Thursday, 22 February 2018

A racially pure Britain

It’s been quite a month for racial awareness in Britain.

First we learned that the country’s first inhabitants were black. The first recognisably human people to populate the island, some 10,000 years ago, were dark-skinned, new research into so-called ‘Cheddar Man’ has shown. Bad news for those grieving for the ancient racial purity of the country. At least if they’re white.

Next we had the news that quite a while after Cheddar Man’s time, around 4500 years ago, a bunch of people showed up from the Continent. These were the ‘beaker people’, so-called because of finds of a distinctive style of pottery beakers with a flared lip. DNA analysis has shown that they’re distinctly different people. They turned up in Britain and the previous inhabitants simply vanished into the background, never to re-emerge.
One of Britain's original inhabitants, apparently
So the population of Britain was originally black. Those people were then supplanted by immigrants from Continental Europe, though what their colour was I don’t know: what I’m focusing on is that they came from what is now the EU.

What this means is that all those concerns about immigration that drive Brexiters are entirely misplaced. Especially when they target immigration from the European Union. We – and indeed they - are the immigrants from Europe. Without such immigration, few of us would be there.

The third piece of news that caught my attention in this context was the statement of Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary (Labour’s spokesperson on home affairs), that some use the term ‘immigration’ as a euphemism for ‘race’. Good for her for having said it. To be honest, the statement is so obvious that it really shouldn’t be necessary to say it, but it certainly is. There are far too many siren voices, particularly worried about the pro-Brexit sentiments of the North of England, who keep urging the rest of us to understand the ‘legitimate’ concerns in some communities about immigration.

Well, if it’s a euphemism for racism, as it all too often is, I see no reason at all to accommodate it.

In any case, these new findings of archaeologists should have left the xenophobes in disarray. Let’s say we do set out to get rid of the immigrants from our midst. One of the geneticists who worked on the Beaker people project reckons that “at least 90% of the ancestry of Britons was replaced by a group from the continent”. That would suggest something like 59 million would have to leave Britain.

Angela Merkel has been good about taking refugees in the past. Today, however, the pressure is on her to stop. And in any case – nearly 60 million? Could be tough.

Interestingly, that would leave a very small number of Britons on the island. It might be hard for them to keep basic services going – the schools, say, the hospitals, the trains. But then I suppose that’s the problem with people who want to create ethnically homogeneous nations: they don’t realise they’re cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Still, they would at least have achieved their aim. The country would at last have shaken off the impact of 4500 years of immigration. It would be racially pure.

And, of course, black.

Monday, 19 February 2018

A brief encounter, a long friendship

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot, but he'll remember with advantages what feats he did that day.

My wife tells me that I've reached an age where I should start writing my memoirs. Or at least my memories: my life so far is, in many ways, made up of a series of pieces. So what better way to account for it than in blog posts?

The day in question was in September in 1964. My parents, my brother in I were on our way back from a memorable holiday in a country that no longer exists: Yugoslavia. Two events in particular stick in my memory.

Plitvička Jezera: an extraordinary place
One occurred at an idyllic spot, called Plitvička Jezera, a glorious mountain lake. I took a rowing boat out on it alone although I was only eleven - perhaps because I was only eleven - and once well away from the shore, I dived in over the side and then swam back to the boat. It was bracing and exciting: bracing because the water was far colder than I'd ever dip more than a toe in today, exciting because there was always a chance that a current would whip the boat away from me and I'd be left confronting an interesting challenge.

My mother knew nothing about my little joy ride and I count on you not to tell her now. After all, nothing happened. I got safely back and if she hasn't worried about the event for 54 years, what's the point of her worrying about it now?

The other event that left a particular trace in my memory stronger than many others involved my brother Nicky, after whom my younger son is called. In a coastal town called Sveti Stefan he managed to get separated from the rest of the family and, after having searched for him fruitlessly for nearly an hour, we went to a café on the other side of the causeway that links the island to the mainland and waited for him to reappear on it.
Sveti Stefan and the causeway that saw the confrontation
between my brother and my mother
Since there was no other way off the island, he inevitably did come into sight, an hour or so later. The image forever ingrained in my memory is of my mother stalking down to the bridge to greet him. She was looking highly business like, about as business like as I've ever seen her and, while I couldn't hear her words to him when they met, I think few were of a kind generally associated with the notion of endearment.

