Thursday, 29 September 2011

Where sex is linked with obligation. And gratitude

George Orwell is perhaps the best known exponent of the idea that language can so deeply affect ideas that someone who can cut certain words out will make certain thoughts impossible. 

It’s a highly dubious proposition – after all, I’ve discovered recently in the course of some translation work, that it’s practically impossible to translate the neat French term ‘acharnement  thérapeutique’ into English, although the idea – of excessive zeal in pursuit of medical treatment of a patient who is unlikely to benefit from it – exists just as much in the English-speaking world and we can think as much about it, or as little, as the French. Lacking the expression, we just use some longer form of words that says the same thing.

Even so, there’s something extremely appealing in the concept of ‘Newspeak’ in Orwell’s 1984 with its ambition to produce a language in which it is actually impossible to think critically about the government. Appealing in the sense of ‘interesting’, that is – I'm not pretending it would be attractive to see it happen. In any case, even if it's hard to believe that it could ever be wholly possible, I can understand why it would stimulate a fine thinker writing in a world which had only been free of Hitler for two years and was still having to live with Stalin.

In any case, at a more limited level, it’s certainly true that linguistic habits can influence thought. That’s what lies behind the move towards ‘political correctness’ which isn’t entirely as laughable as its most outspoken critics suggest. There was something slightly odd about a situation where in English we had titles for women which indicated their marital status, but not for men. In my own lifetime, it has been amusing to see how the word ‘Ms’ has gone from being regarded as a laughable barbarism to being widely accepted.

Orwell - something to the idea that language affects thought?
That kind of gender-specific linguistic usage is just the kind of thing we can perhaps tackle by linguistic means. It’s particularly strong in languages that use grammatical gender, of course, a fact turned to good account by the character of Jim in Truffaut’s masterpiece Jules et Jim, when he summarises the incompatibility between France and Germany with the statement that the Moon is feminine and the Sun masculine in French, while in German it’s the other way round. Not sure how significant that really is, but in the context of the film it feels as though it ought to be.

So it’s been fascinating to discover how something as simple as gratitude is handled in Portugal. Firstly, you don’t offer thanks in this country – you declare yourself to be under an obligation. ‘Obrigado’, I would say. It’s probably quite a good way of thinking of things – gratitude is an obligation, isn’t it?

Interestingly, Danielle would have to describe herself as obrigada. Being an adjective the word agrees with the gender of the subject.

So a Portuguese woman expresses her thanks, and therefore her sense of obligation, differently from men.  Whether that means they honour their obligations differently, and whether the difference applies only to Portugal, I leave it to others, much better qualified than I am, to determine for themselves. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Portugal struggling to cope with financial horrors

Portugal is the first named in that string of nations with the sad distinction of forming the PIIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain – because they have suffered the dismal fate of being disrespected by those fine people who form the international financial services community.
So it’s interesting to have spent a few days in Lisbon and find out just how massively spirits have been depressed by this shameful state of affairs. Fear and humiliation must inevitably be the overriding emotions of those one meets on every street corner, and indeed what do they have to smile about? Balmy temperatures, sun, picturesque views, Port wine and some great cooking – how can these begin to compensate for having one’s Standard and Poor’s rating downgraded to BBB?
A Lisbon couple struggling to come to terms with the
financial catastrophe besetting their nation
How can  one feel anything but compassion for these poor unfortunates, when one belongs, as I do, to a country still enjoying a AAA rating? Ah, sterling with its power. Oh, David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne – such strong, sure hands on the national tiller.
The contrast between England and Portugal could hardly be more striking. Indeed the only suprise is why there are ever anything but smiling faces in London.

Postscript. A curious street sign caught my attention in Lisbon.
A hint to George Osborne?
Is the city sending a gentle hint to our Chancellor? ‘A little more largesse, George, might not be out of place?’

That would certainly be in keeping with the spirit of this generous place. Particularly addressing such a mean-minded Chancellor.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Travel may be broadening my mind

Exciting to visit a new country, one I’ve never set foot in before. And I seemed to reach this one, Portugal, long before the plane landed.

Not everyone seems to share my enthusiasm for the charming Bedfordshire town of Luton that I inhabit. Some seem to be impervious to the delights of its dusty streets or to appreciate the subtlety with which seediness has been incorporated into the very design of our shopping Mall.

