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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.

What did you do in the Lockdown, Granddad? Pilnuj swoich spraw, dziecko.

Since we have declined to gorge on bulimia-inducing episodes of The Crown, you might wonder what we are doing in our locked-down evenings. Well, you probably won’t be wondering, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

Not, as you might think, knitting, playing chess, reading some high-minded history of the Emperor Franz-Joseph or having intelligent conversations about the delicious prospect of Donald Trump going to jail.

Actually, we’re sprucing up on our languages. French, Danish, Flemish, German, Dutch and Polish to be specific. Not via interminable sessions on WhatsApp with people in Lodz, Ghent, Amsterdam, Berlin and the Massif Central, but by the next best thing: watching Euro-dramas on TV, and slowly absorbing the cadences while trying to make sense of the subtitles.

I had expected that the well of foreign-language drama would have run dry by now. But it seems that the folks on BBC4 and geeky Walter, who selects stuff for More4, have been busy dredging the archives. Some of the stuff we’ve been watching is fairly recent, but a few of the series are several years old. Not quite as ancient as those Inspector Montalbano episodes where sexy Salvo doesn’t even have a mobile phone, let alone a smart one. But old enough. Though who cares? Shakespeare died four hundred years ago, after all.

So in case you haven’t had occasion to catch them, either because they’re not available where you are or because you just don’t like foreigners, here are a few gems that you’re missing.

Let’s go to France first. God clearly doesn’t like Annecy (above), which is a pleasant town near the Swiss border blessed with a beautiful lake, mountains, woodland and weather that’s always benign – apparently. Fear on the Lake is the third series based in the town. In the previous two, all manner of misfortunes, from murder, kidnapping and accidental death, have been visited on the unfortunate residents and the long-suffering police officers who try and keep them safe.

This time they’re cursed with a plague, which of course is very timely. Not coronavirus but (spoiler alert) Ebola. The whole thing races along at a fine pace, taking in not only the bloody snot that informs us of each new victim, but a kidnapped child and a bunch of murderous robbers. The heroes are Clovis Bouvier (a wonderful first name I last encountered when reading about the ancestors of Charlemagne) and Lise Stocker. They’re both cops, and they have a young son who also manages to get dragged into the action.

Normally one would say oh merde, c’est affreux. And it does get pretty grim. But since we’re currently going though an actual plague, there’s the additional pleasure of being able to spot obvious breaches of infection control protocol, including pretty casual use of PPE, especially when the principal characters rush to be with their loved ones. Understandable, I suppose, since it must be difficult to record coherent dialogue when it takes place between astronauts without radio.

Still, it’s well worth a watch, especially if you’re missing the beauty of France.

Next up is a compelling series in which the weather is rarely as pleasant as France in the summer. DNA is a baby trafficking saga set in Denmark, France and Poland. It involves nuns, crooked adoption agencies and a Danish cop who has a personal reason for investigating the disappearance of a child five years ago.

Better still, one of the main characters is the wonderful Charlotte Rampling, who plays a French police chief. Given that she’s 74, clearly the French aren’t as ageist as I thought they were. And a very calm, no-nonsense police chief she is too. She seems to have developed a tendency to look down her nose at the mortals with whom she has to work, an expression of regret rather than contempt. It’s fair to say that she dominates the proceedings.

Then we have a Belgian courtroom drama called The Twelve, in which Frie, a teacher, is accused of murdering her best mate fifteen years ago and, more recently her daughter, who was in the custody of her estranged partner.

The twelve, of course, is the jury, many of whom have back stories almost as interesting as the subject of the trial. There’s a guy whose only friend is the alpha male monkey at the zoo where he works. A woman with a coercive husband you want to slap every time he opens his malicious mouth. A builder with a mendacious, coke-snorting brother with whom he runs the family business. And so on.

The question that lingers through the trial is whether Frie is a manipulative narcissist with a murderous streak, or the victim of the philandering ex-partner who’s trying to set her up.

My favourite character is Frie’s lawyer, who looks like an old-testament prophet and has a booming delivery to match. His name is Spaak, which is appropriate, because he’s pretty combustible in court. Does he end up getting his client off? That would be too much to say. One thing’s for sure: they certainly have interesting juries in Belgium.

Staying in the Low Countries, we have The Blood Pact, set in Holland. The pact in question is between a convicted murderer with a bad temper, and a mild-mannered tax official. Together, they did away with a gangster called Wally, whom they first hid under the taxman’s trampoline and ultimately trussed up and chucked in a river.

Marius, the murderer, who has been released after serving his sentence, is pursued by Ron, another gangster, who is owed money by Wally and suspects that Marius has something to do with his buddy’s disappearance. Marius’s wife Kitty is in deep financial shit, and employs a dubious accountant to conserve some assets before she goes bankrupt. Dubious accountant duly disappears with the money.

Meanwhile, Hugo, the mild-mannered tax man, resorts to unorthodox methods to deter the thirtysomething flash harry who seduces his teenage daughter.

It’s all a bit of tangle, but entertaining as a result. I also love all the Anglicised names, which result in my wife and I wandering around the house growling “where’s Wally?” to each other. We’ve got to Episode Ten so far. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to stand another twenty episodes of Marius losing his rag, Hugo playing the mouse that roared and Kitty having her nineteenth nervous breakdown, but we’ll see.

And finally, there’s The Same Sky, set in pre-unification Berlin, in which a personable young Stasi officer is sent to West Berlin with instructions to seduce a middle-aged woman who works at a NATO listening station. The woman in question is played by Sofia Helin, who is slightly lower on the autism scale than Saga Noren in The Bridge, but still seriously buttoned up. The last time we saw her was when she played a Swedish archaeologist in an Aussie murder hunt, in which she appeared relatively normal, though slightly tortured.

Now she’s half-English, half-Swedish, and as someone who split from her husband a decade ago she’s considered a suitable target for seduction and recruitment by the brutal East German equivalent of the KGB.

Among other things, we’re treated to a highly amusing class for budding spies on the art of seduction. I wish I’d been on that course when I was younger. Oh and there are some interesting sub-plots involving a tunnel, a young swimmer being trained, both athletically and chemically, for the Olympics, and a frustrated physics teacher being censured by his school for demonstrating how a paper plane rises in the heat. Subversive stuff.

All in all, a cornucopia of European entertainment to delight and amuse in these dark evenings, though I would quite like Walter to unearth something light and Italian for dessert. A Mafia comedy perhaps? A couple more Montalbano episodes would do nicely, though I think we’ve run out of these.