The odd thing is that my son, the one called after him, also managed to get spectacularly lost on more than one occasion in his childhood. So whenever I hear people using the Shakespeare line, "what's in a name?", I'm inclined to reply, "if it's Nicky, then a tendency to get disastrously lost as a child".

At the time, my family lived in Rome. On the way home, we stopped in Perugia. I imagine my mother took us to see the Raphael frescos, but I have to say that, wonderful as they no doubt are, I have practically no recollection of them. At 11 - my brother wasn't quite eight - my fascination for the great elements of our cultural heritage wasn't quite as powerful as I believe my mother imagined.

What does stand out was the arrival in our camping site of an Austin mini-van with a hand-made wooden box lashed to the top, and crammed with people: two adults in front, two children and a six-month old in a carry-cot behind. What made it even more remarkable that they'd travelled in such a confined space, was the realisation that both adults were unusually tall.
A 1960s Austin Mini van of the kind our friends showed up in at Perugia
Though theirs had British plates and a wooden box on top
"Good Lord," said my mother, "how did they all get into that?"

"They're Brits," said my father, who'd spotted their registration plates, "and they look hot, bothered and dusty."

So as one put the kettle on to boil, the other wandered over to suggest they might like a cup of tea. That's the offer no Englishman can resist, especially in their state.

This was the beginning of a friendship that has endured over half a century. Over that cup of tea, my parents issued and they accepted an invitation to come and see us in Rome. A week later they showed up and we got to know them better: Hazel and Michael, the parents, Richard, Charles and William the children - the last the six-month old in his carry cot.

Later, when my brother and I joined a boarding school in England, Hazel and Michael agreed to be our legal guardians, adults resident in Britain who agreed to take charge of children with parents abroad in case they were orphaned.

We were close through many years. While I was a student in London, I saw them regularly, and I was a student there for ten years. As often as not, Michael and I would have long debates on political, social or philosophical matters which at my age I found fascinating though ultimately frustrating - he was good at dodging my arguments, shifting his ground or slightly deforming my words and throwing them back at me - and I'm sure everyone around us, not least long-suffering Hazel, found them immensely dull. However, once children came along and in particular after work took us into Continental Europe, we drifted apart to some extent. We never lost contact entirely but it became infrequent to the point of sparseness.

But then we returned to England. Not long after, we got back in touch with Hazel - I rang her to wish her a happy birthday, and easy one to remember since it had also been my father's. It was then we learned that Michael was dying. It's a relief I feel to this day that we were back and in touch soon enough to see him one last time. It was a moment of warmth and also of poignancy: he could say little and had trouble staying awake but it was easy to see he was as happy as I was that our paths had crossed again.

Since then we've seen each other several times. It's amusing that the baby in the carry cot is now a man in his fifties. Well, not that amusing: it reminds that for me too over half a century has gone by.

Still, we're back in touch with some close, warm friends. And it's invaluable to have such friends. Proving that a random encounter in an Italian campsite can have wonderful consequences.

As it demonstrates a truth that will come as no surprise to an Englishman: the offer of a cup of tea can be extraordinarily potent.

Friday, 16 February 2018

An education policy that hankers for the past and pursues the downright trivial

For anyone who saw it, wasn’t that a great story about UK School Minister Nick Gibb being asked what eight times nine makes during a TV interview on the Good Morning Britain programme?

Why was he being asked? Gibb wants to introduce testing of multiplication table knowledge in eight and nine-year olds throughout England. There is a hankering after such traditional – you might say outdated – forms of school learning among many in Conservative circles.

The wet dream of Tory education ministers
Perfectly useless as a means to develop mathematical skill

Gibb’s answer to the question?

I’ve learned through bitter experience never to answer these kinds of questions on live television.

In other words, he wasn’t confident that he knew the answer. Which, as the interviewer Kate Garraway pointed out, hadn’t stopped him becoming a government minister. His answer that eight and nine-year olds wouldn’t be asked such questions on live TV was glib but a cop out: they’re not paid ministerial salaries either.

In any case, this nostalgic longing for rote learning is entirely misplaced. It’s true that I sometimes smile at the slowness of shop staff in calculating change. If the till doesn’t tell them, or they don’t have a calculator to work it out, they often find it difficult to decide such problems as what change from a £5 note to give me for £3.89’s worth of purchases.

But who cares? They do have a till machine or a calculator, and either is likely to be more accurate than their calculations. It takes much the same time to use either of those devices as to do the mental arithmetic. In any case, the calculation doesn’t require knowledge of a multiplication table.

