous that our beautiful lobsters and langoustines are no longer edible by the time they’ve been through the bureaucratic mill. Nor do I take lightly the supermarket shelves devoid of the fruit and vegetables we need to keep us healthy. Just a glitch, says Michael Gove, our Minister in Charge of Lots of Stuff. Soon be sorted out once everyone gets used to the new rules. Which implies that it’s all our fault for being thick idiots, not the government’s for making this nonsense necessary in the first place.

I am, of course, desperate for everything to work out. I’m sad at the prospect of so many people losing their jobs, which of course will be all down to COVID, not Brexit. I’m sick to my stomach at the massive dive in our Gross Domestic Product, which again is all down to COVID, not Brexit. I raise more than one eyebrow at the fact that one quarter of my country has become a political chimera, neither out nor in, and that if I want to send a parcel to Northern Ireland, I need a customs declaration. Also the possibility that Scotland, another major component, wants to be out, and therefore in.

But I can’t help a little giggle at the video of Dutch customs officers ordering drivers to surrender their breakfast before entering the Netherlands, because EU regulations prohibit the import of foodstuffs (apart from those that have been waiting a century to be stamped and certified). So the unfortunate truckers were required to leave their tuna sandwiches, neatly wrapped in foil, on a table by the inspection hut before heading off into the continent. “Welcome to Brexit” said the officer. Did his eyes betray a slight smirk?

It makes me smile because our Prime Minister spent years as a journalist in Brussels concocting mendacious stories about EU regulations, such as how burdensome it was that we were being required to reject any bananas that didn’t fit the EU-approved dimensions. Which, along with much else he wrote, was utter bollocks.

So now we can enjoy the delicious irony that after years of being able to import any shape of banana we want, anything we want to bring into the EU on a casual basis, be it tuna sandwiches, pork pies, scotch eggs, or simple snacks for the kids, is being treated as a potential health hazard, as if the English variant of COVID isn’t enough.

Presumably it works the same way in the other direction, which will mean that we can no longer stuff smelly cheeses, garlic stalks and foie gras in our bags as reminders of our lovely holidays when returning to Britain from France. I fully expect British customs officials soon to be brandishing cheese sniffers to catch Camembert violations. A far more heinous offence than accidentally smuggling a migrant who has snuck themselves into some obscure part of our car.

So you could argue that the bendy banana myth has come back to haunt us. Or, to put it another way, the banana-shaped worm has turned.

Welcome to Brexit, as the friendly Dutchman said.

A culture of paranoia: for every West Wing, there are ten Houses of Cards

Try as I might, I find it hard to detach myself from the firestorm of opinion, paranoia, recrimination and fear sweeping across the United States in the run-up to Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Reading and watching all the stuff being said and shown about last Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol, you’d think that the whole thing was a surprise – something unheard of, let alone anticipated. In fact, it seems to me that Americans have been rehearsing such an event in their imagination for some time now.

Think of all the apocalyptic movies and TV series in which sinister forces wreak destruction on the established order. Starting with Dr Strangelove, in which a rogue general nukes Russia, in the movies we have the Manchurian Candidate, Absolute Power, Olympus Has Fallen and any number of other movies featuring conspiracies, evil presidents and coups d’etat.

Then we have all the TV series which explore these subjects more slowly. House of Cards, Homeland and a series that comes closest to anticipating the Capitol insurrection. In Designated Survivor, which I reviewed under the heading of Blissful Evenings with the AntiTrump a couple of years ago, the sinister forces actually get to blow the building up during a joint session of Congress, decapitating the government and leaving Keifer Sutherland’s mild-mannered Tom Kirkman, a junior cabinet secretary, to pick up the pieces.

Only Kirkman and the saintly Josiah Bartlett in The West Wing offer an antidote to the stream of chaos and subversion.

Which came first, I wonder? The paranoia or the product? Or did the one feed the other to produce a spiral of anxiety? For sure, those movies and series have left their mark on the public conscious. Tweets, videos and speeches since Trump became president could almost be the product of Hollywood script writers, full of warlike phrases that could just as easily have come from the mouth of Gerard Butler in 300, the movie in which the Spartans take on the might of the Persian army at Thermopylae.

Much of the really hairy rhetoric started after 9/11 convinced the current generation of Americans that their nightmares can actually come true. Aided by the internet, conspiracy theories took wing, and the likes of Homeland convinced us that they really are out to get us, whoever “they” might be.

Now Americans, and the rest of us to some extent, are quite prepared to think the unthinkable. Which brings us to the inauguration, and the days leading up to it. We’re told that there will be further actions in the next week, including protests not only in Washington but at every statehouse in the country.

That being the case, if you were conspiracy-minded and believed that Trump’s recent appointees in the Defence Department connived in the slow response to last Wednesday’s pitch invasion, and that active members of the military, police and fire departments took part, you might wonder how Biden can be kept safe as he stands at the podium to take the oath of office.

Those glass screens would no doubt stop a sniper’s bullet. But what if a couple of rogue fighter pilots in F-16s armed with Sidewinder missiles took it upon themselves to blast Biden and the assembled throng to smithereens? What provisions are in place to prevent such an occurrence? Will the Capitol be equipped with surface-to-air missiles? And how can the organisers be sure that the operators will be minded to use them against an incoming threat?

The logical conclusion of such dark thoughts might be that the best way to keep the new president safe would be force Trump to attend, in handcuffs if need be.

Perhaps Jack Ryan is standing by, and Morgan Freeman, the most-battered movie president in history, is standing by to take the reins. But this way lies madness. No doubt the organisers have all the bases covered.

That said, isn’t it remarkable, and symptomatic of the age, that the scenarios played out on-screen should have so colonised the minds of once-rational people that they feel that they’re living in a movie, and in many cases can’t distinguish between fact and fiction?

Once an element of calm is re-established, and America emerges both from Trump madness and the ravages of COVID, it will be interesting to see what the TV and movie producers will come up with next. Themes of healing, peace and love, costume dramas from a kinder world?

I doubt it. I suspect that cabals, Bilderbergs and lizards will continue to scurry across our screens. But we live in hope.

Corona Diaries: “the more rules we are given, the less we take responsibility” – discuss.

At the moment of our greatest need, are we in the United Kingdom falling apart faster than we’re pulling together?

During the first lockdown, in The Conclave of the Rule Makers, I fantasised about the British government finding a room somewhere and filling it with rule makers:

Is there a ballroom somewhere in London populated by diligent clerks who agonise over the minutiae? I imagine little screened-off sections – perspex dividers of course, where civil servants labour over the implications of every aspect of our lives. The thought of having so much control over what we can do and what we can’t do must send some into raptures. The kind of control we’ve dreamed about. Others are probably appalled.

So I imagine there’s a One Metre Section, a Granny Hugging Department, an Orgies and Bacchanalia Team (behind opaque Perspex, of course), a Prohibited Sports Group and, occupying at least half of the ballroom, A Quarantine and Travel Directorate.

Such a gathering of rule-makers has probably not been seen since the Jewish sages of Babylon laboured over years to produce the Talmud – 2,700 pages of regulations that dictate every aspect of the lives of the faithful.

No doubt those folks are still beavering away, but I suspect they’ve now turned their attention to another urgent task: classification.

As we slowly went up the gears from Tier 1 to Tier 4, I wondered whether the government would have to introduce Tier 4.5, or Tier 5, or Tier 5(a) and Tier 5(b). Lockdown Version 3 hardly seems an adequate way to categorise the current situation.

Indeed, the Mayor of London, faced with hospitals on his patch full to bursting, with the prospect of people dying in parked-up ambulances and on trollies in corridors, has decided to up the ante by declaring a Critical Incident.

This means that he can call upon additional support, including financial assistance, to deal with the crisis facing London. I’m not sure what the Classification Department thinks of that phrase. If they include in their ranks pedantic folk like me, they might observe that something described as a critical incident should be just that: a single incident that warrants immediate attention. Something like a sinkhole opening up under the financial district, or a terrorist attack, or an imminent visit from President Trump.

Actually, what London is facing right now, and quite possibly other regions in the very near future, could best be described as an emergency, in which every inhabitant, whether they know it or not, is in danger. That includes those who have had the virus, or been inoculated. Coronavirus antibodies don’t protect you from car crashes, cancer and a host of other conditions that might cause you to seek hospital treatment. If there are no staff to treat you because they’re all trying to save those who are gasping for breath in COVID wards, you are still in danger.

Since the received wisdom seems to be that the key to heading off the current emergency is public buy-in as well as yet more regulations, we don’t seem to be doing as well as we were during the first lockdown. We’re confused by the tiers and the rules. The terse three-word slogans are no longer having an impact except to annoy us.

The evidence that might convince us of the seriousness of the situation is tightly controlled by the communications apparatus both of central government and the NHS trusts. Watch the news and you will see queues of ambulances waiting to drop patients into hospitals, but if you see the same footage every day for a week, it loses its impact. And besides, not everyone watches the news, because many find it too depressing.

Then there’s the disconnect between lived reality and what we’re continually told, both on TV and radio, and in the form of desperate and poignant social media messages from beleaguered health workers.

In my Surrey hometown, my wife and I try and take a walk every day in a circuit around the town. If you saw the unceasing procession of cars and commercial traffic passing through the town, you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was all about. All I can say is that the good people of Surrey must be choosing to place a very wide interpretation on the meaning of “essential travel only”.

I shall not cite the COVID deniers here, because they are beneath contempt. I suspect that most of the people out and about are taking the view that they will interpret the rules in terms of the maximum number of normal activities that they can get away with. That includes parents minding kids who are still thronging the playground in the park. That playground was closed during the first lockdown. Yet today – despite official warnings that the mutated virus is increasingly infecting the young – it’s open.

I don’t blame parents, nor do I blame people who think that going to the municipal tip comes under the heading of essential travel. There are enough people in the media and on the street who are busy pointing fingers. I don’t intend to join them. What we need now is not carping but sensible action.

Particularly, we need better communications that take into account that we’re tired of categories, tiers, confusing and inconsistent regulation and rage-inducing slogans.

We also need better communications with those who are awaiting the vaccine. Where are we in the queue, how many people in one each priority category have been vaccinated? When can we expect our jab? Even call centres, the bane of our normal lives, tell us where we are in the call queue. I don’t expect to be told that there are 3,027,354 people ahead of me for the vaccine. But it would be nice to get some sort of assurance from time to time that the line is getting shorter.

I do believe that the government is doing its best to mobilise resources that can deliver the vaccine in the shortest possible time. I also agree with its priority list. But if it wants us to keep calm and carry on, it needs to find better ways to overcome our crisis fatigue.

It’s not an easy task, especially when every effort to convince us of the seriousness of the situation becomes a hostage to its past shortcomings. Weasel words such as “deaths within 28 days of a COVID diagnosis” only serve to make some of us doubt the statistics, since the definition gives us leave to ask whether all the deaths reported are really down to COVID.

Perhaps we need to be introduced to the concept of run rate. If we continue to lose 1,300 people to the virus every day for the next year, we would have just short of half a million deaths. And if there are more deaths unrelated to COVID but resulting from the inability of the NHS to treat other conditions effectively, that number would be even higher.