Plenty to amuse, nonetheless, while we wait for Line of Duty and The Valhalla Murders, BBC4’s latest murder epic from Iceland, in which, as always, the landscape promises to play a starring role.

Also nice to indulge in some real fiction while we wean ourselves off CNN’s endless coverage of Donald Trump’s fake fiction, or whatever you like to call it.

Until next time, or Iki kito karto, as the Lithuanians would say.

By the way, I’m reliant on Google Translate for my Euro-phrases (apart from the French). So if the results are ghastly misinterpretations culled from some Satanic tract, sue them, not me.

The Crown? No thanks. Give me Ivan the Terrible any time.

I take the same attitude towards Britain’s royal family as the Victorians did towards children: that they should be seen but not heard, except possibly at Christmas.

Hard to achieve, really, in an era of “I speak therefore I am”, in which satisfying the public expectation of narcissistic self-expression and emotional incontinence are enough to unhinge even the most stolid member of a family not known for their imagination and intelligence.

Watching the Queen twenty-five years ago, bullied by the politicians into making an address to the petal-strewing nation after the death of a women whose antics clearly horrified her was a case in point.

I’m afraid that much as I love Olivia Coleman, I’m profoundly uninterested in The Crown, and I really couldn’t give a fig about the current kerfuffle over an interview with Princess Diana from twenty-five years ago. After all, was this the first time there were three people in a royal marriage? Edward VII might have had the answer to that one.

What I want from the royal family is this.

They should be dull but worthy. They should do the necessary when it comes to knighting people, opening buildings and inspecting the troops. They should refrain from talking politics, because God knows we have enough idiot politicians without idiot royals sounding off as well.

They should continue with their silly little rituals and absurd protocols if they wish to, and get rid of them if they so desire as well. They should be aware that being royal may once have been a divine right or a sacred obligation, but nowadays it’s a job.

The job description is pretty tough. If you’ve got the top job, you have to meet Donald Trump, suffer weekly meetings with a blatherous prime minister and commune with no end of worthy nonentities when all you want to do is pat the noses of your horses and put your feet up at the palace.

Worse still if you’re on the fringes, required to toe the line but not given much in the way of responsibility. Small wonder then that you marry a TV star and abscond to Los Angeles so that you can live a life of endless self-expression.

But if you keep your nose clean, avoid Jeffrey Epstein and remain aware that your slightest indiscretion will be noticed, leaked, circulated, subjected to a woke-test and turned into an internet meme, there are compensations. Big country estates, plenty of birds to shoot, horses to ride and countries to visit. Plus you get to call yourself HRH, which is a passport to deference and doors opened where they might otherwise be closed. And you get to dress up in fancy uniforms, holding the ranks of Field Marshal, Admiral and Air Marshal simultaneously.

I sometimes wonder what our senior royals might have done with their lives if they hadn’t been senior royals. The Queen might have excelled as the owner of a stud farm. Prince Charles I imagine as the much-loved but occasionally eccentric headmaster of a minor public school, where his homilies would have inspired future civil servants, and much sniggering behind his back. Princess Anne would have made an excellent prison governor – firm but fair. Prince Andrew? Easy. After a middling naval career, he would have ended up as the secretary of a posh golf club, until a scandal involving a lady member caused him to retire.

As for Prince Philip, I fancy him as a Himalayan explorer who pissed off his Sherpas so much that they accidentally dropped him down a crevasse.

Not that I think of them that much, unless I’m forced to do so by some TV producers who look to make a buck by dredging up muck.

I actually think that the Queen has done a superb job of being the Queen over the past seventy-odd years. She certainly doesn’t deserve to be portrayed as a sour old matriarch in a fictional account masquerading as fact. And the rest of them, by and large, have done their best to play their parts. Like all of us who try and do a good job, they deserve some slack, because, like us, they’re fallible humans.

Would I prefer that we get rid of them? Not really. A country without royals has to invent their equivalent. The standards expected of royals are rarely met by elites in other countries, let alone by those that still have royalty. Would I prefer to live in countries where the likes of Donald Trump are temporary kings, or where Vladimir Putin struts around the palaces of the Tsars?

And should we end up replacing Her Majesty with a figurehead president, it would be more likely that we would end up with someone like Nigel Farage than David Attenborough. Far better to let the Queen & Co bumble on, drawing in the tourists with their chocolate-box ceremonies and well-meaning patronage.

As subjects of entertainment, give me historical kings, queens, emperors and dictators any day. We can safely lie about them. Unfortunately, the current lot aren’t allowed to be interesting, and it’s hard to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear of bland mediocrity, let alone an endless TV series.

Efficiency bad. Red tape good.

Artwork by the incomparable Hunt Emerson

One of the promises made by those who persuaded us British in 2016 to leave the European Union was that Brexit will result in less red tape once we’ve cut through the impenetrable jungle of EU-imposed bureaucracy.

It turns out that this will not be the case. Apparently we are having to hire or redeploy 60,000 people to handle the intricacies of trade between our newly-liberated country and our hitherto largest market across the channel.

I thought of this when my wife and I spent a hilarious couple of hours on the phone to National Savings and Investments, the government body that runs the Premium Bonds. It seems that NS&I have decided that it’s better for us that that they deposit prizes, which used to come in the form of cheques, directly into our bank accounts.

In order for this to happen, since we both have Premium Bonds, it was necessary for us to make separate calls, and each go through a security process that appeared to be a dialogue between several disconnected parts of the same brain.

At each of the three stages we were required answer security questions. First, to establish our identities, then to provide bank details, and finally to tell the institution how we wanted to be notified of our unexpected enrichment which, in the vast majority of cases, is the princely sum of twenty-five quid.

Most of us are familiar with the process of setting up phone or on-line banking that requires us to provide answers to security questions – mother’s maiden name and all that rubbish. But in the first phase, our interrogators went a step further. They clearly had our Experian credit rating information to hand. Armed with this information, they started asking us questions that were directly related to our banking arrangements, using multiple choice. “How large is your bank overdraft facility? None, five thousand or five million?” I’m exaggerating here, but I wonder how they would deal with Donald Trump. Is there a five billion option?

Before they started asking the questions, they told us that if we got any answer wrong we would have to go back to the beginning, which would have wasted an hour of our precious lives. By the end of the process I felt as I once did when I passed my driving test. A mixture of relief and exhilaration.