Besides which, this is all so trivial. What if they got it wrong and I didn’t spot the error? The total sum at stake is £1.11. Who cares? As a general rule, I’d prefer correct change, but when all’s said and done, I’m far more likely to do more damage to my finances myself, through some ill-considered purchase, than the maximum I could lose through this calculation being carried out incorrectly.

Certainly, this isn’t worth a major national initiative and inflicting more boredom and pain on children.

What’s far worse is that multiplication table exams only test children’s memory, the least interesting part of mathematical ability.

Here’s what I’d like a child (or a government minister) to do, if they can’t remember what eight times nine makes.

At the simplest level, they might say, “I know what eight times ten makes, because that’s easy – it’s eighty. And nine times is just ten times less one time, so the answer must be 80 – 8.”

Or, if the child had mastered some of the earlier entries in the multiplication table, they might say, “well, four times nine is thirty-six, so eight times nine must be just twice that, which isn’t hard to work out.”

A really clever child who knew some of the multiplication table, but not the row for eight, might say, “8 is just 4 x 2, and 9 is 3 x 3, so I’m trying to work out 4 x 2 x 3 x 3, or 4 x 3 x 2 x 3, which is six twelves, and I know the answer to that.”

To be honest, if the child took that last approach but got the answer wrong, I’d be inclined to give the work a good mark. The reasoning is so good, and it demonstrates a knowledge of factorisation (you can split numbers into simpler components) and of the commutative nature of multiplication (you can multiply numbers in any order and the result is the same). Reasoning is far more useful to mathematics than simply getting the right result – which we can obtain more reliably from the ubiquitous calculator (hey, they’re even on our phones).

Surely that’s more useful than simply parroting “72”? As Nick Gibb apparently wouldn’t. Or couldn’t.

An anecdote about Einstein recounts that a student once asked him what the speed of sound was. Einstein replied that he didn’t clutter up his memory with such information, but instead made sure he knew how to find it. I think even Nick Gibb would have trouble denying that Einstein was pretty good at maths, despite his aversion to burdening his brain through rote learning.

I’m assuming that Gibb has heard of Einstein, though he might well deny it on live TV, as a self-protective measure.

To misquote Oscar Wilde, a Tory government chasing the mirage of a reversion to traditional education policy, is merely the uninspired in pursuit of the undesirable.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Celebrating St Valentine's Day - differently.

The fourteenth of February strikes me as a good moment for a man to pay tribute to a woman. Though, in this case, not for the obvious reason. Or, for that matter, for the obvious woman.

Most people have heard of Thomas Edison, the great American inventor. The phonograph and the telephone were among his best-known achievements. He also worked on electricity distribution though, ironically, he backed the use of direct current as opposed to alternating current, the form ultimately adopted and to which he eventually converted.

He even tried to expose alternating current by inventing a device to electrocute living beings, to show just how dangerous a form of electricity it was. Unfortunately, this had precisely the opposite effect. With many of his compatriots only too keen on killing others, his device was adopted with enthusiasm and he found that he'd inadvertently invented the electric chair.

Less well-known than Edison is Margaret Knight, sometimes thought of as "the female Edison".

She was born, on 14 February 1838, in the US state of Maine. With only limited education, she went to work at the age of 12 in a cotton mill in Manchester, New Hampshire. That was where her talent for invention first emerged. She saw a fellow worker injured by a steel-tipped shuttle that was flung out of a mechanical loom. She invented a safety device to stop that happening again and, though, we don't know what it consisted of and she never patented it, the invention was adopted by other mills throughout the town.

Margaret Eloise Knight 
"The Female Edison"
The invention for which she is most to be celebrated, however, was a process for cutting and gluing the foldable paper bag. Because it is foldable, it packs very small. Because it is biodegradable, it doesn't have the same disastrous effect on the environment as plastic bags - David Attenborough, in his recent Blue Planet II series reveals how plastic is causing havoc among sea creatures. So it's both a useful invention and one whose time has come around, again.

Rather more constructive an invention than, say, the electric chair, I can't help feeling. But that may just be me.

So, on this Valentine's day, I raise my glass to Margaret Knight on her 180th birthday and remember her fondly. That great invention of hers never died out in the US but it's practically vanished in Europe. It's time to reintroduce it.

I appreciate that this is not perhaps as romantic a sentiment as is generally associated with this day. But it's just as heartfelt.