Provided that the vaccines work as claimed, and that the government succeeds with it’s mass vaccination project, it’s unlikely that deaths in the next year will be in that order of magnitude. But it would surely concentrate our minds if we realised the implications of the current levels of infection.

So what can be done to pierce the fog of communications? And how can we ensure that the public health rules are seen to be reasonable and even-handed?

On the communications front, perhaps we would be better off hearing less from the politicians, and more from the professionals who can give us unvarnished facts rather than polished but unreliable expectations of the future. That means less of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and company, and more of Jonathan Van Tam. In other words, less of “today I can announce…” and more of “here is the situation today”. If the politicians decide to change policy, they should announce this though a separate platform from the daily press conference. The daily show should focus on facts, not emotions.

Likewise, public information ads should avoid treating us as children. Less of the one-syllable slogans, less scary ads showing pictures of NHS staff in masks and visors glowering at the camera in a sinister half-light. We need persuading, not nudging or intimidating.

As for the rules, we should clearly distinguish between guidance and legal requirements. Where a rule is mandatory, it should be capable of being enforced. And enforcement should not be left to the discretion of individual police forces. If there are too many circumstantial variants to be covered by a rule, there should be no rule. This should avoid situations such as the fining of two women out for a walk by Derbyshire Police because they happen to have driven more than five miles from their homes, while others in different parts of the country travel far further with impunity.

The government needs to realise that they cannot cover every eventuality with rules. For one person, visiting Tesco every day might be an “essential purpose” even if they come away with nothing more than a can of dog food, because their mental health might depend on some form of contact with the outside world. For others (like me for example), staying at home is no problem.

To put it another way, one person’s essential purpose is another person fancying a takeaway, visiting the DIY store or going to the municipal recycling centre. An understandable desire to stop the economy collapsing directly conflicts with the uncompromising demands of public health. The result is confusion, frustration and constant testing of the limits of authority.

The more rules our rulers impose, the more exceptions and loopholes will arise. Hence the lawyer-inspired efforts of Dominic Cummings to justify his dash to Barnard Castle.

So I suggest that Boris Johnson disbands his notional ballroom full of rule-makers before they disappear up their backsides. He should limit rules to the minimum required to have the maximum effect. He should focus, in the simplest possible terms, on the objectives to be achieved and the personal behaviour required to achieve them. He should then rely on common sense to do the rest.

If honest persuasion, unvarnished facts and common sense don’t do the trick, then we shall have no reason to resent an overbearing government, and every reason to blame ourselves. Because although the government, our scientists and our employers play a part, ultimately the responsibility for surviving the current crisis rests with us, to the limits of our motivation.

Do we need rules? Of course. In an age of fake news and conspiracy theories, common sense isn’t a universal commodity. But with all due respect to my Jewish friends, I would rather we relied on ten commandments than a Talmud.

Nearly gone

Well Mr President, as you predicted, it was indeed wild, not to say feral.

There are times when I start writing something for this blog without much of an idea about what I’m going to say, but knowing that I have to say something anyway.

This – after a bunch of rioters whom Ivanka Trump calls “patriots” occupied and trashed the US Capitol buildings – is one of those occasions. Will Wednesday’s event turn out to be one of those “I remember where I was when…” moments, on a par with 9/11, Kennedy’s assassination and, for the oldest of the old, Pearl Harbour?

For me, the answer is probably yes. The difference between recent events and the earlier traumas was that millions watched on TV as the Twin Towers went down, and likewise as a mob stormed the Capitol.

Anyway, my first impression, as CNN showed a few hundred rioters, protesters, call them what you will, going berserk in the heart of America’s democracy, was that this was not a coup. If it had been, it was a pathetic and incompetent effort.

A real coup would have involved shutting down TV, radio and the internet, arrests of prominent politicians and occupation of federal departments including intelligence agencies and the FBI. Tanks on the streets, troops on the ground and drones in the sky.

Or perhaps I’m old-fashioned in my thinking, and all it takes these days is a few Vikings aided and abetted by troops on the ground dressed like robocops. Though it might suit rhetorical purposes to describe what happened as a coup, even the most desperate of banana republics would surely have managed something more effective.

But goodness, the TV coverage was compelling. The day began with the results of the Georgia election, followed by the certification ceremony (because that was what it should have been) in Congress. The contrast between the ponderous proceedings in the Capitol and the antics of the barbarians at the gate could hardly have been more striking. Even as members of Congress droned on, CNN would cut away to the wave of chaos heading towards the debating chambers.

To most Americans, the sight of armed security guards barricading the doors to the House of Representatives chamber, trashed offices and people with hoodies and MAGA hats stalking the corridors would be shocking. To an outside observer like me, the whole thing seemed faintly ridiculous. For all the huffing, puffing and expressions of outrage from commentators, the motley crew who broke into the building looked like a cross between NASCAR fans and Glastonbury revellers.

Things quickly became deadly, and the farce turned into something far darker. If you wanted at that stage to start wondering about a coup, you might ask why the police guarding the Capitol let the mob inside. Were they complicit or were they just shitting themselves? Also, why did it take several hours, and the intervention of Mike Pence, to trigger the deployment of National Guard detachments? Was this a deliberate delay by Trump, or organisational paralysis? Expect an inquiry on this when Biden takes office.

What of Trump? Will he be removed as unfit for office under the 25th Amendment? Unlikely, unless he does something else similarly outrageous in the next 12 days. Pence apparently won’t hear of it, and anyway cabinet members who would need to approve such an action are busy resigning. Will he be impeached? Possible, though 16 Republican senators would need to vote for it. Since they would then become perpetual enemies of Trump’s seething base, it’s hard to imagine there would be that many volunteers.

Assuming Trump manages to cling on to office until January 20th, one can only hope that nobody gives him the slightest excuse to drop a nuclear bomb on them.

In case we in the United Kingdom are enjoying a welcome distraction from lockdown by watching events in Washington with a mixture of sanctimonious horror and a vestigial sense of superiority, we should remember that we are not immune from such interventions. Admittedly it’s a few centuries since Oliver Cromwell and his soldiers booted out the Rump Parliament. But only a couple of years ago climate change protesters staged a naked demonstration in the visitor’s gallery of the House of Commons.

And it’s not so long ago that Michael Heseltine, aka Tarzan, seized the ceremonial mace, the symbol of parliamentary authority, and waved it around as you would a baseball bat. Trump’s rioters would have been pretty proud of such a gesture, had there been a mace for them to wave (as opposed to mace for them to inhale). Instead, they had to make do with lecterns.

One difference, I think, between the democracies of the US and Britain is that Americans speak of their system in quasi-religious language. Words like “sacred” and “hallowed” trip easily off the tongues of presidents and congressional speechmakers. As you would have noticed if you watched the certification, there was even a chaplain who said a prayer at the end of the session.

We, on the other hand, have plenty of religious flummery built into our system. We have an established church. We’re only too happy to invoke the deity when a ceremonial occasion demands it. Yet I don’t see the same reverence accorded to our democratic values. We’re not one nation under God. As Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s head of communications, once famously said of his party: “we don’t do God”. Certainly we would never regard our flawed system of government as divinely ordained. Nor would we consider an invasion of our houses of parliament as sacrilege.

Anyway, in a few day’s time Joe Biden will swear the oath of office with his hand on a bible. America’s worst ever president will be gone, Deo Gratias. Trump, in his presidential-mode address yesterday, finally acknowledged that reality, albeit without congratulating or even naming the new president.

Before that happens, I suspect that there will be plenty of interesting moments. Recriminations, more resignations, possible impeachment, arrests of rioters and Donald Trump distributing pardons for crimes on the part of his leading acolytes that have not yet been identified. Perhaps even for himself. Not since the issuance of papal indulgences will we see pardoning on such a scale, though as far as I’m aware even the Borgia Pope stopped short of pardoning himself.

I would like to think that the world will pay less attention to the Orange Monster once he hands over the nuclear suitcase and heads for Florida. Personally, I find his demise profoundly satisfying, even if the poison he has spread will remain. I did a quick count of the number of times I either wrote about or referred to him in this blog over the past five years. It comes to 174 articles. I can’t think of a single one in which I portrayed him as anything other than a permutation of villainous, stupid, ridiculous, incompetent or deranged.

It’s unlikely that he will fade away, but if there’s a silver lining to Wednesday’s events, it will perhaps be that Americans who are not brainwashed by his bullshit will reflect on the dangers of electing a charlatan like him again.

Onwards and upwards, America. A new era awaits. And now that I’m about to be released from my vow not to visit you as long as Trump is president, I look forward to seeing you again soon. If you’ll have me, that is.

Brexit Diaries: no bang, no whimper, just a sigh

The final act of Brexit came to pass yesterday when a portly politician with scarecrow hair and a sly smirk signed a piece of paper. There will be no parties, no fireworks. For most of us, whatever we think about Brexit, the dominant expression will be a sigh of relief that we’re spared the unnecessary torment of no deal.

It’s hard to imagine that the most significant political development in Britain’s post-war history would end up as a minor key change in a symphony of agony, despair and fragile hope, as ambulances line up outside packed hospitals waiting to deliver their patients, news bulletins announce frightening statistics and worried people around the country mutter through gritted teeth “just give me the bloody vaccine”.

A couple of decades ago, I co-owned a business that employed people in seven of the countries that still belong to the European Union. I shudder to think of the impact Brexit would have had on our ability to run such a business. Fortunately, I shall never have to find out. Even then, it was hard enough to keep subsidiaries on the right side, not only of the laws in the countries where they were based, but of the overarching regulations coming from Brussels.

But the grief that could only be overcome by armies of lawyers and accountants was always made worthwhile by the joy of visits to Dublin, Helsinki, Grenoble, Budapest, Rome, Brussels, Den Haag, Stuttgart and other cities where our colleagues worked.

That was then. If then had been now, perhaps we would muddled through, at the expense of a few grey hairs and strong dose of financial engineering. I’m glad we didn’t have to go through what thousands of businesses are dealing with now.

I suspect that for the next few months, after we’ve endured the inevitable stream of reports from borders, interviews with business owners and platitudes from officials in the wake of January 1st, things will calm down somewhat.

At the very least, I hope that the self-important ultra-Brexit faction in Parliament, who ridiculously refer to themselves as Spartans but whom I think of as Pharisees, will now revert to silence as they tend to their hedge funds.

The news media will be anxious to find stories in which COVID is not the main actor. No doubt there will be a steady drip of businesses bankrupted, jobs lost and people pissed off at the inconveniences caused by the sudden disappearance of privileges we took for granted – all those harmonised processes that made, for example, coming, going and working within the EU relatively straightforward. But we’ll get used to hearing of other people’s misfortunes, just as we have become desensitised to the deaths of hundreds of people every day at the hands of a rampant virus.

I find it rather poignant that people, such as the historian Simon Schama, who are urging the start of campaigns to return to the EU (I suppose we have to call them Rejoiners now) are of an age that makes it unlikely that they will live to see their wishes fulfilled. I’m probably one of them, but I prefer to wait and see what the EU becomes in the next few years before I take my elderly knees to the streets.