At each stage we were asked for our names and the first line of our addresses. Not once but several times. A testy “But I’ve just told you that” was met with the explanation that they had to enter the information in “the system”, which presumably they hadn’t done the first time. Was this the equivalent of detectives asking a suspect to run though his story again and again in order to catch them with an inadvertent lie? Who knows?

My wife had gone first. By the time I arrived on the scene she had been going through the process for at least an hour, perhaps because one of the call centre operators, by his own admission, was on his first day of work.

By the time the whole exercise was done, she had steam coming out of her ears. She then handed over to me to start all over again, warning the person that I had a short fuse and didn’t suffer fools gladly. As if they cared. But still, after asking me to answer the same questions twice, as the procedure demanded, he asked if I was OK. I wanted to answer that if they’d got the impression from my wife that I suffered from a particularly nasty form of dementia that made me unreasonably aggressive, they’d got the wrong end of the stick. I wasn’t about to chew the carpet or launch into a murderous assault on my beloved for putting me through this ordeal. But thanks for asking.

In the end, my turn on the grilling machine lasted a mere thirty minutes, thanks to prompting from my wife and the information she had gathered as the result of her interrogation. I remained Jupiter-like in my calm and good humour while she went into fits of laughter beside me at the prospect of the imminent self-combustion that she detected from my facial expressions.

Afterwards, when I looked back on a torturous process that involved three call centres and was clearly designed to stop some scamster from siphoning my hard-won wealth into a bank account other than my own, I had a thought.

What if bureaucracy was good, not bad, as we’ve all been taught to assume? What if all those thousands of jobs created to handle Brexit, ward off cyber-criminals and trace COVID infections were actually saving us from even worse financial privation, or even civil chaos?

After all, the people recruited into these jobs might otherwise be unemployed and thus eking out life on benefits. Instead, they’re drawing salaries and spending them on their mortgages, on Tesco weekly shops and Amazon deliveries, thus keeping the economy and Jeff Bezos’ bank account ticking over.

I’ve seen bureaucratic bloat before. Saudi Arabia’s public sector employs far more citizens than its businesses, which prefer to operate with cheap labour from other countries. Without the hundreds of thousands of jobs for pen-pushers and desk jockeys, the country would collapse into a seething mass of unemployment and seditious discontent.

Since we in the United Kingdom seem to be floundering in the midst of a pandemic and with no clear idea of how after Brexit we’re going to restore our fortunes beyond the vague aspirations voiced by our slippery leaders, perhaps we need to retreat further into our bureaucratic past.

By introducing more red tape we employ more people. If the cost of such employment has to be born by us consumers in terms of transaction fees and higher prices for goods and services, surely that would be more palatable than some blood-soaked finance minister sucking away our wealth by means of overt measures such as tax increases?

So perhaps we need to go back to the system beloved of Foyles, the mega-bookshop in London’s West End, who until recently insisted that if you wanted to buy one of their books, you had to get a chit from one place, and then take it to another place that would accept your money.

Perhaps we should start hiring bus conductors again. And train guards. And putting police back on the beat. And while we’re at it, reintroduce National Service, so that we can counter the imminent threat from Outer Mongolia. We could then deploy more troops to vaccinate us, shore up our dams and prevent the invasion of immigrants from across the channel that threatens to inundate us with unwanted foreigners. That, of course, would require us to expand the command structure, so, joy of joys, more jobs for majors, colonels and generals.

The possibilities are endless. All we have to do is turn ourselves back into a nation of functionaries and jobsworths. We might have to borrow a bit more money, but at least we can keep the workers employed and docile while we figure out what the sunlit uplands will look like.

And then, once we’ve forged a new country in the white heat of technology, we can employ an army of consultants who will help us slowly wean ourselves off all the bullshit jobs we’ve created, and shepherd us into a new era of Universal Basic Income, that allows us, uncritical and cow-like, to graze the pastures of prosperity created by artificial intelligence without the need for human intervention.

Well that’s a plan, isn’t it?

So the next time you’re asked to provide your mother’s maiden name six times in the course of one phone call, ask yourself if you’d prefer that your interrogators should turn into starving zombies stumbling through the streets of your neighbourhood, rifling bins in search of half-eaten Bic Macs.

And repeat the slogan of the age: Efficiency Bad – Red Tape Good.

Cummings and goings

I can’t get excited by the thought of flashing knives in Downing Street. Those who have made their exits from the British government will be replaced by others, and life will go on. Not a particularly good life, as it happens, with worse to come.

I suppose you can’t blame our troubles on a guy who once dressed as a chicken at the behest of a national newspaper and door-stepped David Cameron. After all, if Caligula (a statue claimed to be of him sits in the British Museum) could think of appointing his horse as consul, why not put the government communications apparatus under the control of a chicken?

As for Dominic Cummings, much as I fundamentally oppose the cause for which he successfully campaigned, and ultimately brought to fruition, he shouldn’t be trashed and never heard of again because he road-tested his eyesight and lived to tell the tale. He’s far from stupid. He has ideas, whether you like them or not, but he’s failed to learn the art of the possible.

By pissing off everybody who could harness his ideas and help him make them a reality without making those who oppose them feel small and despised, he became the biggest obstacle to his personal success beyond delivering a project that ultimately might prove ruinous.

I sometimes think that Winston Churchill would have appreciated having Cummings on his team during the Second World War. Winston loved contrary individuals and was never afraid to back oddball scientific and military initiatives, even if some of them came back to bite him on the backside. The difference between him and Boris Johnson is that Winston would never have allowed Cummings to be more than one among many advisers. Churchill was a believer in teamwork, which was why he succeeded in keeping such a diverse group of individuals with different political persuasions and philosophies focused on one overriding objective.

There should always be a place for disruptive thinking in government. But if the disruptor brooks no argument, the ideas they espouse simply become a new orthodoxy as sclerotic as the one they replaced.

I have no great hopes for Boris Johnson’s government now that Lee Cain (Cameron’s chicken) and Dominic Cummings have departed. Boris is still there, and I suspect that he will prove no more adept at leading a new team than he was the old. It would probably help if he negotiated a year’s delay of Brexit on the grounds of the unprecedented instability caused by the pandemic.

But I’m not holding my breath. In fact, I’m resigned to the possibility that 2021 will be one of the worst years, politically, socially, financially, in living memory. What’s important is where we go from here. Are we to become a nation of scientists, solution providers and creative thinkers, or a fragmented society full of bitterness, envy and grudge-bearing, diminished by the loss of wealth, influence and soft power?

Right now, it seems as if we’re both at the same time. The question is which of the two states will become dominant in the future.

