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2017 Retrospective Part 5: My green and pleasant land

January 3, 2018

Aside from politics, I found much else to amuse, surprise and infuriate in 2017. In this look back on the year just ended, I focus on Britain, my country, with all its glories, foibles and problems. The subjects range from squirrels, safe spaces and care homes, through to Mary Beard, Princess Diana and Boris Johnson.

To begin with, a few words on the weird vocabulary that seems to be reserved for the royal family:

The rest of us don’t make gaffes. We commit hate crimes. We’re shamed on Twitter. Or possibly we’re offered a job with the Daily Mail.

Which goes to show what a sweet life our Royal Family lives. Not only do they live in palaces and fly around the world in the utmost luxury, but they get to have their very own words, and if they’re very old, they can say what they bloody well want (except the Queen, of course). And the rest of us aren’t that badly off, living as we do in a country where we can mock our rulers without being locked up for our pains.

I don’t suppose this post will have done my chances of a knighthood any good. But if I’ve helped a Japanese tourist wandering in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace to interpret a chance remark by a nearby courtier that “Ma’am’s made a quip about Philip’s gaffes”, then I’ll happily sacrifice the gong in the cause of international cultural understanding. (From Mind the gaffe, Ma’am, he quipped….)

National disaster loomed when we ran out of iceberg lettuces:

The iceberg lettuce shock horror is just a little reminder about how ridiculously high our expectations of the continuity of life have become, and how we take for granted the benefits of global trade without counting the cost. We in the West are a privileged enclave of the planet. We, above all others, have it all.

Should we feel guilty because our luxuries often come from countries whose people don’t share the benefits that trade, wealth and political power have bestowed on us? Not necessarily, because globalisation has helped raise living standards in producing countries as well as in those that consume the produce. But we should be aware that nothing is forever. (From The tip of the iceberg?)

Yet more diet advice for Britain’s fat, wheezing, arthritic population:

If we can fix all the other factors that cause us to keel over before our time, or leave us meandering without purpose or enjoyment through protracted old age, then maybe, just maybe, I would spend much of my day stuffing myself with raw carrots, quinoa, and endless plates of fresh fruit salad.

Until then, I shall continue to eat just as much fruit and veg as suits me on a given day, as well as all the other stuff that’s more likely to send me to an early grave. Nor will I measure calories or buy myself a step counter.

And if thereby I can avoid the dreaded seventh age of man described by Shakespeare as “second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”, so much the better. (From Ten portions a day? Yeah right…)

Prince Charles wants to bring back red squirrels by feeding their grey cousins with Nutella-flavoured contraceptives. In defence of invasive species:

The greys are with us for ever. Just as the snapping turtle has invaded Italy and Asian carp have made it to the Great Lakes after decades of effort to stop them, the squirrels have reconfigured the environment.

Much as I understand a desire to reset the clock to an age when Nutkin roamed freely, for me it’s a foolish aspiration. Almost as foolish as the desire to recreate a Britain without the current crop of human immigrants. How far back do we go? Do we look to restore our wildlife population to where it was in the days of industrial grime – the last time the reds had ascendancy, or way back to the Ice Age, when mammoths roamed through Godalming? Same goes for the humans, for that matter.

I’d far rather we spent the money protecting our trees against the parasites that are killing them, and helping more endangered species to survive and thrive without destroying competitors.

We should rejoice in the miraculous dexterity of our squirrels, enjoy the glorious flowering of our rhododendrons and welcome the ridiculous loquacity of our green parakeets. (From Saving Squirrel Nutkin)

In Bristol, students would like to expunge the name of a tobacco-hawking slave trader from prominent buildings in the city:

Only after we have expunged every tyrant, kleptocrat and robber baron with blood on their hands (and nicotine on their fingers in the case of Wills) from our cities, streets and buildings should we rest content that we’ve set the record straight, happy that their names will moulder away, never to be mentioned again unless with contempt.

Come to think of it, many of our city and street names have unpleasant connotations, not to mention our villages. Names like Piddletrenthide and Buttocks Booth are affronts to public decency. And towns ending with -caster or -chester are constant reminders of Roman oppression. Perhaps we should rename them all to avoid future disagreements. Numbers would be best. Change London to Metro One, Birmingham to Metro Two, Manchester to Metro Three and so on. Though on second thoughts that might not work. You’d have Brummies arguing with Mancunians, and the Scots would have to re-name their cities once they leave the UK. (From Let their names moulder in the graveyard of infamy…)

Yet another life-style book, this time from Sweden, hits the bookstands:

For those of us in our declining years, what can be more tedious than working ourselves into a frenzy in order to meet the expectations of fashion magazines, lifestyle-conscious acquaintances and the authors of silly little books?