We’ll get used to Brexit, even if some of us will never get over it. Besides, at the moment we have more pressing concerns. So I suspect that it will only be after we emerge, immunised and relieved, from the pandemic, that we survey the wreckage and ask ourselves how much of it we’ve inflicted on ourselves. Perhaps we’ll grieve for what we’ve lost. But we will adjust, and slowly pre-Brexit and pre-pandemic will become a matter of historic interest and nostalgia rather than vivid memory.

And hey, we’re not at war, the sea level hasn’t yet rendered our flood defences useless. Before too long, barring another monster variant, we’ll be able to venture out again without looking around to see who’s watching us, behave badly with impunity, gather together without distance between us, shake hands, hug, eat together, visit the countries we’ve missed. We, the lucky ones, that is.

As I write this, out on our patio our resident robin is back, checking out the dormant roses. A welcome sign of continuity.

Thanks to everyone who’s visited this blog in 2020, especially to those of you who have taken the trouble to comment on stuff you’ve read. I’m sorry that much of what I’ve posted has hardly been filled with relentless optimism. Also that so much of my attention has been focused on a political side-show in my country when so much of greater long-term significance is going on elsewhere.

If the pandemic brings any reason to cheer, it’s because it’s given us, whether we’re in Antarctica or Albania, a common experience that reminds us of what we share and value as human beings. And the efforts of scientists of many nationalities who work beyond borders are offering us a way out of the nightmare. They also offer us an antidote to small-minded nationalism everywhere.

Wherever we are, we’ve made it thus far, and even if this year ends with a sigh, it’s in our nature to hope for better things to come.

Happy New Year, stay safe and see you on the other side.

Brexit Diaries: swimming with icebergs

I’ve never been one for cold-water swimming. At least, not in my advanced years. When I was a kid, I would happily jump into the sea on family holidays in north Wales. A couple of minutes and the water’s lovely. But now? No thanks.

I do, however, have a family member, just a couple of years younger than me, who’s so crazy about cold water that she has a contraption in her garden, bigger than a bath but smaller than a proper pool with jets at one end that enable her to swim without moving forward. Any opportunity she gets to jump into the icy waters of a lake or river she gleefully takes.

It seems that when you first immerse yourself in freezing water you nearly die of shock. But over repeated immersions you get used to it and it becomes, lord help us, a source of joy. Not to mention good for you in some bizarre way.

So, it appears to me, it has been with Brexit, though joy is unlikely to be the end result, nor any apparent benefit. When the nation decided that we should leave the European Union in 2016 the shock, to me, was equivalent to being chucked into a hole cut into a frozen Finnish lake. Except that there was no sauna waiting on the shore to warm me up. Year after year I’ve ranted and raved about all the things that we would lose as the result of the decision. Things more fundamental and intangible than the loss of a pet’s passport. A sense of belonging, of community, of being more than the citizen of a small island.

Every time my hopes were dashed that we might be able to reverse the decision through a second referendum or a general election, it felt like being plunged back into that hole in the lake. And, of course, with every plunge the cold didn’t seem so traumatic. The reason was that I was becoming resigned to the inevitable. Until 2020, that process was gradual, and while it happened I couldn’t forget the false promises made in 2016 by leavers like Johnson and Gove, who told us about sunlit uplands, membership of the single market and customs union, regaining sovereignty and taking back control. Having our cake and eating it, in other words.

I didn’t believe them then, but enough people bought the bullshit to swing the vote in favour of leaving.

Now we have a deal. Those old promises are being relentlessly recycled by die-hard remainers to remind us how far this deal falls short of what we were promised, yet nobody seems to care. The dominant feeling is of relief that we shall be spared the consequences of no-deal in the midst of a pandemic.

Of course, as the Sun might say, it’s the pandemic wot won it. Lockdowns, mass deaths, fear, loneliness and national depression have dulled our sensitivity to what is being done on our name in order to leave the European Union. Life could hardly be more crap than it has been over the past year, could it? The coronavirus has put into the shade all the negative consequences of Brexit, and led us to a dull acceptance that any deal is better than no deal.

Would we have been much better off if the virus had struck a Britain that had opted to remain? Unlikely. But what COVID has done is to blur any vision, good or bad, that we might have of the future. As members of the EU, we might have thought that we could look forward to a communal future in which the damage caused by the pandemic would be shared with our fellow members.

But now the future is doubly uncertain. We don’t know how our relationship with the EU will unfold, and we don’t know what the post-COVID world will look like. On Brexit, my favourite Brummie lawyer, David Allen Green, who posts a daily tweet on the legal aspects of the process, speaks thus:

Brexit has ended not with a bang, but with this whimper of an agreement Which means, in turn, Brexit has not ended – and will never end. Brexit will now be an everlasting cycle of negotiations and renegotiations from a UK position of structural weakness. What a waste of time.

Lord Adonis, a Labour politician, added:

Fully agree with this assessment. This isn’t a stable trade deal… this is a rolling, patchy framework designed to be incomplete on services & manage fights over divergence with some aggressive (nuclear) options. It is a framework for ongoing battles – and all to EU advantage.

They may or may not be right. Only time will tell. But it does amaze me that Boris Johnson had the nerve to present his deal to us as his Christmas present, as if, in the middle of a catastrophe, we should be grateful for being saved from a further catastrophe that would have been of his own making. We are being manipulated.

It would be wrong to blame Johnson for all the ills that COVID has brought upon us. But we should, objectively and subject to the rule of law, hold him and his government to account for their actions this year, particularly in terms of the speed of response, the unachievable promises, the lies and possible illegality around the procurement of PPE. That examination will have to wait until all the facts are known, assuming they’re ever allowed to be known.

Brexit, however, is on him, and on us, who allowed it to happen. I hope we make a success of it, though I fear that if we prosper over the next few years it will be despite rather than because of leaving the EU. Most likely we will never know, because only on Twitter and in the mind of Donald Trump do parallel universes exist for us to visit and find out.

But at least we’re all now used to the joys of cold-water swimming, because with each immersion the memory of that first jump into the frozen water fades. We’re used to it, even if we don’t actually enjoy it.

The best you can say is that, to borrow a phrase from Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, we’ve become comfortably numb.

Christmas conspiracies, and the joys of a little red button

Christmas progressed on its pre-ordained path yesterday. A message from the Queen that made me a touch emotional and the King’s College Choir battling for my attention while I was wrestling with the turkey. Ghosts at the table, more food than we could eat, calls to and from relatives,

But if anything served to remind us that this was not a normal Christmas, a call from a friend in the US did just that. She’s a conspiracy-minded Trump supporter, which I guess shows that we don’t cut off from long-time friends because of their batty beliefs. And anyway, it’s good to know a genuine member of a different species. The world, after all, would be the poorer without islands full of Komodo dragons (as above).

Our friend lives in California, so it must have been quite early for her when she called. She was extremely excited because the news had just started spreading over the networks about a camper van that exploded in Nashville, Tennessee. She wanted us to know that this was just the beginning. The beginning of what, I’m not sure, because I wasn’t listening very closely (she was talking to my wife), but I did hear her mumbling about January 6th, so it was pretty easy to guess that it was about Trump.

Has the real Kraken woken? Could we expect similar events in other cities across the US? Would Trump use Nashville and subsequent incidents to declare martial law?

The plot thickened when it emerged that whoever blew up the camper van gave warnings that served to avoid human casualties, just as our beloved IRA did, with varying success, in the 1980s. Even more intriguing was that the van blew up next to an AT&T building. The damage caused phone communications to fall over for a while across the state. Presumably the building housed some kind of hub.

A helpful person on Twitter pointed out that AT&T owns CNN, the perennial scourge of Trump and all his works. Which no doubt will give rise to speculation that this was the reason for the attack. Though I have to wonder why, if that was the case, the owners of the vehicle didn’t choose to drive over to Atlanta and detonate it outside CNN headquarters. After all, Atlanta isn’t that far away, at least in American terms, from Nashville. What’s more, if they’d hit the largest city in Georgia, it would have been a timely warning to the electors of that state not to deviate from the true path in the upcoming run-off senate elections.

Even as I write this, there will surely be conspiracists in the US who will be speculating that the Nashville bomb is a dummy run for other attacks in strategic locations that will bring down the communications networks across the country for long enough to enable Trump to deploy his little green men in state capitals and seize the political commanding heights.

Well, maybe, though I suspect that the American mobile phone and internet infrastructure is strong enough to resist the attention of a few posses with beer bellies and chemistry degrees. What was interesting was that the Nashville police described the explosion as an “intentional” act, as opposed to a terrorist attack, which is a relief, because good ole boys are never terrorists, are they?

Another odd aspect of the incident is that whoever built the device chose to put it in a camper van or, as Americans call them, a recreational vehicle. RVs don’t come cheap, so unless it was stolen, or a decrepit old wreck bought anonymously for a few dollars from someone who rents them out to new-agers at Burning Man, this would seem to be a disgraceful waste of money. At least the old IRA used to steal the shittiest vehicles for their car bombs.

Anyway, this was an interesting diversion on a quiet and rather doleful day. No doubt the truth (yours, mine, the FBI’s or QAnon’s) will out. Until then, there’s surely cause for feeling impressed at the ability of Americans to come up with unorthodox ways of celebrating the festive season.

If I’m treating this event with more levity than it deserves, perhaps that’s because nothing that happens these days in the US seems unusual. It’s almost as if it’s become a nation of big bawling babies screaming for attention. Or am I just characterising an entire country in the image of one big baby?

Which brings us back to Christmas Day, and what a pleasure it was to watch our three-year-old grandson on video playing with his baffling array of new toys without having to witness the inevitable tears as the stimulus became overwhelming and it was time for bed. If I was a miserable old grouch, which of course I’m not, I might reflect that there’s something to be said for a quiet celebration during which all communications that reach the end of their shelf lives can be quelled with a little red button.

The best of times, the worst of times

I can’t imagine that there’s anyone, in Britain at least, who doesn’t feel, as I do, that this is the strangest Christmas. On the radio, festive schmaltz, carols and desperate good cheer. Decorations all over the house with nobody to admire them. A late December wedding postponed because Tier 4 struck in London before my elder daughter and her beloved could make it to the registry office.

A turkey, smaller than usual, ready to undergo its transformation and consumption, but over a longer period than normal because there are only two of us to enjoy it. Presents for our little grandson – whom we won’t see on the day because he would be upset not to be able to come into the house – left outside the front door for our younger daughter to collect.

In Kent, ten thousand lorry drivers stuck on a motorway and in a disused airport, desperate to get home to their families. No supplies, nowhere to defecate other, presumably, than on the side of the road. Hospitals full to bursting while hundreds of thousands of Londoners take to the trains and seed the rest of the country with the mutant virus.

The self-appointed High Pharisee of Brexit, Nigel Farage, popping up like a demented parrot, squawking about deviations from the scriptures, and his allies in Parliament preparing to scour the text of the proposed UK-EU trade agreement for satanic verses. Nicola Sturgeon forced to abase herself in contrition for a COVID rule infringement that ranks somewhere around the bottom of the Barnard Castle Scale.