Of one thing I’m certain. We shall not become that creative nation by casting people with awkward personalities, like Cummings, into the outer darkness because our leaders put them into roles for which they are manifestly unsuited. We need to find round holes for everyone, and I’m not talking about dustbins.

Perhaps we should pay attention to the recruiting policies of one of our undoubted centres of excellence, GCHQ, who deliberately seek out people on the autistic spectrum, because their talents lend themselves to decryption and pattern recognition.

We need horses for courses, and leaders who can forge teams that work to achieve common objectives. Are those leaders to be found in our current government? Far from proven, unfortunately. But that’s not to say they don’t exist across the political spectrum. It’s time to seek them out and recognise them, hard a task as that is given the current climate of distrust, media fog and divisive politics.

And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try.

Corona Diaries: the death of a decent man

A few days ago, a lucky streak – if you can call it that – came to an end. Until then, I had known nobody who had died of COVID.

One of the hallmarks of previous episodes of mass death over the past century – in my country and I’m sure in many others – is that those of us who survived all knew someone who didn’t. My family suffered losses in both world wars. I’ve been to graves of relatives who died in the first war. Unfortunately, our only casualty of the second war, an uncle, died at sea, so we have no monument or grave to visit.

As far as I’m aware, we lost no relatives to the 1917-19 flu pandemic. But I’d be surprised if those who were around at the time didn’t know people who did die.

Now it’s my turn.  The person who met his end thanks to the virus died in St Peter’s Hospital in Surrey. I knew him well enough, because he was a member of my golf club. Not as a close friend, but someone I often encountered, though less over the past couple of years as health problems started to impinge.

So I’m going to write a few words about him, not in the manner of a mourner who might say a few kind words at his funeral, but as someone who sees him as a memorable person, who therefore should be remembered. Also because he was a real person, with strengths and failings, like all the thousands of others who have died from COVID. And because, for all his eccentricities, he was fundamentally a decent man.

Peter was in his seventies when he died. I knew little about his life outside the golf course. I believe he was once in marketing. His wife passed away a couple of years ago. They had no children. It seems to have been a marriage of co-dependency, though perhaps he was more dependent than she was. She was also an active member of the golf club. She was always doing stuff and organising things. According to Peter, she was his rock. He was lost without her.

Peter, at least in the time when I knew him, was a classic case of what unkind smart-arses from younger generations might call a gammon – In appearance at least. He was short, bald, chubby, with a ruddy complexion that you might think came from an enjoyment of the good things in life. He had the jovial but occasionally dyspeptic manner of the sort of retired army colonel you might encounter in a PG Wodehouse novel.

I sometimes found him a slightly off-kilter figure as he sounded off in the clubhouse about all manner of subjects. On one matter, though, we made common cause against the vast body of opinion among our fellow golfers: Brexit. He, like me, thought that the whole project was utterly stupid. For that I would overlook all his other strange opinions.

But it was on the golf course that he made the strongest impression. To be honest, he was a terrible golfer. A hacker of the worst kind. If I was as bad as him – and I also have my bad moments – I would have given up hitting stupid white balls a long time ago. But Peter kept hacking on, literally, hoping against hope that one day he would cure his incurable habit of removing half the fairway with every shot. And with each turf-ripping excavation that sent the ball, as an accidental result of his efforts, a mere thirty yards, he would issue forth an expletive-laden howl of frustration and self-pity that could be heard in the next county.

It got to the point that I actively avoided playing with him, because it could be a major distraction having to watch a grown man cry several times on each round of golf. His cursing I could handle, because I’m not above the occasional (and some would say regular) screamed expletive. But it didn’t endear him to the women golfers who would occasionally be drawn with him in mixed competitions. I always found this rather unkind, because who these days under the age of ninety is really offended by the wide range of expletives that have become common currency whenever people open their mouths?

Perhaps the real reason for the sniffiness was that those who play golf fancy themselves as adhering to a higher code of conduct than the rest of humanity, which presumably is why people like Donald Trump love playing the game.

Peter became a legend for his golfing exploits. I called him The JCB, because a good fifty percent of the scars on the fairways were the result of his efforts to re-fashion their contours. Equally remarkable was his good humour when he returned from his regular journeys of devastation, and his relentless optimism that next time would be better. It never was.

Those who knew him better than me would say that his first love was sailing. It was to the coast that he headed every weekend. Friends who sailed with him say that at the helm of his boat he was something of a Captain Bligh, though he apparently stopped short of making people walk the plank. Despite what I said earlier, I suspect that battling the elements on the open sea was the reason for his weathered appearance. Unless, of course, his capillaries failed to withstand his regular moments of near-apoplexy on the golf course.

He was also into cars, and would go into raptures about a certain model of MG or some other sports car beloved of people of small stature, though totally uninteresting to someone like me, who would have to be cut into a number of small pieces to fit into those ridiculous fetish objects.

Since I’m not really into sailing either, should I end up next to him at a table, I would make polite conversation about his latest jaunt across the channel, courageously avoiding passing warships and supertankers. Beyond that, unless the conversation turned to the iniquities of Brexit, we didn’t really have too much to say to each other, because I tended to blank out if he started a blow-by-blow account of his latest disaster on the golf course. One doesn’t have much sympathy to spare if one’s busy dealing with one’s own pain.

But he stood out as a character, and I’m sure his name will be mentioned far more often than mine when my golfing days are over.

I hope he’ll forgive me for this less than reverent portrayal if he’s looking down at us from some clubhouse in the sky. I shall miss him, though not because he was a particularly remarkable person, any more than I am. After all, who among us is truly remarkable over the long stretch of time?

No, I shall miss him because in some respects he was a bit like me, at least in his habit of expressing opinions regardless of whether or not they’re sought. But as much as anything else, I’m sad to see him go because he was the first of my acquaintances to be taken by COVID. The thought of him in hospital struggling to breathe or lying senseless on a ventilator is more painful than the sight of all the poor people you see in those incessant fly-on-the-wall reports on the TV news. Because I knew him, and now he’s gone.

For me, he is the first, though probably not the last. And for that, Peter deserves, at least by me, to be recognised, remembered and bidden a fond farewell.

To hell with Pontius Pilate, most of us still know what truth looks like. (We just need to be reminded occasionally)

Did anyone catch Sean Spicer being interviewed on the BBC yesterday?

It rolled me back to 2017, when he was Trump’s press secretary. He was the one who swore, against all available evidence, that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was far bigger than Obama’s.