A fine invention. Useful and highly topical

Monday, 12 February 2018

So French, so very French

We're just back from a week in France, and it's been a real pleasure. .

It felt a bit like a homecoming. This is partly because we used to live there, partly because as well as being undoubtedly English, I also hold French nationality (for which I am profoundly grateful in the light of Brexit), so I think of France as my second home anyway. So I suppose it was a bit of a home-from-homecoming.

What was particularly attractive were the specifically French touches we met in the course of our stay.
France may be in top place, but the EU and Provence are right there too
It started at Marseille airport. Outside the terminal, three flags were blowing, practically rigid in the Mistral wind. It was striking that, though pride of place was given to the flag of France, alongside it were the flags of the traditional province to which Marseille belonged - Provence, whose name comes from the Latin word for province, so in a sense it's the province - and the flag of the European Union.

It seems that the Marseillais have understood that you can be a member of the European Union, and proud of it, without giving up the slightest trace of your attachment to your country or even to your local roots. A lesson that many of the English, sadly, seem not to have grasped.

From the airport we trekked up into the mountains. We were in France for the skiing, after all. These mountains were in the Southern Alps. The advantage is that the weather tends to be far better than in other parts of the same range, though the risk is that the snow may be poorer. Fortunately, this time there was plenty of snow as well as plenty of sun. Fair-weather skiers that we are, the combination was just what we needed.

We stayed in a private flat rented out by its owners. It was luxurious for the four of us and would have been comfortable for six. But six was the maximum. Which made it gloriously French to discover that the kitchen cupboard contained sixteen dinner plates. Food, you see, matters.
Just about enough dinner plates for four. Or even six
Even more to the point, among the huge collection of glasses - for water, for red wine, for white wine - there were even ten champagne flutes. I suppose champagne is just one of those things you have to share with your nine best friends.
Among all the glasses, just about enough champagne flutes
Still it was a glorious place to stay. You could see the first ski lift from our bedroom window. An ideal location from which to enjoy the ideal conditions.

We could see the nearest ski lift from our bedroom window
As you can see, the fashion in ski clothing this year was for the
understated and inconspicuous
On the way back, we stopped at a local cheese shop. I was particularly impressed by the locker system they've introduced. A client just phones ahead (or, I suppose, goes on-line); the shop takes the order and the payment for it; and a few minutes before the stated collection time someone on the staff pops out and fills the appropriate locker with the goods ordered.

Amazon does something similar in England with books or films or household goods. It again feels distinctly French find that, even up in the Alps, they do it with cheese. French and endearing.

Cheese lockers - because you need your cheese fresh. And convenient
So it was truly a home-from-homecoming, and a great way to spend a week. Especially as the sun was out when we got back to Marseille, to the extent that we could eat outside in our friends' garden out on the coast. What a restorative for the winter-weary…
Sun on the sea in St Cyr sur Mer

Friday, 9 February 2018

Labour and Brexit: time to lead

If you watch a friend signing a document committing a large sum to an organisation that is scamming him, you do him no service by offering a better pen. Instead, if you want to help him, you'll try to talk him out of the mistake he's making. He may not like you for shattering his illusions but it is still the best favour you can do for him.

The British government has spent a long time trying to hide the results of its own analysis of the potential economic outcomes of the different options for Brexit: leaving the EU but staying in the Single Market and Customs Union, leaving but with a good trade deal in place, or leaving with no deal and having to revert to World Trade Organisation terms ("hard Brexit). However, the government has been forced to release the reports to Parliament. The broad lines have begun to leak.

Those of us who voted to remain within the EU will not be at all surprised to discover that there is no option that is economically beneficial to the UK. The harder the Brexit, the worse the impact. And the regions most affected will be the North of England and to a somewhat lesser extent, the West Midlands.

Brexit damage to the UK economy by region
From the Guardian
These, coincidentally, are the regions that voted most solidly for Brexit. They are also, the North of England above all and the West Midlands to a somewhat lesser extent, the heartlands of the Labour Party - my party.

It's easy to sympathise with Labour MPs, and indeed Labour Party members in those regions, who feel that opposing the Brexit views of so many constituents will undermine the party's position. It's particularly tough for the MPs, whose very jobs are at stake. So it's comprehensible that there should be calls to show understanding, even sympathy, for the anxiety about the EU expressed by so many in those regions.