Better surely to buy your socks from Marks and Spencer and your cholesterol from Waitrose, to avoid pine furniture like the plague, and to collapse every night into your comfortable sofa in front of a fifty-inch TV watching endless American crime shows and the hygge-free adventures of Scandinavian psychopaths, while your arteries fur and your brain fills up with sticky plaque.

Mind you, these books make great Christmas gifts, especially if you don’t particularly care for the recipient. Which is probably why they all end up in the charity shops shortly after New Year.

No doubt I shall be rewarded for my cynicism. At some stage in my dotage I fully expect to receive for Christmas A Little Book of Dementia which will tell me how to live a happy life as my mind turns to mush. That one will never end up in the charity shop, because I’ll be reading it anew every day. (From What the world really needs is yet another lifestyle book)

TV sports channels want to bring their cameras into dressing-rooms:

Do we really want to see a bunch of sweaty guys in jock-straps sitting around picking their noses, or slumped trance-like with their Bose headphones clamped over their ears?

And how would the occupants feel about constantly having to be on their best behaviour? No frolics in communal baths, sweary rants about the referee, or insults hurled in Spanish or Croatian about the nutter who got sent off after thirty minutes.

I suppose there would be some side benefits – for the players, bigger endorsement fees for aftershave and shampoo, photo opportunities in Calvin Klein underpants. And at half-time, we viewers would be spared a few minutes of droning analysis from the commentary box.

If the practice extended to rugby, perhaps we would be treated to graphic demonstrations of the effects of body-building on the human torso. And yet more commercial opportunities, such as beer sponsorship. (From Cameras in sports dressing rooms? Spare us, please….)

Some care homes have been found to have punishment rooms, where naughty old people have been incarcerated. I find the prospect quite attractive:

I’m not quite at the stage when my children might think fit to wheel me into a care home. But if and when that time comes, I would demand to see the punishment cells. You see, I always thought that I’d cope with prison pretty well, so long as my fellow inmates left me alone. Four walls, barred window, a ton of books and some writing materials? Heaven!

Now assuming I was reasonably compos mentis by the time I checked into my geriatric Hotel California, it wouldn’t take long before I was howling for some peace and quiet. I know this from my observations of my mother’s care home. It was very benign, but the life of the inmates was punctuated by continual interruptions.

Well-meaning people trying to encourage you to dance and take part in quizzes, though mercifully not at the same time. Residents suffering from mild dementia patrolling the rows of incumbent sleepers, inspecting their personal belongings and engaging in meaningless conversations – mostly with themselves. The occasional tourettes-like outburst from one lady who wanted to stand up when she was sitting down, and sit down when she was standing up. (From Punishment rooms in care homes? I can think of worse ordeals)

My local health centre burns down:

Britain’s National Health Service is not perfect. Much has been written and spoken in recent years about the effects of under-funding. Successive governments have tinkered with it to no great effect. It has had its share of failure and mismanagement.

But it’s still our largest public institution. And even as it struggles to deal with a rapidly aging population, and keep on an even keel despite haemorrhaging staff thanks to organisational flaws and the effects of Brexit, it can still come up with the goods. As it did in my town over the past couple of days. (From A local disaster, and life goes on – despite the politicians)

The hundredth anniversary of the third battle of Passchendaele in the First World War. My grandfather was there. An extract from his diary:

August 23rd: Gunner Stewart was killed at 5 o’clock this morning during the strafing at Burnt Farm, and we buried him at Bard Cottage Cemetery at 3 o’clock this afternoon.  It seems awful that a strong healthy man should be alive and well in the morning and under the sod in the afternoon, such is war.  We cleared up shells, furzes etc at the old position, and the Huns strafed us again, one shell fell near the orderly room and wounded three men.  They put a lot over during the night too, they were very persistent!

August 24th: I got up at 5am and went up to an Observation Post (O.P) in an old Hun dug out on Pilcham Ridge, and had a very interesting day.  I passed a grave with this inscription, “Here lies the body of an unknown Highlander”.  I saw the ruins of Zangemarck church in the valley and also Zounebeke and Polecapelle churches in the distance, all in the occupation of the Huns.  I returned to the Turco farm position at 7.30 pm, and had a fairly comfortable night in our new dugout in the ruins. (From Passchendaele, August 1917 – a survivor’s diary)

My input on the debate about safe spaces at universities, sparked off by a row between two academics on the ethnic origins of Roman Britons:

When a young person goes to university, he or she enters an adult world. And in that world it is impossible to avoid ugliness, extremism of all stripes, and challenges to the mental status quo. If students are unprepared for that, then perhaps they should stay at home for another three years, or otherwise lock themselves into secure institutions so as to avoid the company of anyone other than fellow believers in whatever they hold to be true.