As an exercise in precisely-rehearsed Trumpspeak, it was a classic. Feisty, combative and repeating ad nauseam the narrative of a biased mainstream media, and the need to wait until all the LEGAL votes have been cast.

So, in “legal votes” I have another trigger phrase that sends me into an uncontrollable screaming fit to add to all the other ones I’ve acquired over the past five year.

The roll of honour includes phrases such as “the will of the people”, “get over it”, the various coronavirus triads that have bombarded us on radio and TV and, in the US, any phrase that includes the word Jesus. And just in case you think I’m politically biased, “for the many, not the few” also sends me into paroxysms.

In fact, just about any slogan or phrase, endlessly repeated, makes me think that we’ve been subjected to a mass hypnotism programme. Every time you hear a middle-aged American woman say Jesus, I imagine the listener thinking of Trump, the end times, socialism and illegal votes.

On the other hand, those who have been counter-hypnotised think of Trump, the end times, pussy-grabbing, religious fanatics, Paula White and the orange monster falling asleep in the Oval Office, or possibly dreaming of pussies, as the hands of a dozen evangelists rest upon his shoulders.

So this is our world, in which our leaders are raised up by Mad Men, kept in office by lawyers and ultimately ushered off the cliff by mental health professionals, if the men in grey suits don’t get to them first. Better that, I suppose, than being lined up against a wall and shot, or incinerated in a bunker.

The fascinating thing about the end of Trump is watching people like Spicer faithfully following the party line. Why, you might wonder? He was fired three years ago – why would he keep trotting out this stuff?

A benign explanation is that he’s a man of shining principle, in the grand tradition of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and, er, Donald Trump. He speaks the truth as he sees it, whether or not you share his views.

On the other hand (a phrase I seem to be using quite often these days) you might think that he, like many others within Trump’s orbit, is keeping his options open. He has nothing to lose by his words, and everything to gain. He looks forward to the arrival of Trump TV, and he reckons that he’ll be in line for a nice little number as one of the anchors and opinion shapers for the new station, along with Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Trump’s chief lackeys, who are bound to desert after Trump leaves the White House.

And as for all the congressman and women who slavishly follow the party line, it would seem that their compliance is guaranteed, because they’ll be afraid Trump will ruin them by publicly withdrawing his support.

If you seek rather a pathetic equivalent in the UK, look no further than Nigel Farage, who is now regularly sounding off with his video feed, railing against lockdown, immigrants and all manner of other causes beloved of the far right. The main difference is that he doesn’t have the money to start his own proper TV station and he doesn’t have seventy million voters lining up to watch him.

But don’t be in the least bit surprised if Nigel gets funded before long, perhaps even by Trump.

Is this our fate from now onwards? To he haunted by failed politicians who seek to monetise their notoriety, not by book deals, but by cascades of garbage on their own TV stations?

It does look that way, though our Nigel is unlikely to get the ratings that Donald would achieve. The worst thing about all this is that whatever Biden delivers, Trump will seek to denigrate. He will measure the failings of the next four years against the shimmering success of his own presidency, until he rises again to take back power in 2024.

There are, however, one or two things that might get in his way. First, his health. While Biden, at 77, skipped up to the podium for his victory speech, Trump, at 78, is unlikely to do the same. He’s more likely to need a golf cart to ferry him everywhere.

He also needs to overcome all the lawsuits, bankruptcy proceedings and potential prosecutions that are likely to follow him out of office. Don’t be surprised if new secrets about his behaviour spring forth before long.

It may be that Biden will give no encouragement to those who seek to send Trump to jail because he won’t want to create a martyr. He can damp down federal investigations, but he can’t stop state prosecutors, especially those in New York who think they have the president bang to rights for financial crimes.

Either way, the last thing Biden will want is to wound Trump without finishing him off. That would make him even more dangerous. For those who seek an end to Trump and Trumpism, the best possible outcome is for him to be convicted for some serious crime that destroys his reputation even among his most fanatical supporters. At the moment, it’s hard to say what that might be. If pussy-grabbing, ripping off suppliers, dodging taxes and blackmailing foreign leaders isn’t enough, what is?

If Trump does manage to slither out of jeopardy, will his TV station become a beacon of conservative values? Or merely a rathole of liars, conspiracy theorists, religious fanatics and opportunists seeking to ride into power and prosperity on the coat-tails of a resurgent candidate Trump in 2024?

More likely the latter, I should have thought.

If this is the case, what can be done to counter his influence? Could it be that there are enough wealthy folks who believe that the truth doesn’t come in multiple brands, like condoms in a drug store? What if they took the view that the truth transcends partisan considerations, and set up a TV station dedicated to debunking, rebutting and, within strict parameters, telling stories and presenting facts that 80% of us (a bow to Pareto) can accept as manifestly true?

Not some grubby little Twitter account or YouTube channel, but a proper organisation with researchers, journalists and yes, even scientists who can lend their reputations to enhance the credibility of the output. And I’m not talking about an organisation that thinks it’s impartial by featuring the opinions of people at each end of a spectrum, no matter how weird and wonderful those opinions might be. I’m imagining an organisation that will be just as ready to call out Biden as Trump, or Starmer as Johnson, if they stray into the land of politically-motivated fantasy.

In Britain, the BBC will never be that organisation again, if it ever was. Whereas four years ago I followed its coverage of the US elections in preference to all other stations. Now, it seems, it’s so terrified of being attacked for showing bias that it prefers to say nothing at all. If it has to show a debate on a topic it goes to any lengths short of scouring the rainforest for some previously unknown species of primate in order to present a contrary view.

I was sufficiently disenchanted with the BBC’s coverage of this year’s circus that I went to CNN. What impressed me about its coverage was the preparedness of its anchors to call out Trump’s disinformation for what it was: lies. I know that as a station it has no reason to love Trump, since he’s consistently abused and insulted Jim Acosta, its White House correspondent. But nonetheless, it gave me the impression of scrupulousness in its assessment of the voting process, particularly when presented by the indefatigable John King. With every statement was a caveat, which I found quite reassuring.

And when CNN called Pennsylvania for Biden, I got the impression that there was a methodology behind that decision, based on data rather than the whim of a capricious proprietor.

I’m not suggesting that CNN could be that lofty antidote to Trump’s future dirt machine. At this stage, his base probably views it as the devil incarnate. But in its willingness to call out bullshit, it played what we British call a blinder.