People separated, alone, fearful. Or not alone, surrounded by nurses and doctors in masks and visors, but not by those they want beside them. The rest of us praying for the text message or letter telling us when to show up for our vaccines. Some of us, nervously glancing to see if any the neighbours are watching, greeting our loved ones outside our front doors or, if the coast is clear, sneaking them in for a few precious minutes.

Sikhs, whose faith-mandated generosity reminds us of the richness of our multi-ethnic society if only we opened our eyes to it, once again taking to their kitchens and providing hot food to those who need it, including to the Italian, Serbian, Turkish, German and Montenegrin truck drivers piled up through no fault of their own in the fields and highways of Kent. Many other acts of kindness no doubt cheering up the lonely and the isolated throughout our plague-blighted villages, towns and cities.

On TV, if you can avoid the ghastly news bulletins, a parallel universe. Mask-free people everywhere. Simon Russell Beale dressed for the summer, exploring the origins of Christmas Carols. A couple of enthusiastic media types wandering around Scotland in search of ancient yew trees, festive food and cathedral bell ringers. And, later today, the Kings College Cambridge choir with their annual carol service.

Avoid the festive stuff and go to the social media, and you’ll find Donald Trump plotting military coups and pardoning war criminals. Examine your Christmas sweater and you might discover that it was made in China. By Uygurs in labour camps, you wonder?

As exhausted diplomats bursting out of their ill-fitting suits prepare to present their handiwork to the politicians, you prepare to decide whether we’ve been betrayed, defeated, narrowly escaped a meltdown or emerged triumphant, our independence secured and our control taken back. Or whether we’re about to see the next episode in a catastrophic act of self-destruction.

Not that any of this is of much relevance to those who eke out an existence of sorts in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, or who wait in Calais for an opportunity to cross the channel in a leaky boat in search of a promised land. Or others across the globe who are picked on or picked off because of their religious and political beliefs, their social status, their gender or simply because they are weak and their oppressors are strong.

Yep, a strange Christmas, and yet not so strange. The difference is that in other years, if we chose to do so, we could safely ignore the perennial contradictions of the festive season and turn inwards for the comfort of family, friends, parties and silly squabbles. Not this year, when so much fear, loneliness and uncertainty sits on our own doorsteps.

And yet those of us who have made it through this epic year can say to ourselves we’re still here, and where there’s life there’s hope. We’ll see you all at Easter. Next Christmas will be very different – a reversion to the norm. So we hope, we pray, though in our hearts perhaps we don’t expect.

And behold! Outside, in my garden, the first daffodils (above) are making their tentative appearance. The solstice is past and the days are getting longer. Reminders that some things are bigger than us, and happen without our permission.

Some will not make it through the next year. Perhaps me. Yet most will do what we always do: make little plans, big plans, dream of better times and try to keep living despite our nightmares.

Those of us who believe in deities will seek comfort from our faith and from those who share it. Some will give comfort too. The rest of us might console ourselves with shared values and a belief in the potential goodness of humanity. Perhaps we’ll burst into tears at a video of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy performed by a musical flash mob in a European city square. Or perhaps we’ll quietly resolve to be kinder, more generous and more willing to forgive each other for our failings in the year to come.

If we’re so inclined, we’ll probably never have a better opportunity to indulge in a few moments of quiet contemplation than during this festive yet not festive season.

Whatever Christmas means to you – a holiday, a sacred time or the enjoyment of festivities of a different religious tradition from your own – I wish you the best of times, even if you’re living in the worst of times.

Brexit Diaries: so long, and thanks for all the fish?

Could it be that our trading relationship with the European Union, hitherto our largest source of exports and imports, is about to be sacrificed on the altar of sovereignty? And that the key exemplar of that sovereignty is access to our waters for the purpose of fishing, when fish account for 0.1% of our gross domestic product?

What a shame nobody asked the fish, who most likely don’t give a fig whether they end their days in the fishing nets of British, French or Spanish trawlers. They would most likely prefer that we left them alone. But that is entirely another consideration.

As we head for the next deadline, we are being told that the sticking point is our unfortunate fish, or more specifically the principle that Britain, as a sovereign nation, should have the right to control access to our waters. No matter that in normal times, every few minutes of every day, aircraft en-route from one foreign place to another cross our skies. Is that a potential violation of sovereignty, when denying the right to fly across Britain would undoubtedly result in other countries denying us the right to cross their airspace?

Why are fishing rights so important, so much a matter of critical concern to a section of the ruling party that has never put a net in the sea or encountered a fish anywhere other than on their dinner plates in comfortable London clubs or seafood restaurants in posh resorts?

And why, at this critical juncture of a raging pandemic, do the negotiating parties not simply park the issue of fishing, enact the remainder of what has been negotiated, and agree to revisit the issue within six months, with the understanding that failure to reach a solution by June would be liable to invalidate the rest of the agreement?

I understand the EU’s insistence that a deal should be all or nothing, but in the current circumstances some flexibility is surely called for. To put it bluntly, we British need to be saved from ourselves, or more specifically from the ideological pinheads on the right of the Conservative party that hold Boris Johnson in thrall.

The EU should take into consideration that if we go into no deal, the same faction will have no hesitation in blaming the other side’s intransigence, not ours. And they would be listened to by a large section of the population. The result would be a level of bitterness against our erstwhile allies that would blight relations and inhibit cooperation for some time to come. Which, of course, is what these people want.

Another option that has been widely touted, and which I support, is seeking an extension to the transition period until the end of June. The EU would have to agree to this, which is by no means certain. And the pin-headed ERG faction in the UK would scream like hell. But if an extension could be agreed upon, the Labour partly likely to support it and Boris Johnson could tell the ERG headbangers to go to hell.

Johnson himself has little to lose, because, thanks to his mishandling of the COVID crisis, his time in office will surely end soon. As for his party, it’s hard to see anything redeeming its reputation for competence in the short term.

Speaking for the country as a whole, for whose benefit the government supposedly acts, our chances of recovering from the pandemic would surely be enhanced without the disruption and economic damage of a no-deal Brexit, a foretaste of which is already upon us on the road to Dover.

Unlike the Brexit ultras, I’m not one for wheeling out yarns about plucky little Britain standing alone in World War 2. But I do think it’s worth remembering that in 1941, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, we buried our ideological differences with the new combatant in order to defeat the common enemy. COVID is more pervasive and less easy to target than the forces of Nazism. But surely we can set aside our squabbles over fish for a while in order to confront, without distraction and as a united continent, a new enemy that threatens to take all of us down?

I dare say that if the fish could express an opinion, they would be devoutly hoping for our economic meltdown. At least, unlike us, they would stand a greater chance of living out their natural lifespans. What joy would it bring them, were they able feel it, to swim around without fear of ending up on a fishmonger’s slab?

With thanks to the late Douglas Adams, the creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for the title of this post, and in the hope that we can all be spared the attentions of the Vogon destructor ship.

Sunday morning fever: conspiracies, mutations and anxious fish

Sterling Hayden as Jack D Ripper in Doctor Strangelove

It’s entirely typical of 2020 that the ingredients of a conspiracy theory across the Atlantic should distract my attention from stuff going on closer to home.

For some odd reason I woke at 5am this morning with the story going round my head of Trump and his wacko advisers meeting in the White House on Friday to discuss options for overturning the election. The story had emerged yesterday in various US media, including the New York Times. The gist of it was that the unholy conclave, who included Rudy Giuliani, the unhinged Sidney Powell and the newly-pardoned General Flynn, (who is fast becoming a real-life version of Jack D Ripper, Stanley Kubrick’s demented general in Doctor Strangelove) discussed the possibility of seizing the election machines for analysis, thereby “proving” election fraud and allowing Trump to declare martial law, under which the election would be re-run, with no prizes for guessing what the outcome would be.

I started constructing my very own conspiracy theory as I tossed and turned in bed. If it had been summer, I would probably have got up and put hands to keyboard. But 5am in the winter, three hours before sunrise, is not a time to be anywhere other than in bed. So I damped down my fevered imagination by thinking about Brexit and a mutant virus instead. Bringing to mind several unpleasant things at once is, I find, a useful noise cancelling technique. So I went back to sleep, rising again only when the first shafts of watery light began to appear.

As with most conspiracy theories, this one starts with a proposition, and the theory takes shape when disparate but suitable evidence can be assembled into a superficially plausible case.

Trump is planning a military coup. The evidence? Aside from General Flynn’s ranting, which serves the same purpose as John the Baptist in announcing a wondrous event, real stuff is going on behind the rhetoric.

A few weeks ago, Trump got rid of a number of senior officials in the Defense Department and replaced them with loyalists. These people have been quietly beavering away at plans for the coup. With Flynn’s help they’ve been sounding out senior generals who might be sympathetic to the cause, with the aim of creating a cadre of plotters who will hold back the military while the goons of Homeland Security take control of the country once the Insurrection Act has been invoked.

More evidence needed? Over the last couple of days, the Defense Department has suspended its cooperation with the incoming Biden transition team, under the pretext of needing a holiday. What they’re actually doing is putting the detailed coup plans in place.

Then there’s the cyberattack on US government computers, allegedly the work of Russia’s hackers. It’s a hoax of course, designed to heighten the nation’s sense of insecurity and give Trump a further excuse to take extreme measures in defence of the country.

“Now is not the time,” he will say, “for a change of government. The nation is under attack from within by socialist election fraudsters who have taken advantage of the pandemic to instil a sense of fear and insecurity. At the same time, China (not Russia, of course) is attacking our government institutions and seeking to weaken us further. I therefore have no choice other than to annul the results of the election and declare martial law in order to safeguard our democracy and the nation’s critical interests. At such time as the situation is stabilised, I will authorise a new election under the supervision of the military and Homeland Security. It will be conducted in such a manner that makes the abuses of the fraudulent election impossible to be repeated.”

All complete nonsense, of course, but the narrative I’ve just described is an example of how easily it’s possible to weave a conspiracy theory that superficially hangs together, even though in this case it would be a theory that might take root in the minds of Trump’s opponents rather than among the usual QAnon rabble.

Or at least I hope it’s nonsense, because we have one more month of Trump’s demented presidency to go. Who knows what surprises he might yet try and spring on his unfortunate fellow citizens?

But we in Britain have more pressing things to worry about than the prospect of a fascist dictator seizing power in the United States. After all, Russia and China are hardly bleeding-heart liberal democracies, so what would be the harm in America joining their club?

A mutant virus threatens to consume us. Our Christmas is doomed. Thousands of truckers will be celebrating the festival stuck in their cabs somewhere in Kent. The rest of us will have to decide what to do with all that uneaten turkey. And our poor fish, such as are left in our waters, are swimming around in a state of anxiety over which political entity is going to hoover them up up over the next few years.

More to come on those matters no doubt, as our happy holidays draw closer.

Brexit Diaries: wasps and black smoke

Funny really. Two days after the definitive deadline for negotiations on a trade deal, I keep thinking of strange metaphors.