This is often dressed up as an economic concern. EU immigrants are taking local jobs or putting excessive pressure on health, housing or education services. However, there is no evidence that any of this is happening and now there is evidence that Brexit would be no solution anyway - the government analysis shows that Brexit would wreak far worse damage on services and employment than immigrants ever could - if they did cause damage

There is no valid economic argument for Brexit.

Which leads to the darker, uncomfortable truth about a lot of these Leave voters. A truth we don't like to voice inside Labour. Their concern about immigrants may not be about economics at all but simply about immigration. 

What drives it is fear of the other, the foreigner - which is a translation of the original Greek that gives us the word xenophobia. It is the attitude summed up by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party at the time of the Brexit referendum, when he spoke of his discomfort at finding himself in a railway carriage in which everyone around him was speaking a foreign language.

If "understanding" or "sympathy" means accommodating xenophobia, then Labour would be crossing a red line which lose it its soul.

Our supporters in the Brexit camp have swallowed a snake oil salesman's patter. They believed the now-discredited claims of the Brexiters that there would be a huge Brexit dividend that could be used to fund the NHS. They believed that many of their woes were caused by immigrants and leaving the EU would solve the problem. They believed it, and the latest leaks demonstrate again how mistaken they were.

Labour is the friend of these voters who are going to bear the brunt of the harm Brexit will do to Britain. It has a duty to speak truth to the Brexiters among them, explaining clearly how mistaken they were, not in a superior way, but just as one would attempt to prevent a friend signing away his money. We should be winning them round to what the evidence demonstrates: Brexit will solve none of their problems. And they need the chance to change their mind and exit from Brexit. Or at any rate, the chance to stay in the Customs Union, the least bad option of those on offer.

Instead the Labour leadership continues to sit on a fence. We're told the Brexit vote must be respected and no opportunity to revise that vote must be given. We hear claims, demonstrated to be entirely false by the example of Norway, that it isn't even possible to stay in the Single Market after leaving the EU. And we're told we have to go along with Leave sentiments, without interrogating ourselves as to whether those sentiments are simply based on economic misapprehension or on something far more toxic: downright xenophobia.

That doesn't feel like leadership. It feels like followership. And it's time Labour learned to lead once more.

Especially on the Brexit issue, the most urgent of our times, the one on which our friends most need our help.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Hail Trump! Those about to weep salute thee

Well, here I am, hoist on my own petard.

My cruel mockery of Donald Trump for having only one achievement in his presidency - the tax cut he arranged to hand himself and his pals - now looks profoundly misplaced. It seems he's about to add a second. And it's - yuge.

Having seen the great Bastille Day parade down the Champs Elysées in Paris, Trump has decided that it's time to have something like that in the US too. Because, you see, he's a great admirer of the military. At least from afar.

Impressive spectacle: the Bastille Day parade
on the Champs Elysées
Why do I say, "from afar"? Because Trump was granted the opportunity to show his admiration for military service up close during the Vietnam War. Sadly, he was unable to take advantage of that opportunity because his studies obliged him to defer joining up - repeatedly. And then, by sheer bad luck, he was forced to take a further deferment on medical grounds, because of a bone spur in his foot.

For those of you who may be worried about how much suffering that bone spur caused him, it will doubtless come as a relief to learn that the problem cleared up. Even at the time, it didn't prevent him playing golf or squash.

These regrettable obstacles to the distinguished military career he would no doubt otherwise have had have in no way reduced his admiration of all things military. Indeed, he gets upset when people make questionable claims to military credit. For instance, he was clear that John McCain, Arizona Senator and a fellow Republican, who was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for over five years, during which he resisted ill treatment and even torture, was no hero.

"He's not a war hero," he told a rally during his campaign for the Republican nomination for President, "he's a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured."

He's well placed to make that kind of accusation. Trump was certainly never captured. It's true that he wasn't there to be captured, when McCain was being shot down in his warplane, but hey, when you have all those deferments inflicted on you, what can you do?

In any case, his new initiative will set everything straight. A military parade in Washington! He could take the salute, just like such Soviet leaders as Khrushchev and Brezhnev did. Those were inspirational gestures in wonderful times. And Trump can bring them back for us.

Taking the salute: Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev, his successor 
Leonid Brezhnev framing the first Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin
A second achievement for the US President then. And one that he is prioritising. Who can question that doing so is entirely worthy of the man he is?

And what a fool I feel to have questioned the fitness of such a man for office.