So where are those wealthy potential investors who believe in telling the verifiable, unvarnished truth, and are willing to demonstrate their belief by putting their money where their mouths are. Bloomberg? Gates? Buffett? The trouble is that billionaires didn’t get to where they are today without inflicting a few casualties in their wake. So their motives and agendas will always be open to speculation, as Gates knows well.

Perhaps the key is independent governance and a tightly-drawn charter. Not easy, because every humanitarian, non-political organisation is open to accusations of bias and manipulation on the part of those who fund it. If, for example, you want to discredit an organisation in the minds of those who are politically aligned across a wide spectrum, all you have to say is that it’s funded by George Soros.

I am of course betraying my alignment by anticipating that Trump, in his future media incarnation, will focus on the malignant politics that he’s promoted in office. I might be wrong. Perhaps he will focus on self-enrichment. You could well imagine him coming up with shows on the lines of The Apprentice, with him, naturally, at the centre of things. Maybe he’ll create some nightmarish variant of a quiz show. Is Who Wants to Be a Billionaire? waiting in the wings?

But 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.

So come on, billionaires, zillionaires and anyone else who believes that a world in which lies are challenged is a safer place, it’s time to step up before it’s too late. Time for Truth TV.

COVID is not the only pandemic rolling across the Earth.

Long ago, when Clive James was in his prime, he used to delight in showing us video clips of eccentric Japanese TV shows. Effectively, they were I’m a Celebrity Get Get Me Out of Here on steroids, except that the participants of the game shows weren’t celebrities, but ordinary (!) people prepared to chuck away their dignity by putting up with all manner of humiliating tests of endurance. It was crazy stuff, and it pre-dated the cruelty and sadism of modern reality TV by a couple of decades.

It was also hilarious, in a way that no reality TV has managed to be since. It’s likely that you wouldn’t be able to view these shows today, because the powers that be would consider them racist.

Modern equivalents are no longer to be found on TV. More likely they’re on on Twitter and YouTube. But if you have a taste for the bizarre, I suggest that you follow a group that goes under the name of Right Wing Watch. I say a group – they could actually be one person. They’re to be found on Twitter. They specialise in a particularly gruesome form of comedy. Actually, they aren’t comedy at all for many people.

RWW scours the media for videos of right-wing evangelicals in full flow. For any but their followers these folks – as they careen around stages babbling about angels striking down the enemies of Donald Trump, laughing maniacally at the prospect of Joe Biden becoming president and giving theatrical impressions of people speaking in tongues – are enormously entertaining, until you realise that they mean it. And then you wonder how many God-fearing followers in the churches of Florida, Arkansas and North Carolina will take them seriously enough to go back home and unlock their hunting rifles, ready step in if the angels don’t do their work.

Hopefully the FBI and the Secret Service have similar worries and are doing what they need to in order to protect the president-elect.

I know I’m inclined to babble on about the difference between my country and the United States, but this is a big one. In Britain we don’t have a religious right. No televangelist in their right mind would pitch to a British audience that we should part with our hard-earned dosh to buy them a second executive jet. Perhaps one reason why the ranters and ravers haven’t gained much traction over here is because they all emigrated to America, the land of the free and the exceptionally gullible.

The evangelicals are nothing new in America. People over there have been testing their faith by fondling rattlesnakes for centuries. But their weaponization in support of right-wing politics has only really come to the fore over the past fifty years. So while back in the day we were able to laugh at them in the same way as we did suicidal Japanese game show contestants, now we have to take them more seriously, especially when they have representatives at the highest level of government actively trying to bring about conditions that they believe will trigger the end of days. And if you don’t believe me, check out the beliefs of the current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

An equally sinister phenomenon is the ranting of Muslim televangelists, who are matching the Christian right for lunacy. I also subscribe to a Twitter feed called MEMRI, which specialises in videos of preachers The moderate ones call for the restoration of the caliphate, but there are some wilder shores inhabited by people like the chap who recently urged Pakistan to unleash its nuclear weapons on the infidel. These guys, and yes, they all seem to be guys, are not just speaking from the obvious places in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. They’re also to be found, it seems, in American, Canadian and European cities.

A note of caution here. I have no idea about the political affiliations of the person or people who are behind Right Wing Watch. But its raison d’etre gives a clue: “A project of People For the American Way that monitors and exposes the activities of Radical Right political organizations”. So I doubt if they’re Trump supporters. All well and good, but any organisation that talks about the American Way automatically arouses my suspicions. After all, there are many different versions of this mythical path.

MEMRI, on the other hand, makes no secret of its connections. It is a non-profit institute based in Washington DC “co-founded by former Israeli military intelligence officer, Yigal Carmon, and Meyrtav Wurmser, an Israeli-born American political scientist” (Wikipedia)

But even if MEMRI’s agenda is to undermine and discredit Islamist preachers, it’s hard make a case that these videos have been edited in such a way as to highlight extremist sentiments that stand on their own. The messages these guys are sending are pretty much in your face. Unless MEMRI is using deep fake technology, of course.

I don’t find MEMRI’s offerings as amusing as the ranting of America’s religious right. But they are compelling nonetheless, because seemingly without any central orchestration, these preachers are beating a drum that echoes around the Muslim world. Not among the vast number of rational Muslims who are no less sceptical of the siren calls of fundamentalism than the majority of Americans are of the lunacies of the religious right. But if one in a hundred is inspired to radical action by these preachers, that’s a whole lot of people who might go on to translate thoughts into deeds.

When I subscribe to stuff like this, I’m mainly interested in the political dimension. No doubt there are many more weird and wacky feeds and channels out there that amuse, provoke and horrify. But life’s too short. I have enough to be going on with. The MEMRI stuff is plain disturbing, as no doubt it’s intended to be. But I can’t help laughing at the videos of right-wing Christian preachers, who appear to me to be plain demented.

But then if we’re looking for demented talk, we don’t need gimlet-eyed lunatics laughing at Biden’s election, when we have people like Rudy Giuliani standing up in a car park between a crematorium and a sex shop spouting about a stolen election.

A bonfire of the vanities, you might say.

Here’s the point. You might easily content yourself with ignoring the social media altogether, or at least confine yourself with videos of screaming goats and cuddly dogs. But your neighbour, without your even knowing it, might be gorging themselves on the dark stuff. All of a sudden, they’re coming out with all manner of conspiracy theories, and you wonder how the hell people you thought were sane and rational have turned out to be raving cultists.