The first is of the media abruptly switching focus from one topic to another, rather like wasps in late summer that follow plates of uneaten food. One day, all you can read is about goings-on (or lack of them) in Brussels, and the next day we southern metropolitan non-elite types, or rather our representatives in the media, swoop upon the news that London is going into Tier 3 restrictions. For the uninitiated, this means no communal fun, apart from what consenting adults get up to in their bio-secure zones, and all manner of other restrictions just short of a full lockdown.

To add to that, a new delight is tossed into the arena of anxiety. It seems that the rapid rise in infections in the South-East is down to a new variant of the COVID virus. Will it be resistant to the vaccine? We shall see. The boffins at Porton Down, our biological skunk works, are trying to figure that out.

This new development offers our media an opportunity to write stories about the London Variant, or possibly the Hackney Variant if the scientists are able to pinpoint the origin with sufficient accuracy. Just as the hordes of British tourists who flocked to Spain in the summer are accused of bringing back a virulent Spanish strain and kicking off a second wave, it seems that the third coming will be blamed on Inner London hipsters drinking craft beer without the aid of masks.

All of which will be the source of grim satisfaction for those parts of the country that are already groaning under Tier 3, but whose misery has been relatively underreported by the national media thus far. A reminder, as if we needed one, that whatever ills Brexit is supposed to fix, they will not include divisions between north and south. And I’m talking about England, not the rest of the United Kingdom. The wasps will always find the best places to feed.

The second metaphor, somewhat hackneyed I’m afraid, is that of the white smoke that rises from that roof in the Vatican when the cardinals elect a new pope. Or rather the black smoke that follows an indecisive ballot. For all the wisdom that has leaked out about the Brexit trade negotiations – suggestions of progress immediately slapped down, expectations furiously managed by both sides – we seem none the wiser, despite the frantic efforts of reporters to convince us that they have an inside track.

Would it not be better to lock them all up in the Sistine Chapel under the benevolent eye of Pope Francis until they come up with an agreement? Imagine – no information, no opinions, just a simple yes or no.

Unfortunately it wouldn’t work, for two reasons. First, because the negotiators are functionaries, not cardinals. Barnier answers to a herd of querulous cats. Frost answers to a lazy mongrel who in turn answers to a pack of disorderly dogs. And secondly, the cardinals have no deadline. They can argue for weeks and months in their version of lockdown. The Brexit negotiators do have a deadline: January 1, enshrined in that mutable concept we know as law.

Why, if it takes a few more weeks of yabbering, we can’t just forget about Brexit until we have a mutually acceptable trade deal, is beyond me. Yes, I know that deadlines are considered to be essential components of negotiation strategy, but don’t we have more important things to worry about at the moment? Things that require international cooperation and goodwill rather than a misplaced sense of national pride that causes our politicians to rise up like threatened meerkats?

Surely the statesmanlike thing to do, when economies and the wellbeing of people on both sides of the channel are threatened by a virus that recognises no borders, would be to call a temporary halt to these nonsense negotiations, or at least to extend the transition period by another six months?

I know that there would be howls of protest from businesses at another six months of uncertainty, and that the get-on-with-it brigade in parliament would raise their usual ideological objections. But if they were a COVID patient faced with a choice between certain death and a few months lingering on the edge of life, yet with the prospect of a full recovery, I wonder what they would decide.

I think I know. We must continue to face reality, which is that in an era of political dwarfs, the only people who show anything like statesmanlike qualities are women, and even they, Merkel and Ardern notwithstanding, are in short supply.

But enough of these florid metaphors. I must stop before I turn into Boris Johnson.

The Brexit Diaries

The Battle of Trafalgar: JMW Turner

It seems that the talking is almost over. For the past four years, I and countless others have been appalled, enraged, aghast, grief-stricken – and every other expression of discontent you could name – at the lies, delusions and self-interest that have led us into Brexit.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written about it, talked about it and not talked about it for fear of getting into unpleasant conversations with people who tell me to get over it.

Whether or not the negotiations in Brussels end up with no deal or some form of cobbled compromise, we’re moving into a new phase: the impact.

This has become obvious since the media started talking about blockages in ports and lorry parks in Kent. Now, it seems, the government wants the supermarkets to start stockpiling food. The supermarkets themselves, according to the Sunday Times, are worried that the public will start stockpiling on a scale that will dwarf the panic-buying that took place as the first COVID lockdown loomed.

The wilder shores of the media are talking about gunboats repelling French fishermen who invade our waters, with the possibility that the first trawler to be fired upon will be greeted with blockades of the Channel Tunnel and the French ports. Who would have thought that our declaration of independence might lead to armed conflict with citizens of our closest neighbour, alongside whom we fought two world wars, and where hundreds of thousands of our citizens reside?

Up until now, most of what I’ve written on Brexit centres on the political decisions and theoretical consequences. Now that the actual consequences are becoming reality, I plan to talk on a regular basis about them and their impact both on me and on the country in general. Not so much a journalistic record – more, I hope, a series of personal reflections.

During the first lockdown, I started a series of posts which I called Corona Diaries. I posted an article every day for over a hundred days while the first wave was at its peak. You’ll be relieved to know that I don’t plan to be quite so prolific as Brexit turns from prospect to reality, but I do intend to take a similar approach, which involves writing directly and tangentially about the coming of Brexit.

I appreciate that some of my readers outside Britain might find a series of reflections about Brexit less than enchanting. But I hope you bear with me and keep visiting, because Brexit is not just about Britain, but a future case study in how in the disinformation age a nation was persuaded to take a momentous decision by people with no clear and balanced view of the likely consequences. A leap in the dark if you like. Or, at worst, the blind leading the blind.

If you think that in the big scheme of things this is a minor event involving a small country that doesn’t matter much anymore, you may be right. On the other hand, I respectfully suggest you pay attention, because one day something similar might happen to you. It’s possible to argue that across the Atlantic something similar actually did happen in November 2016.

However things turn out in the long term, the next few months will be a rough and interesting ride.

Hence the Brexit Diaries.

Headbangers unite – you have nothing to lose but your minds

It would cause me no upset if the lawsuit by a number of former professional rugby players who are now suffering from pre-senile dementia dealt a death blow to the sport. But that’s only because I’ve never been a fan of the game.

If people really want to earn a living involving a high risk that their brains will be turned into mush, that’s their decision, just as long as they’re aware of that possibility. The same applies to soccer, to American football and to boxing. I can’t really see how the professional versions of any of these sports can take steps to avoid head injuries without changing their basic nature.

In rugby, all the protocols you can devise can’t undo the damage caused by a head smashing into a solid object, be that flesh, bone or earth. No doubt you can mitigate it by various medical means, but once it’s done it’s done. And if it happens again and again, even once a match, the cumulative damage surely mounts up.

The evidence suggests that if you want to avoid people getting dementia through colliding with solid objects, you need to invent a different game. So goodbye rugby. The same applies to the other sports I’ve mentioned.

It won’t happen, of course. Boxing is still with us, despite the dangers having been apparent for decades. Despite multiple lawsuits in the US, NFL football continues to thrive.

Professional soccer players, according to recent estimates, are two or three times more likely to succumb to dementia than the rest of the population. Whether cases thus far are because players in my generation had to head balls much heavier than they are today is something we won’t discover for another decade or three, when the current crop reach the danger age.

Meanwhile, players will continue to head the ball because there are too many commercial interests at stake that would be threatened by radical changes to the way the game is played.

The irony is that over recent decades we’ve become far keener to enact stringent health and safety regulations in other walks of life, yet we’ve largely let contact sports administrators come up with their own rules. They will only react, it seems, to litigation that threatens to end the sports for which they’re responsible as commercially viable activities.

Will we soon arrive at the point where anyone who wants to play a contact sport on a professional basis has to sign a disclaimer accepting the risk of brain damage and agreeing not to sue if they no longer remember their names by the time they’re in middle age? Quite possible.

Such is the fame and wealth to be gained from reaching the elite that many people, especially those for whom there are limited routes out of poverty, will willingly take the risk. Just as is the case with boxing.

You could, however, argue that there are many non-sporting activities that are just as dangerous. Following politics, for example, which can liquidise the brain in very short order. Working in a call centre, a COVID ward or an illegal gold field. Anyone who lives in Kashmir, Afghanistan or Venezuela surely has a greater chance of an early death than a professional rugby player.

But at the end of the what-about road lies madness. It’s hard to see anything replacing the great contact sports any time soon, even though we have many well-established alternatives – cricket, golf, tennis and athletics, for example. Nothing, though, captures the imagination like games that resemble battles, in which people get hurt, sometimes permanently.

Perhaps we should find some inspiration from an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame I heard about on the radio the other day, in which players used strange parts of the body – their buttocks for example – to bang rubber balls around a stone court. There are unconfirmed theories that the losing side was ritually slaughtered. More exciting than gladiator shows, I should have thought.

But the awkward question that keeps coming back to me as we get ever more reports of former professional sportspeople ending their days as mute shadows of their former selves is the one posed by Maximus in the movie Gladiator, as he raises his bloody sword at the end of yet another lethal contest:

“Are you not entertained?”

Nothing is for ever

If and when Britain goes over the no-deal cliff, will anyone notice? Just a slightly different trajectory in the free-fall, perhaps, since we’re over the cliff already.

Had the pandemic not intervened, we would have been facing an abrupt and shocking change in fortune on January 1. But whatever happens here onwards will be inevitably be tangled up in post-pandemic depression. For most of us, it will be hard to tell what new realities will be down to COVID or to Brexit.

Or, to put it another way, when you’re wallowing in shit, another bucket-full won’t make much difference. If we do a deal with the European Union, the cake we end up with will be like one of those stale sponges that come out of a packet on the cross-channel ferry. Not appetising, not exciting, just enough to fill the stomach with empty calories.

If we don’t, there will no doubt still be a few airbags that will cushion our collision with the ground. A few single-issue agreements that will prevent us from reverting to the stone age.

Those who persuaded us to go for the dubious proposition of Brexit are unlikely to suffer too much. The ring-leaders might lose their jobs, but no longer being a minister will hardly be as devastating as losing three quarters of your income and possibly your home. Those who egged the government on from the side-lines, especially the group of MPs who ridiculously call themselves the European Research Group, will mostly continue to hold their safe seats in parliament. And the hedge fund operators who placed bets on the nation’s misfortune will be wealthier than ever.

The blame game will rage on. Few of us will escape, including those of us who opposed Brexit, who will be cursed for not trying hard enough in the referendum campaign.

But nothing is forever, except death. A no-deal Brexit would be a descent into purgatory, but there will always be ways out. A return to the EU will be difficult to sell to the British public, especially now, as our arse-covering government seeks to blame our former partners for all our misfortunes. And when an institution has been been treated to decades of demonization, it’s unlikely to welcome us back to its bosom unless there’s an overwhelming advantage in doing so.

But we will find a way of crawling out of the pit, increment by increment. A decade of pain may well force us to find different directions for our country. Greener perhaps. More inventive hopefully. More appreciative of what we’ve lost by leaving the EU, particularly in terms of movement of labour and cooperation in so many enterprises that we take for granted.