No platform? Fine, if you really believe in the fantasy of safe spaces. But there are platforms and platforms. Would you prefer one in which ideas can be confronted by ideas, or the one Donald Trump uses when he encourages police chiefs to rough up crime suspects? Or perhaps you’d prefer the one in which reasoned debate rises to the level of: “Show me evidence of Black roman centurions. Show me evidence of black norman barons. Show black picts. Everything you write is BS you tw@.” (From Mary Beard – civil defender in an unsafe space)

Commemorating events is important, but only up to a point:

If remembrance is an industry, she (Diana) has become an industry on her own, like Rudolf Valentino, James Dean, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix before her. And I get the sense that the current froth is being orchestrated by a bunch of people who don’t give a rat’s arse about the person, only about the commercial opportunities.

Twas ever thus, I suppose. In terms of industries, Diana has a limited shelf life. In a hundred years’ time, she will be a historical curiosity, much as Valentino is today. Passchendaele, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Indian Partition, 9/11, Mosul and – before long, who knows, perhaps Pyongyang – will continue to resonate. Those are the events we should be commemorating, because they remind us of humanity’s catastrophic mistakes. And as long as we remember them, we have a chance of learning from them. (From The commemoration industry, and why the Dianafest makes me queasy)

The generalisation of racism in the United Kingdom:

When I came home to the British workplace, I felt I was far better equipped than some of my colleagues to function effectively in a multinational workplace. Yet I’d be lying if I said that I’d never, perhaps in a moment of irritation, generalised about a race or a nationality. It’s when we start thinking or talking in a disparaging way about “the Germans”, “the Pakistanis” and “the Japanese”, that we stray into racist territory. It’s a short step from there to “the Jews” and “the Muslims”, except that those who hold a grudge against them are accused of being anti-Semitic or Islamophobic. But for me, it’s the same currency. (From Racism in the UK – let he who is without sin cast the first stone? Sorry, not good enough)

The Snowflake Generation is cruelly named. The young are well capable of rising to challenges. An example from history:

I’m reading an extraordinary book that provides a context from recent history. In The Unwomanly Face of War, Nobel prize-winner Svetlana Alexeivich tells stories collated from interviews with hundreds of women who served in the Soviet military during World War 2. She talks to pilots, machine gunners, snipers, medics and partisans. The tales of courage, suffering and deprivation related by women – many of them teenagers – who fought at the front alongside the men – are awe-inspiring. They were snowflakes turned into steel. Sometimes we underestimate the young. (From As Britain puts up the barriers, will the snowflakes turn into steel?)

We baby boomers, on the other hand, take the blame for everything. But we had our moments of activism:

The Xers might have been relatively inactive on the political front, but we baby boomers, boy, did we have causes. Vietnam, Nazis, Margaret Thatcher, apartheid, nuclear weapons – all came into our sights. I remember a massive protest against the racial theories of Hans Eysenck, whom the activists of the time managed to prevent from speaking at my university. No-platforming? Been there, done that.

The President of the National Union of Students in my era was Jack Straw, who subsequently morphed into a Labour politician and ended up as a leading Blairite minister. Another leading light was Peter Hain, who followed the same path. He was an anti-apartheid campaigner, and he got to be Secretary of State for Wales. Not much apartheid in Llangollen, unless you count the Welsh nationalists who used to burn the second homes of the English interlopers. Our NUS leader, a chap called Gerald Hitman, eventually went off to become a property developer. So much for youthful radicalism.

I see no reason to believe that most of the current crop of student activists will in the course of time end up being anything other than members of the entrenched elite, just as their predecessors did. Even Dave Spart grew up. Now he has a good chance of becoming our next prime minister. (From In defence of snowflakes)

A carpet tycoon described Boris Johnson, our Foreign Secretary, as a genius. I beg to differ:

During the third century CE, faced with a serious shortage of revenue, successive Roman Emperors – partly because of all the money they spent on luxury imports from the East, and partly because there were no more territories that they could easily conquer and denude of their wealth – debased the currency, adding bronze to their silver coins. In some cases they were reduced to silver plating (as in the example above). I have a few in my coin collection. It gives me a thrill to hold in my hand direct evidence of the decline of the Roman empire.

If Lord Harris’s view of Boris Johnson’s brilliance is widely held by others, then the debasement of the idea of genius is evidence of a similar decline in the Conservative Party. (From Boris Johnson is a genius – and I’m a banana)

And finally, thoughts on life expectancy:

Personally, if someone came to me and gave me the choice of not knowing when I would die, or the certainty that I would live to 87, I’d take the latter, even if I might feel differently as the time approached.

Whether you leave this life quietly and hardly noticed, or your passing is accompanied by a cast of thousands, as long as you live your full span, then your loved ones should be grateful that you were so privileged, when others in the past and still today are cut down before their time by untreatable disease, war and the capricious intervention of accidents. (From The Passing of a Matriarch)

I humbly offer these extracts as defence against the accusation by my friends that I’m only interested in Trump and Brexit.

From → History, Social, Sport, UK

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