I know of at least two people, both medical professionals with long experience, who seem to have gone that way. That they’re Trump supporters is one thing, but it seems that if you’ve bought into the orange monster, you’re highly susceptible to buying into a package that includes 5G paranoia, the Gates/Soros implantation theory and all manner of other spikes on the QAnon virus. Before you know it, you believe that the world is controlled by shape-shifting lizards, or you pray that the angels from Africa, South America and Asia will fly to your country and liberate it from blood-drinking paedophiles and other demons that have populated the land.

Almost as bizarre as anything else, you believe that the pussy-grabbing, narcissistic fraudster at the White House is God’s instrument for restoring virtue and order.

Which suggests to me that an entire hemisphere – because this is not just happening in America – is going through a serious bout of mental illness that is just as destructive as the coronavirus.

In other words, we’re dealing with two pandemics, not just one. We seem to be on the verge of rolling out a vaccine for the first one, but dealing with the second will be even tougher.

And before you mention it, I’ll say it: without even realising it, I could be a member of a cult that seeks to bring down God’s instrument on earth. Or I could be a lizard who’s extremely pissed off at the Chosen One’s presumption.

Cornwall: the dark side of a British tourist haven

Last night I watched the first episode in a series of documentaries about Cornwall by Simon Reeve. It was an eye-opener.

I know Cornwall pretty well. From childhood memories of holidays in a hotel just down the coastline from where Marconi first sent radio signals across the Atlantic. From more recent holidays near Padstow, where Rick Stein has created a gastronomic empire.

The public face of Britain’s favourite holiday destination is well known: breath-taking coastline, surfing, terrifyingly narrow lanes, clotted cream, pasties, ornamental gardens, sandy beaches, tiny coves and harbour towns.

Oh, and weather you can never rely on. When the sun shines in Cornwall, it’s summer heaven, even if half the population of the country wants to enjoy it with you. And when the wind sends sheets of horizontal rain across the cliffs, it’s hell for parents of small children who have forgotten (or never learned) how to amuse themselves indoors. Though for me, even the rain gives the landscape a rugged charm. Perhaps that’s because I’m a golfer.

But then again I don’t live in the county. I don’t have to scratch a living over the long winter months after the tourists have taken their money elsewhere. And I’m not a young person for whom, as Reeve observed, there are only jobs, but no careers.

Simon Reeve did us Cornwall-lovers a favour by pointing out that this is a region that has suffered more than most from the hollowing-out of our industrial heartlands. We might think that Wales and the north, with their disused coal mines, run-down factories and crumbling steel mills are the ultimate symbols of industrial decline – parts of the country where many people get by on welfare and the efforts of volunteers who run foodbanks.

But we don’t often spare a thought for the people of Britain’s most westerly county, whose tin and copper mines have closed, whose china clay industry is a fraction of what it once was, and whose fisheries have been as near as dammit wiped out by competition from super-trawlers who are scooping up the lobsters, crabs and other fish that used to be there in abundance for small fishing boats operating out of the tiny stone harbours that we love to visit.

Reeve took us to Camborne, once one of the centres of Cornish mining. It’s now a town crippled by poverty, with crumbling industrial relics and a large part of the population sustained, just as in other deprived regions, by foodbanks.

Worse still, if he’s to be believed, the regeneration promised by successive governments for post-industrial wastelands elsewhere has never gained traction in Cornwall. Is that because of poor transport links, the remoteness of the area or simply because there aren’t enough votes to attract the attention of central government? I don’t know.

For whatever reason, the county is more dependent on tourism than ever before. And when lockdown struck, tourism collapsed. Despite people returning in huge numbers in the late summer months, there are still concerns over whether small businesses that depend on visitors will survive.

I have been to other parts of the world that are equally dependent on tourism, but don’t have the benefit of furlough schemes and other forms of government support. How the people of Bali and Phuket are coping at the moment, goodness knows. My heart goes out to them.

But we British do have the power to look after our own. The young people of Cornwall have always had an option that potentially allows them to build secure futures for themselves. They can leave. And many, it seems, are doing just that. Is that what we want for our most beautiful region? Depopulation, hollowed out communities of the middle-aged and elderly? An area that lies fallow in the winter and springs to life in the summer?

On the one hand, you might think that’s inevitable, just as the west of Ireland was long ago depopulated by the ravages of poverty and famine. And if you believe in market forces, sink or swim and the virtues of self-reliance, you will no more advocate saving the inland communities of Cornwall than you will try and resist the erosion of coastlines in other parts of the country.

On the other hand, why do we trumpet the value of a United Kingdom if we’re not prepared to intervene on behalf of those who need a helping hand, just as we’re trying to do, with varying degrees of success, in other regions whose problems are more obvious? And if we let down populations that are far away from the centre of economic gravity in south-east England, can we blame those who call for greater devolution of the power to control their own destinies, even to the point of separation?

Where Scotland goes, and potentially Wales and Northern Ireland too, why not Cornwall?

This is not a serious argument for the independence of Cornwall, because it relies so heavily on the safety net provided by the Union. But are we to be content for such a gem of an area to remain a seasonal haven for people who own houses that stay empty in the winter while those who remain struggle to afford, at best, to live in dilapidated housing estates and at worst, in sheds and mobile homes?

I know there are no easy answers to Cornwall’s problems. But I also know that if we have pretensions to become a vibrant and entrepreneurial trading nation after Brexit, we must surely have the wit to find solutions to the tough problems, not just the easy ones.

We must surely try harder.

A democratically-elected monster has bitten the dust

It goes without saying that yesterday was the day I’d been hoping for ever since America elected the orange monster four years ago. I was watching CNN when they called Pennsylvania, and thus the whole election, for Joe Biden. I was moved when Van Jones broke down in tears, and the rest of the CNN team was swept along in a wave of enthusiasm that washed over the country.

This is how America differs from Britain. We don’t do displays of mass enthusiasm, except when our sporting heroes prevail. The sight of a BBC commentator breaking down in tears at the prospect of a change of government after a British election would be inconceivable.

The willingness of Americans to go on the streets to celebrate, to travel for miles to attend political rallies, to proclaim their idealism and unashamedly show their patriotism by putting flags outside their houses is profoundly un-British.

It also has a dark side. It means that America is also susceptible to being carried away by demagogues who would appeal to negative emotions: fear, envy, religious intolerance and xenophobia.

We too are susceptible to these emotions, but usually in a quieter and more private way.

It’s also ironic that as people flooded on to the streets across the US, I stood in my garden and watched fireworks bursting into the sky, not in celebration of a new president in another country, but in commemoration of an attempt four hundred years ago by dissident Catholics to blow up parliament. Not that many people who hold fireworks parties think too much about Guy Fawkes, but divisions between Protestant and Catholic have blighted our society ever since.