On the other hand, it’s possible that riven with envy, impoverished, socially divided and seething with discontent at our lowly status, we shall start looking like a failed state. Our brightest talent will be lured to other shores. Our obsession with surveillance will turn us into China without the energy or sense of purpose. And only the very brave will think of going into politics to fix the problems that the current generation of politicians has allowed to brew, because their reward would be the contempt of a cynical electorate.

Fear not. All is not lost. A brighter future awaits us, literally. As our climate gets warmer, our wine will get better and more plentiful. More people will want to visit us, because the south of Europe will steadily turn into desert. Once half our fields are turned into solar farms we shall be able to scoot around in our electric cars on cheaper electricity. Yes, a good proportion of our south-east coast will have turned into salt marshes, but malaria won’t be a problem because our clever scientists are on the verge of developing a vaccine.

With a bit of luck, we’ll be able to do what the Japanese did after World War Two, and recover our economy by producing cheap knock-offs of stuff invented elsewhere. Except that in our case it will be stuff like drones, vaccines, nuclear fusion devices, cryptocurrencies and industrial espionage devices. I jest, of course.

The first thing we will need to do is to understand how the world will work post-COVID. This will especially be the case in terms of education, the workplace and the economy. If we can get ahead of the curve and build an education system focused on value instead of qualifications, re-invent our inner cities so that they don’t rely on offices for their prosperity and find ways of evening up economic activity across the country, then we might find ourselves getting there faster than many other countries.

And if we can enter our new era completely shorn of our grandiose pretensions as a world power, perhaps we can also do without the means to punch above our weight militarily, which would mean giving up our nukes and much of our expensive hardware.

It would be nice to think that we can emerge from Brexit and COVID conforming to all those clichés so easily bandied about: leaner, fitter, more agile, inventive and creative.

But actually, if there’s one thing I crave which all those dynamic qualities will in not in themselves deliver, it’s happiness. Unfortunately, that might take a while. But if our future governments, businesses and other institutions proceed with that aim uppermost in their minds, it would certainly be a start.

Because I get the impression that over the past decade we’ve forgotten how to be happy.

The Information Plague

Well it didn’t take long. When I posted on Wednesday morning about Britain’s medicine’s agency approving the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, it was in the tiny window before the commentariat leapt in to create an argument out of a moment of genuine good news.

What I didn’t expect, but should have done, was that our government, or elements of our government accustomed to receiving cut-and-paste phrases that they could trot out as the “line to take”, claimed that certification of the vaccine was a triumph of Brexit that wouldn’t have been possible if we had remained in the European Union. They were immediately rebutted by others who maintained that our action was perfectly in line with European law, and that such claims were symptomatic of a desperation to point to any available good news about Brexit, since none was otherwise to be found. But too late. The snake was let loose.

The really bad news was that by turning the vaccine into a political football, the antivaxxers had a perfect opportunity to claim that the approval was the result of political pressure rather than medical evidence. Popped into the usual stew of conspiracy ingredients, the likely outcome is that less people will want to take the vaccine, fearing side effects, mind control device implantation and God knows what else.

And because less people will take the vaccine, the pandemic, at least Britain’s bit of it, will be prolonged further than it needs to be, with the result that more people will die needlessly.

What a shame, for reasons way beyond the loss of life. First, that Britain’s medicine agency, an apolitical organisation widely considered by scientists to be a centre of excellence, should have its integrity questioned without any valid evidence. Second, that the vaccine development effort, which is one of the few shining examples of international cooperation in an age of resurgent nationalism, should be characterised as the triumph of one country over others. And third, that if ever we need to celebrate international scientific achievement, it’s now, because other equally dangerous challenges, such as climate change, cannot be solved by the scientists of one country alone.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, I shall have the vaccine as soon as it’s available. I don’t believe that the three consortia that have published their data thus far are cynical profiteers who are trying to foist an ineffective and dangerous solution on us unwitting dupes. Nor do I think that Bill Gates and his fellow lizards are going for world domination.

What I do think is that I have maybe ten or twenty years left, whereas if the virus gets me it might end up being weeks or months. Since I have to make a choice between a vaccine that has a one in ten chance of making me ill, and a virus that has a much greater chance of killing me, it’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. Just as every other vaccine that has been pumped into my arm over the past seven decades has also been a no-brainer. The fact that I’ve avoided polio, smallpox, TB and a host of other nasties, and that I’m still here despite determined efforts on my part to compromise my health, is evidence enough to me that in a world full of risk, vaccines rank pretty low on the actuarial scale.

For those of you who choose not to get the jab, tant pis, as the French might say. Politeness dictates that I should respect your opinion. But under the mask of civility, you will find within me a feeling of sadness that your minds have been so frazzled with conspiracies, disinformation, paranoia and manipulation that you don’t know which way to turn. That you’re so fearful and angry that you’ve lost the ability to think for yourselves. That you’ve lost the ability to trust anybody or anything.

I don’t blame you. I don’t think you’re stupid. You have your reasons. And I don’t think of myself as particularly smart. I just think that long after I’m gone, people will look back on this time, and see a pandemic far more virulent, pervasive and long-lasting than the coronavirus: the information plague.

Assuming there are people still around to look back, of course.

Once there was a way to get back home

Noon – Rest from Work (1890) by Vincent van Gogh (after Millet)

On the morning when the UK regulatory authorities announced their approval for the use of the Pfizer/BioNTtech coronavirus vaccine, I have something to say in the tiny window before the conspiracists, doubters and antivaxxers have the chance to flood us with streams of anxiety and scepticism.

Just for today, I’ve had it with opinions, even though I’m not slow in coming forward with a few myself.

A man is a man. A woman is a woman. Trump won. Boris is a liar. We’ve run out of money. Coronavirus kills people. The climate is changing. Pubs are bad for you. Wine is good for you. The police beat people up. Free speech hurts people. Heading a football causes dementia. Vaccines work.

Or maybe none of the above.

If you happen to be in my age group, perhaps you’ll remember a Beatles song from the Sergeant Pepper album called A Day the Life. It’s the one in which John, in his sneeriest voice, goes on about holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, and Paul sings about going to work and getting stoned. The song ends in a screeching climax which sounds like a chorus of harpies (or how I imagine harpies would sound). It suddenly stops. It’s followed by a brief silence and then a crashing chord on the piano.

I’m not going to pontificate about the cultural significance of the lyrics, because they’re not important, to me at least.

It’s just that sometimes, when I get up in the morning, read the paper or go online, I feel that brain-scrambling ending welling up in my mind as a chorus of high-pitched opinion colonises my conscious.

I long for the final chord to ring out. Followed by silence. At this point, I don’t want any more opinions. Nor do I wish to be mindful. Or dead, for that matter.

I just want an occasional day free of opinions.

Do you also remember when a number of companies determined that their employees should, for one day a week, be liberated from email? The idea was that they should be free of the bullshit work created by receiving, writing, processing and forwarding email. No need for arse-covering, generating information for information’s sake, running the hamster wheel and spending a vast amount of time that otherwise could be used for reflection, creativity, face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) communications, or perhaps not even bothering to work at all.

What if, again for one day a week, we all decided that we’d abandon opinions and focus on facts? And if we can’t do that, could we just keep our opinions to ourselves?

Unlikely, perhaps, but perhaps we could make a start by proclaiming World Fact Day. Not truth. Just facts. Indisputable, rock-solid facts.

No such thing, I hear you say. For every fact, there’s a counter-fact. Which means that everything, in someone’s eyes, is a matter of opinion. That would be okay, because bullshit masquerading as fact is easily passed over, so long as it’s not camouflaged by thickets of impenetrable opinion. Also as long as the fact being quoted is preceded with is or was, as opposed to might be, would be or should be, because there are no such things as future facts, unless you’re a theoretical physicist.

If the prospect of refraining from offering an opinion for one day a week is too much to bear, perhaps we could take another approach to lowering the blood pressure. How about an adjective-free day? Admittedly it would be tough on those who are bursting to say that something is good, wonderful and beautiful, but it would surely be a worthwhile sacrifice if we could be spared, for just one day a week, from being bombarded with horrible, disgraceful, tragic, treasonous, insufferable, frightening and evil.

You could argue that all you have to do is disengage for the day – stare at flowers, listen to music, contemplate your navel or become comfortably numb in some other way. But for those of us with busy lives, that’s difficult to do. And even if we’re religiously inclined, and believe in a day of rest, there’s still a risk that if we visit churches, mosques and synagogues we will end up being berated by opinions.

Perhaps the answer lies within ourselves. Take a deep breath, close your eyes and remember your childhood. Or, as the Fab Four once sang in the Abbey Road album:

Once, there was a way to get back homeward
Once, there was a way to get back home
Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby

Golden slumbers fill your eyes
Smiles awake you when you rise
Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry
And I will sing a lullaby

Lennon/McCartney: Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight

PS: the window I referred to in the opening paragraph lasted for about an hour. Oh well…

A fart in a hurricane (or a haddock’s guide to staying on an even keel)

I don’t often spend time thinking about how my brain works. But I do sometimes wonder how we, or more specifically I, manage to stay on an even keel despite an awareness of all the troubling information that in this especially troubled year seems to bombard us from all directions.

A good example is the furore over the British government’s decision to reduce foreign aid from 0.7% of gross domestic product to 0.5%.

A manifesto promise broken, howl opponents, as if manifesto promises, or any other promises by politicians, are somehow sacred. The decision will cost the lives of a hundred thousand children, claim some.

We can’t afford it at the moment, says Rishi Sunak, our finance minister. We are in the middle of the most serious financial crisis for three hundred years. We must look after ourselves.

You can argue the issue either way.

You might say that foreign aid is a waste of money anyway, because most of the dosh ends up in the pockets of consultants, dictators or corrupt officials, rather than the people it was intended to help. You know this because you’ve read an article about it in the papers.

Or you might ask how we justify spending £2 billion on building a tunnel near Stonehenge, thus trashing thousands of historical artefacts to make the journey between the South East and the South West a few minutes faster, when by doing so we show the rest of the world that we couldn’t give a damn about eliminating poverty, disease and pollution beyond our borders. Or, worse still, we’re prepared to spend £80 billion on HS2, a railway line that will reduce the travelling time between North and South by the time it takes to perform our morning ablutions or check out our Instagram feed.

Actually, I’ve long thought that how we react to such issues depends on in which of a number of mental compartments we place them.

Let me explain.

Suppose our minds contain a number of separate cognitive departments, or boxes, that process our response to given situations. Yes, I understand a little about emotion versus reason, and what happens in the hippocampus and the amygdala, in the left brain and the right brain, but I prefer a non-scientific analogy.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that we have four boxes that sit next to each other. Each has its own little mechanism that determines how we respond to a given situation, or to a piece of incoming information.

Let’s call the first box Immediate. It’s the one we were born into. It’s about needs and wants. I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m bored, I’m frightened, I’m amused, I’m having fun. Everything starts off there.

The second box I call Personal Future. We acquire this when we get older and are able to distinguish realities that might directly affect us in the future. If I run across the road, I’ll get killed. If I study hard, I’ll get to university. These are things that we understand to be under our control, or would be under our control provided nothing happens to take our control away from us.