Even those people, however, have to admit that there’s a lot to be said for having an airport on our doorstep. I appreciate it even more for the irony of its name – London Luton, though it’s 40 miles  (OK, OK, sixty kilometres) away from the capital.

The great advantage of the airport is that it’s the main hub for Easyjet, the only bearable low-cost airline of the two that mainly battle for our business in Britain: the other one, Ryanair, has an attitude towards passengers that makes the concept of the cattle truck attractive.

What Easyjet does however have in common with Ryanair is its drive to get two return flights flown by each of its planes each day. That means that the first flight has to take off at a time which it would strain the meaning of the word to describe as civilised.

Hence the advantage of living in Luton. Where others had to come down the night before or get up at 2:00 in the morning to catch our 6:40 plane, we were able to spend the night in our own beds and sleep in until 4:15.
Despite that lie-in, however, I was inexplicably tired when I got on the plane. Soon after take-off I fell fast asleep. And I would no doubt have slept long and deep were it not for the passenger in the aisle seat of our row. He and his friend had boarded late and couldn’t sit together, but they insisted on maintaining a voluble and spirited conversation in necessarily high-volume Portuguese.
‘Aha,’ I thought to myself as I was jerked back to consciousness, ‘I’m in Portugal already. True Latins.’
Having woken me up thoroughly my neighbour promptly fell profoundly asleep himself and stayed that way right till Lisbon.
I shared my thoughts on the Portuguese nature of the experience with Danielle.
‘Uhmm,’ she assented doubtfully, ‘but I think those two were Brazilians.’
She may have been right, but, hey, they’re all Latins aren’t they?
Getting to Lisbon made it all worthwhile, though. The sun sparkling on the Tagus. The little cobbled back streets. The blue-painted wall tiles on the outsides of the houses. All just glorious.
Blue tiles in Lisbon's Barrio Alto. May just edge it over Luton
An awful feeling has crept up on me. To be absolutely honest, this place may just have outdone Luton when it comes to the picturesque.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Déjà vu

Déjà vu, we are assured, is a present phenomenon, and the sense associated with it of a return from the past is purely illusory.

So it was a bit of shock to have a bout of genuine déjà vu yesterday, when I didn't just have the impression of reliving an earlier experience, I really relived it. And it wasn’t that pleasant.

It happened when I boarded the 7:56 train into London. Things started badly enough when I turned round in the narrow aisle and my rucksack nearly sent a thermos flask flyng from the table behind me. The woman who owned it gave me a look I can only describe as bleak and no amount of apology seemed to mollify her.

That though wasn’t the truly chilling experience. That was merely embarrassing.

My reason for turning round in the first place was that I’d noticed that the aisle seat opposite the thermos-flask woman was occupied by a man working on a laptop, who had placed his briefcase on the window seat next to him.

Why do people do that? Why are they so keen to keep an empty space next to them that they’d let other passengers stand rather than free the space? And do other people put up with not getting a seat rather than disturb someone else’s luggage?

In this respect at least, I'm made of sterner stuff. In this situation, I always compose my features into a fixed expression of blank neutrality and address the offender in tones of calm courtesy. I used to ask ‘is that seat free?’ until the day I had the reply ‘what’s wrong with looking for a free seat in the other cariages?’, which made me snap – I later regretted it –  ‘actually, there are passengers standing in them too.’ My only satisfaction, on that occasion, was that for the length of my journey at least I was able to cramp his style a little in flirting with the woman opposite, into whose knickers it was horribly obvious he was intent on getting, though I couldn't understand why he was making such heavy work of it: her body language and her simpering responses to him made it only too clear she was as keen as he was on getting rid of that inconvenient undergarment.

Nowadays I say ‘may I take that seat please?’ Yesterday the owner of the briefcase responded by leaping to his feet with alacrity, rushing about to tidy away the papers that he’d spread across the table, stow his briefcase and move his jacket. He turned a winsome smile on me full blast –‘of course,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘let me make room for you – that was terribly careless of me, don’t know what I was thinking of’, as though either of us was going to believe that he had occupied the whole of his side of the table unintentionally, that it hadn’t been a deliberate ploy to keep the seat next to him empty.