Even if the discord in the north of Ireland is relatively subdued today, it still has the ability to flare up again, all the more potentially because of the attitude of the government to the Good Friday Agreement in the context of Brexit.

Unfortunately, we in Britain are still deeply divided, not only because of Brexit, but in terms of Scotland’s future and the unequal distribution of wealth between North and South. Unlike the United States, we lack a unifying moment. There will be no general election for four years. So the prospect of the kind of reset that is possible in America is unlikely any time soon in the UK unless a further crisis sends us to the wall.

But enough of the UK and its problems. I’m celebrating a precious moment for the United States. A democratically-elected monster has bitten the dust. Perhaps the Trump era had to happen in order to remind the country how easy it is to flirt with the dark side. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, it’s possible that the hatred and fear among a section of the population who have felt themselves threatened, ignored and condemned as deplorables would have remained bottled up, only to surface in even more dangerous ways four years later.

Nobody will ignore them now, especially as their representatives remain in Congress. Equally, nobody on the other side will be so complacent as to believe that the institutions once thought to be solid as rock cannot be subverted and corrupted.

The moment is now with Biden and Harris. For all the challenges they face in dealing with COVID, restoring the economy and restoring a sense of public interest after four years of rampant self-interest, an equal challenge will be political.

If they lose the senate after the Georgia run-offs in January, they have two years to persuade the electorate to keep faith with them in the mid-term elections, and perhaps even to finish the job of converting the senate to a Democrat majority. That will be a tough job. Incoming administrations rarely increase their support in congress.

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.

Another factor that has yet to be considered is what other dirt will be revealed once his former acolytes start spilling their secrets. There have been no stories of sexual impropriety by the pussy-grabber-in-chief while in office. That could be because there are none to be told, but it could also be because those who might tell stories have been intimidated into silence. Trump’s White House staff are unlikely to emerge with their CVs enhanced. They will be looking for other ways to monetise their futures.

Even if Trump evades all the threats to his immediate well-being, starts a new career as a media mogul and tries to spearhead a fight-back, the power no longer lies with him. It’s in the hands of Biden and Harris to do what they promise – to act in the interests of all Americans.

The demise of the orange monster has been a moment to cherish, but it has not removed the threat to the stability of the world’s most powerful country. In the hills of the hinterland there are still people busy cleaning their weapons. The expectations of the winning side can still turn to disappointment and anger.

That said, for me, someone who has watched the antics of Trump with a mixture of horror and disgust, the past few days have been utterly thrilling and finally exhilarating.

Has a tide turned? Who knows? However the next four years turn out, it’ll be a fascinating ride.

In a moment of change, an opportunity for Britain to think again

As we watch American democracy, in all its querulous and partisan glory, slowly reaching a conclusion on the matter of Trump versus Biden, one of the interesting aspects of the election process is not so much to listen to the pronouncements of the great and the good, but to take note of the press conferences given by officials who are administering the vote count in the battleground states such as Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Over the past 48 hours, these officials have been explaining in detail, county by county, the current state of play in their states. They have also shared with us the process they use for dealing with votes cast on election day, absentee votes and mail-in votes. The processes they are describing seem very complex. One of the officials, I think it was in Georgia, talked about a four-stage process of categorisation and verification that has to take place before the votes can be added to the tally for the state.

This partly explains why it’s taking such a long time for these states to count every vote. Special measures to prevent malevolent hackers from distorting the results are another reason. And decisions by state administrations to change the counting rules so that mail-in and absentee ballots are counted not first, in the run-up to election day, but last, are making a difference. Why last? Because there was a perception, fuelled by Trump, that the mail-in ballots would show an early skew in favour of the Democrats.

The conventional wisdom, which seems to be born out by the results, is that most Republicans voted early or on Election Day, whereas a majority of Democrats have gone either for mail-in. Why would that be? Beyond my paygrade, I’m afraid, but I would hazard a guess that Republican voters, encouraged by all sorts of mixed messages from the White House, as exemplified by Trump’s mask-free rallies, are less spooked by COVID than the Democrats. Hence Democrat voters are taking the safer option by mailing their votes.

Be that as it may, anyone who has spent some time in the USA, as I have, will know that far from being a quick and easy place to do business and conduct a civic life, America is highly bureaucratic, both at a state and federal level. In the US, you pay federal, state and city taxes. You have to navigate different ways of getting stuff done in each of the fifty states.

Why then, do we British, especially the faction that wants to “take back control”, look to the United States as our natural ally and trading partner, while excoriating the European Union, which has a far weaker federal structure and a bureaucracy far smaller than the American federal behemoth?

Is it because we feel more culturally assimilated with America, thanks to a common language and the overwhelming dominance of the US technology and entertainment industries?

This has obviously been a subject of debate over the past five years since a slim majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union, so I won’t bore you by going over the arguments again here.

But 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 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.

I’m not picking this moment to make an invidious comparison between the institutions of the United States and the European Union. No doubt the US at some stage will sail into calmer waters. But isn’t it worth reflecting that the European Union has come though a financial crisis, and has absorbed numbers of incoming refugees that would have caused revolutionary protest in today’s US without falling apart and without abandoning its founding principles: the free movement of goods, services, capital and people?

And am I being a cultural snob by suggesting that the bedrock of our culture isn’t the iPhone app, the gig economy, superhero movies and the abandonment of those who fail to thrive, but the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Leonardo, Beethoven, Shakespeare and all the other cultural influences that come from Europe and our former colonies in Africa and Asia, not from the United States? And now we seem to have given up making war across our borders, should we not be looking to a future of alignment, if not to the institutions but at least to the principles of the European Union?

Whether we look to the future with optimism of pessimism, it does seem to me that in six months’ time, assuming a more rational government takes office the United States, and we are finally able to look beyond the massive disruption and grief caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we in Britain have an opportunity to think again about our future.

Will we look for consensus, reconciliation and a fresh desire to work with our neighbours to rebuild our shattered economies? Or will we continue on our current bull-headed course, sacrificing our future prosperity on the altar of small-minded and destructive ideologies perpetuated by a group of misguided politicians with questionable motives?

I won’t be holding my breath, because re-thinks don’t happen in an instant. It will be a long haul before our beliefs and priorities evolve, just as the end of Trump in America won’t mean the end of Trumpism.

I do think we’ll eventually get to a better place. Yes, I know I’m biased. But, as John Lennon said, I’m not the only one.

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