My third box is Abstract Future. It contains stuff that might not affect our personal well-being but that we find interesting and emotionally engaging. It’s where we put stuff that informs our world view: political beliefs, religious faith. Things that move us, inspire us, arouse our curiosity, even if we’re bystanders rather than participants.

The fourth box is Engaged Future. It’s the box in which we place everything that reaches the Abstract Future, but that we’re prepared to do something about personally. It’s activism versus passivity. It’s everything we do that doesn’t have an immediate personal benefit other than an emotional sense of doing the right thing. Often those actions result from a sense of justice, guilt or altruism. It can also be the result of self-interest, when the scary things we’ve placed in Box 2 (Personal Future) start to come to pass.

These are my boxes. They’re not the result of years of academic study into neurology, psychology, economics or social science. I’m not Freud, Milgram, Maslow or Kahneman. Nor do I expect a Nobel Prize for a stunning revelation. They’re just the way I make sense of how my opinions, my emotions and my reactions to what I see and experience change over time.

The thing about these boxes is that they’re separate. Yet they co-exist. And stuff you park in one box you can easily move to another. Take the example of delayed gratification. I’m hungry. I go to the cupboard and the first thing I see is a bar of chocolate. Do I eat it, thus satisfying an impulse that sits in Box One? Or does Box Two come into play and override the impulse? If I eat this, I’ll put on weight. Therefore I won’t be as good at football. So I’ll eat something else, or maybe I won’t eat until later.

But what we put in each box can easily be manipulated. Put a health warning on an item of food, and our Box Two fears might lead us not to buy it. It might even lead us to go to Box Four and become vegan, or campaign for animal rights. Or we might know it’s not saving the planet (Box Three), but eat it anyway, because it tastes good, even if we feel bad about it afterwards.

So in which box do we put cutting foreign aid? Box Three, in which we agonise to our heart’s content but do nothing? Or Box Four, in which we tweet angrily and go on marches?

That, I think, largely depends on how it’s presented to us, and on whether the presentation chimes with our lived reality. If I said to you that we can keep the 0.7%, but as a result, every public library in the country will have to close, you might perceive a direct threat to your personal future over which you have no control, which sits in Box Two. You can’t afford to buy books, your interests will wither, you’ll get bored, your education will suffer. Therefore to hell with the poor in other countries, you’re more concerned about your future. Which, on the next election day, leads you to Box 4, when you vote for the government that cut the aid to 0.5%

But if I tell you that if aid is cut to 5%, 100,000 children will die in Africa, South America and Asia, you might perceive no threat to your personal interests, even though you think the idea is appalling. Your view might go straight into Box Three, where it sits alongside your agony over COVID deaths, your sadness about the victims of civil war in Syria and all the other things you think you can’t do anything about. Or you might go to Box Four and hit the streets.

With some of us, our boxes co-exist with little reference to each other. Recently I wrote about the example of the young Saudis who flew planes into the World Trade Centre as the expression of their religious beliefs. These were the same people who in the months before their deaths indulged in video games, porn and partying in Las Vegas. You could argue that the willingness to martyr themselves began in Box Three, and moved to Box Four, whereas giving in to the temptation of alcohol and gambling sat firmly in Box One. Whatever contradiction they felt between haram and halal was overridden by what they perceived as the needs or desires of the moment.

Most of us, I think, have an overpopulated Box Three. We are full of beliefs, opinions and emotions that we might talk about, but to all intents and purposes we label “no further action”. You could call it the bleeding heart box. It may be that when the stuff crammed into Box Three reaches a saturation point, it starts leaking out incoherently into other boxes. Is that when we start getting depressed? I defer to the psychologists on this one.

An interesting development of the age is that the social media gives us the opportunity to move stuff, at least to our satisfaction, to Box Four. By tweeting about something we see ourselves as taking action. We are publicly engaged. We are activists, or think we are. No matter that our published thoughts have no more impact than a fart in a hurricane. We’re doing something. And who knows? Many farts, blown off at the same time, could stop a hurricane.

Does this matter? Quite a lot, in my opinion, because what matters is not the effectiveness of our actions but the box in which they sit. You could argue that Box Three is the repository of our anxiety, our fears and our frustrations as well as our hopes and expectations. Therefore if we deal with some of them by moving them into Box Four, we’re potentially boosting our mental well-being, whether or not our actions make any difference. But still, being an activist makes us feel good about ourselves.

If you’re an academic, you might think of these ramblings as cod psychology, or possibly haddock Gladwell (hence the rather odd title). You’d probably be right. But I make no apology. It’s just my way of making sense of how I can remain with my backside firmly rooted in a comfortable chair in southern England, and manage to stay sane while so many things that wrench the heart are taking place just up the road, just across the channel or just over on the other side of the world.

At least I can write about them, which is one way I can move them to the box marked Do Something.

Even a fart in a hurricane has some value, if only to the person who lets rip.

After The Crown, step forward Roald Amundsen

What does the British Royal Family have in common with a famous polar explorer?

The other day I wrote about The Crown, and how I was avoiding it because it appears to portray certain members of the British royal family in an unflattering light based on hearsay at worst, and one-sided reporting at best.

None of us were privy to conversations between Prince Charles and Earl Mountbatten. And none of us, as far as I’m aware, shared a bedroom with Charles and Diana. What’s more, the surviving protagonists feel unable to respond to what they might see as falsehoods because they feel that it would be beneath their dignity to do so.

Instead, the veracity of their portrayal becomes a subject of debate between proxies: courtiers, journalists and politicians who have an axe to grind. But our tendency to believe what we see on TV extends far and wide. An example of this comes from the United States. I recently started following a guy in Twitter called Michael Cohen. No, not that Michael Cohen, but another one who happens to be a journalist with the Boston Globe. He has this to say about The Crown:

This week I started watching “The Crown” and I’m pleased to see that it has confirmed my life-long loathing of the British Royal Family … so (no?) self-respecting democracy should have a monarchy. I also find it really odd that the most sympathetic character is Prince Philip, which also says a lot about the competition.

Also, I know it’s a bit of a caricature but I didn’t quite realize how awful Maggie Thatcher was in general .. it’s a pretty good show considering all the characters have virtually no redeeming qualities.

Then someone else chimes in with:

I agree. The way they treated Dianna who was obviously unwell and it was so depressing to watch that. Cruel institution and cruel people.

And so on. At least the series serves the purpose of confirming a few prejudices.

And isn’t that what historians do with dead people all the time? Balancing accounts from the time, believing some and not others and coming to a view, not just based on contemporary sources but spiced with the benefit of hindsight.

Which brings us to Roald Amundsen, who is definitely a dead person. The other night, BBC4 showed a Norwegian biopic of the man who led the first successful expedition to the South Pole. We British don’t come over very well in this movie, and neither does Amundsen, which perhaps is a tribute to the self-effacing Norwegian character.

Those who are familiar with the story will know of the rivalry between Amundsen and Captain Robert Scott, both of whom led expeditions to the South Pole at roughly the same time. Scott and his team were not only beaten to the Pole by Amundsen, but died on the journey back. Amundsen succeeded because he emulated the Arctic Inuit and used sleigh dogs, whereas Scott used ponies and mechanised transport, neither of which was well-adapted to the conditions. This left Scott and his team to drag their own sleighs, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

There’s a striking scene in the movie in which Amundsen, after his return from the South Pole, is invited to a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society in London. There he has to listen to an appallingly rude address by the chairman, Lord Curzon, who in effect argues that Amundsen didn’t play the game, that Scott was a shining example of British fortitude, and that the heroes of Amundsen’s expedition were not the explorers themselves, but their dogs, many of which were good enough to allow themselves to be eaten so that Amundsen could succeed.

I’m not sure where that story came from. Perhaps from his autobiography, which the movie suggests was full of score-settling. But I find it hard to believe that the chairman of a seemingly reputable society of scientists and explorers would behave in such a discourteous and appallingly bombastic way.

Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t. But my instinctive reaction was to be offended by the suggestion that my countrymen could have openly displayed the kind of sour grapes attitude that we so often pin on other countries.

Amundsen himself didn’t come over particularly well from the movie. Undoubtedly courageous and determined, he also appeared vain, ruthless and uncaring for the welfare of his team. His treatment of his elder brother, who supported him through thick and thin until he finally despaired of having to go into debt in order to fund Roald’s expensive expeditions was, if true, petty and vindictive.

Evidence both from The Crown and Amundsen does suggest, though, that there are plenty of people around the world willing to believe bad things about my country, whether or not they’re grounded in truth.

Nothing new in this. Hollywood has long portrayed a species of Brits as buttoned-up, treacherous cads, George Sanders and a plethora of Bond villains being prime examples.

But what a shame that in so many ways our bungling, amoral government, screwing up the COVID response, awarding fat PPE supply contracts to cronies and threatening to break international law as they push us towards the Brexit cliff face in the middle of an unprecedented financial crisis, provides evidence on a daily basis that serves to strengthen those prejudices.

Oh well. I supposed I must be prejudiced too. All lies, right?

Notre-Dame: how a treasure survived against the odds, and why the tragedy made me love France even more

Last night I caught up with the recent documentary of the Notre-Dame fire. It was a fine piece of work, as gripping as any fictional thriller.

While some might make a trite comparison by describing the apocalyptic fire as France’s 9/11, it was far from that. 9/11 gave Americans a sense of victimhood and a desire for revenge that spawned wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which in turn took many more lives than the original event. How would France have reacted if someone had flown a plane into the cathedral? I hate to think. But at least what happened on April 15th 2019 allowed a nation to show its better nature.

Nobody died in Notre-Dame. It was an accident, as far as anyone could tell. There was nobody to blame. And the reaction was an outpouring of grief rather than anger, not just in France but throughout the world.

The story began on a nice sunny day. As usual, crowds of visitors were in the cathedral. And then someone smelt something strange. An alarm went off. The fire had started in the roof. It was not immediately visible inside the nave. The only external evidence was a thin wisp of smoke coming from the top of the building. Before long, it was raging. Centuries-old oak beams were ablaze. The flames started to come through the roof and melt the lead cladding. The gargoyles dripped molten metal.

If there was a 9/11 moment, it was the fall of the spire, which evoked a collective groan from the thousands of onlookers. As the tragedy unfolded, captured on video from many angles – inside, outside and above the building – we heard from people who were involved.

The pompiers, (firefighters), many of whom spoke of efforts to overcome the fire in clipped tones as if describing a military operation, which in their minds it was. The priest under whose authority the cathedral came. The mayor, the contractor who was repairing the roof, the keepers of the priceless treasures contained within the church.

What impressed me was how much they all cared. There were two critical moments that showed this above others. The attempts of a team of pompiers who were prepared to risk their lives to recover the sacred relics that otherwise might have been lost. The curator insisted in going with them to help locate the safe where they were stored, despite the possibility that they might be incinerated or killed by falling masonry. It was as if they were searching for the soul of the cathedral.

And then there was the courage of the pompiers who risked their lives climbing the towers in order to prevent the fire reaching the bells. If the beams holding up the bells had collapsed, the entire edifice would probably have collapsed. It was a real-life cliff-hanger. The towers came within fifteen minutes of collapse. We had a ringside seat while the fire chiefs assessed the risk. And we sat in on the briefing to Macron, who gave the go-ahead, knowing that if the mission failed Notre-Dame would be lost, and the lives of many pompiers with it.

The documentary left me with several abiding impressions.

The esprit de corps of the pompiers, who, when the danger was over, returned to base and spent all night cleaning their equipment because they had an inspection the following day. The grief of the Monsignor, who kept asking God why, trying desperately to make sense of the tragedy. The onlookers, not gawpers, who watched in shocked silence, and then broke into song, as if to encourage the pompiers, even as the firefighters were struggling to quell the blaze.

And the fire, a ravenous beast that consumed all before it. It really did seem alive. I doubt if any fire has ever been captured on film as this one was. If it can be compared with anything, it was with COVID. Voracious, relentless and determined to find a way to destroy everything in its path.

Then there was Notre-Dame itself, filmed from within, with embers cascading from a hole in the roof. A beautiful but terrifying sight. Afterwards, beyond the piles of burnt-out debris littering the nave, the sight of the golden altar cross that survived, still shining brightly.

It was a close-run thing, but the cathedral still stands. Its sacred relics, rescued at the last moment, survived.

What Notre-Dame means to Parisians and to France as a nation might be hard for people who’ve never been to France to understand. It’s a source of pride, a symbol of national identity above all others. It’s the heart of France. Worth dying for in the minds of those who risked everything to save it.

What also struck me was the patriotism that radiated from all who spoke about that day. Not the inward-looking, uber-alles, narcissistic emotions that pass for patriotism in countries like Britain, the United States and other countries, but a sense, at least in the aftermath of a tragedy, of what such symbols of culture and identity mean both for a country and for civilisation as a whole.

It also left me wondering how we would have reacted to a conflagration in Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral, perhaps our most precious cultural monuments. Would people have risked their lives to save them? I hope so, and I hope we never have to find out.

This is not to denigrate our emergency services, but I wonder if they would have matched the discipline and dedication shown by their Parisian counterparts. The response to the Grenfell fire and the Arena bombings suggests that perhaps they wouldn’t. Not because of any unwillingness on the part of individuals to put their lives on the line, but because of organisational shortcomings and the morale-sapping effects of budget cuts.

The French state, and President Macron in particular, are under pressure at the moment because of their robust response to the recent Islamist attacks in the country. They have become hate objects in some parts of the Muslim world for the institutionalised laïcité policy that seeks to preserve the secular nature of the state. For a sensitive exploration of the subject, here’s an article worth reading.

Should France and its people once again come under attack, which seems almost inevitable, the response of the emergency services in Paris on that awful day gives one some confidence that again they won’t be found wanting.

But leaving politics to one side, the dignity and quiet pride of those who saved Notre-Dame reminds me of why I love France, and perhaps why so many of my compatriots choose to live there. France is not a perfect society. No matter the countless wars we’ve fought with the French in the past, that they want most of our fish, that they despise our cheeses and that Parisian waiters can’t stand us. I for one couldn’t ask for a better neighbour.

Long may that continue, for all the efforts of our politicians to fabricate divisions that needn’t exist.

John Kerry: it sometimes takes one old fart to recognise the value of another

John Kerry is one of only two current American politicians I have laid eyes upon in person (Hillary Clinton is the other). He is 77, younger than Joe Biden, but still the subject of raised eyebrows because Biden had given him the job of head honcho for climate change in his new administration.

Kerry was the Democratic candidate who ran against George W Bush in the 2004 presidential elections. He was Secretary of State in the Obama administration. Why then, would he take on a less prestigious role at this time of his life, instead of heading for a comfortable retirement?

Presumably because, like Biden, he reckons he has a few more miles in the tank, and would prefer to make a further contribution to public life rather than spend his days playing golf.

Biden could have gone for a younger man who also has strong credentials on the climate front. Al Gore, Clinton’s vice-president, is a mere 72. He has arguably contributed more to climate awareness than Kerry. But Kerry has stayed engaged in politics. Gore, on the other hand, has slowly faded from public view. Fair enough. It’s his right.

That said, I think Biden’s appointment of Kerry is an excellent move. Likewise, selecting Janet Yellen, at 74, as his Treasury Secretary nominee. As the former Chair of the Federal Reserve, she also has bags of experience.

My reason for singling out these appointments is to highlight that diversity is not just about race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion or gender. It’s also about age. Every age group brings its own perspective on life. If you mix those perspectives into a government, you have the potential for a richer debate, and the possibility of achieving a more effective consensus.

If only we in Britain could see that we are better off governed by a group of people who come from an age group wider than the 40-60 crowd that call the shots today. We need to recognise that the old are not all reactionary, and the young are not all revolutionary. Speaking from the commanding heights of 69, I fail to understand why the voices of people like Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Major so often fall on stony ground. Michael Heseltine, at 87, is still worth listening to, even if you don’t agree with everything he says.

But then listening is not necessarily one of the British government’s strong points, though you could argue that they listen, but to the wrong advice. You could direct the same observation at Donald Trump and his motley crew.

So along with the new, bring in the old. We oldies deserve to be respected and heard, rather than be fobbed off with handouts to keep us happy as we tip-toe towards oblivion.

The face of the future

A couple of days ago I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about facial imaging technology.

It showed a series of faces (of which the one above is an example) that under almost all circumstances you would accept as belonging to real people. Except that they’re not. Not only that, but the graphics in the article allow you to alter the images: by age, gender, race and other distinguishing factors. The results are not just incredible. They’re credible.

Which sets me off on more than one train of thought.

Image enhancement, or doctoring, if you like, has been around from the early days of photography. Techniques ranging from manual airbrushing to Photoshop allow us, if we’re so minded, to erase our wrinkles, warts, double chins and receding hairlines. But sooner or later, especially if we’re well known, the truth will out. Some photo will slip out showing our cellulite, pot bellies or the wrong side of our faces.

But does that really matter for the legions of onlookers who speculate about whether we’ve had work, and take delight in seeing us “as we really are”? Probably yes. There’s a malicious pleasure in seeing facades slip. And there might also be a sense of relief that we, the anonymous masses, are not alone in suffering the ravages of time.

The other day, the actress Jane Seymour, who looks a young seventy, claimed that she could very easily play Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of English King Henry II, at the age of seventeen. No doubt she could, especially if the movie makers used the same technology that was employed in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, in which Al Pacino, Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci were made to look thirty years younger, at least until they started walking.

But there are probably just as many people who are quite happy to see their heroes looking as they would like them to be, rather than as they are. They expect them to make an effort to roll back the years. They want old people to look like Joe Biden, perfect teeth, taut of face and barely a wrinkle to be seen, rather than Robert Redford, whose once Hollywood-perfect face now has as many crevasses as Mars has canals. They prefer to gaze upon Cliff Richard rather than an elderly WH Auden, upon Catherine Deneuve rather than the ancient Brigitte Bardot.

But are we approaching a stage when it’s no longer important that there’s a real face behind the images we see? George Orwell first introduced the face of Big Brother, the man who is never seen but whose image is everywhere, in 1984. Science fiction writers, movie makers and games developers have been playing with avatars for donkey’s years.

As we spend more time closeted at home, glued to the social media, do we care whether the faces in the Twitter profiles of people we follow are those of real people or Russian bots? And does it matter that Q, the inspirational but unseen figure behind QAnon, has no face? When we read the novels of Elena Ferrante, are we bothered whether the anonymous author is man, a woman or the product of artificial intelligence? As we become used to seeing people in face masks, does it matter that we can’t see their distinguishing features?

Yes and no. We set great store by faces. We make judgements based on facial expressions. Often they’re mistaken, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his latest book Talking to Strangers. But what judgements can we make if all we see are false faces, in which expressions can be manipulated by moving a slider? And if we’re increasingly being influenced by people with no faces, are we acquiring a method of judgement upon which the sightless have always relied?

Perhaps this explains why we (or me, anyway) find Sarah Cooper’s lip-synchs of Donald Trump, which completely alter the meaning of what he’s saying, so funny. Because suddenly his contorted features no longer matter, and it’s all about how she interprets the voice with her own facial expressions.

Since we’re now so addicted to video, it’s also becoming much easier for us to be deceived by deep fake videos. We’re not quite there yet. Remember the one that allegedly showed an intoxicated Nancy Pelosi? I’ve yet to see a character in a video game that has fooled me into believing that they’re real people. But it can’t be long before those mutable faces in the New York Times spring to life, and people start believing that they’re looking at real people, busy trying to persuade and perhaps radicalise us.

If we get to the stage where we can no longer always be certain that static images or videos are of real people, where will this lead us? If we’re searching for the truth, will we have to go back to the age of radio, or its modern variant, podcasting? Or will we start relying mainly on the written word to make our judgements on truth or falsehood?

If those of us who have forgotten to read or listen to words of more than one syllable, or never learned how in the first place, become a majority, then we’re in trouble, because these technologies will increasingly be used to manipulate us. And not just to sell us stuff. If they’re deliberately designed to map on to our learned reality, they can shape our political views, persuade us to buy into falsehood and convince us to ignore all evidence suggesting different realities.

Which, more or less, is where we are today.

In the future, perhaps, there might be no need for the likes of Donald Trump. All we will need is altered images, avatars that we will know aren’t real. But we won’t care. We will have our favourite avatars, we will become fans, followers and cult members, and it won’t matter whether the object of our adoration is real or not. All that will matter is whether their truth is our truth.

There are plenty of precedents. We love conspiracy theories involving unseen shadowy forces. In Paulo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, a new pope seeks to revive interest in the Catholic Church by being inaccessible. And the idea of a 12th Iman hiding in a cave, ready to re-emerge and purge the evils of the world, is a belief binding together millions of Shi’a Muslims. Closer to the west, the imminent arrival of the Antichrist who will usher in the end of days has, in the United States, turned from being a quirky sub-cult to a mainstream movement with a political agenda.

Mystery, the unknowable, is a powerful force because it liberates our imagination. It takes us to places beyond our mundane realities. Why otherwise are we addicted to murder mysteries in print and film?

So if we’re offered the opportunity to believe in a fake person instead an overweight blow-hard with piggy eyes, or his lawyer who has shoe polish dripping down his face in a press conference, why would we not take it?

Which leads one to wonder whether the Antichrist, the Messiah, the Mahdi and the Twelfth Iman, if and when they appear, will not be flesh and blood. They will hide behind digital compositions, because they will know that this will be the most effective way to reach the faithful. Their avatars will assume the forms and speak in languages that people will understand in Jakarta and Georgia.

If I’m straying into mystical realms, it’s because people yearn for mystique. And if they can’t find it in what they see as the real world, they’ll seek it elsewhere. And are we not all becoming a little more mystical because this year we’ve been forced to stare more closely at the possibility of death?

But what do I know? Only that you don’t have to be an intellectual, a philosopher or a mystic to explore a road and see where it’s leading. All you need is a little help from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Even without these essential assistants, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in exploring topics that have no easy answers, only endless possibilities, both good and bad.

But the bad ones are more fun, aren’t they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is why she should go.

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