It was that smile that struck me. I’d seen it before. White shirt, dark tie, expansive waistline, thinning white hair, and that smile, nearly apologetic but full of complicity – ‘you know how things are’ when of course I knew very well just how they were – I recognised them all: we’d been through exactly the same pantomime just two days earler.

Same carriage, I realised. Right at the back of the 7:56, the one with the best chance of providing a seat. And then with a chill I realised that it was even the same table.

I sat down and my heart sank further: the two passengers opposite were also the same as two days earlier. The one with the earphones plugged in and his eyes closed, with a little cushion doubled up and stuffed between the side of his head and the wing of the seat, was highly recognisable. As was the man with the incomprehensibly baleful stare opposite me. Was he telling me that I was occupying a seat they regarded as belonging to someone else in some sense, a regular travelling companion who just happens to be away at the moment?

‘Don’t think that’s yours for good, just because you’ve been able to grab it twice,’ that liverish look seemed to suggest.

‘Oh, Lord,’ I thought, ‘sitting at the same table in the same carriage of the same train with the same people. Have I stepped across the line separating those who sometimes commute from those who are real commuters?’

Between commuting and being a commuter: a line I'd rather not cross
This morning I was on the 7:56 again but I made a point of sitting in a different carriage. I had to get a guy to move his bags off the seat next him, but it was a different guy with different bags. Which was a great relief.

And tomorrow morning I’m off on leave. Which is an even bigger relief. This is all beginning to feel much too much like routine.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A moment's inattention, hours of embarrassment

It’s so awful when I let my mouth run away with me and come out with that unfortunate sentence too many that spoils all the work I'd been doing up to that point creating a good impression.

The other day I was working with a group of GPs. They were absolutely charming, bright, alert, enthusiastic and friendly. It could hardly have gone better. They were quickly mastering the system on which I was training them, and their enthusiasm was all I could have hoped for. ‘Look, look,’ I was delighted to hear one of the younger women say, 'I keep telling you we really need to do something about those emergency admissions!’

And then I heard her talking to the slightly older lady who was struggling a bit trying to get a report up on screen.

‘You just have to click on that button up to the right, Mum.’


I looked at her and the other younger woman. Why hadn’t it struck me before? They looked clever and fun and – they looked clever and fun in an unusually similar way. Sisters, of course – why hadn't I seen it before?

‘Ah,’ I started to say, ‘family practitioners...’ but she was quicker than me.

‘Yes, we're a real family practice.’
And that's when I should have kept quiet. Instead of saying, ‘And that’s your father?’ pointing at the man on the other machine.
Oh dear, oh dear. Of course it wasn’t her father. The father was the older man at the back of the room. The doctor at the computer was far too young.
‘No,’ she replied, her smile warmer than ever, ‘that’s my husband. My father is over there,’ but I didn’t need to look – I already knew and was measuring the extent of my blunder.
All I needed to do was laugh lightly and say ‘Of course, of course.’ But I couldn't. Just once when my ability to come up with an easy word would have been really helpful, nothing came to mind. I stood there tongue-tied.
‘And this is my brother-in-law,’ she went on, pointing twoards the last member of the group. Her sister smiled too, but all I could think about was whether there was any way of crawling out of a busy GP practice with no-one noticing.
Why can't I keep my mouth shut instead of putting my foot in it?
They saw me out with the same charm and friendliness they had shown throughout. Really pleasant people. But I’m so glad that it’s a colleague who’ll be doing the follow-up training.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Hitler: on mature reflection, not a bundle of laughs

I often think about how it might have been to get to know some of the larger-than-life figures from history.

There are some I would really like to have met. I can’t help feeling that an evening with Abraham Lincoln would have been as enjoyable as it would have been memorable – that extraordinary intellect, the subtlety of his thought, all laced with acute wit. He may have pushed the powers of his office to the limits of the US Constitution – some would say rather beyond them, for instance when he suspended habeas corpus – but I feel no sense that he was serving some kind of hidden agenda of self-aggrandisement, but that he really was striving for his openly proclaimed aims: preserving the Union and later on, freeing the slaves.

But what about some of the monsters? What about Hitler, say? I’ve always felt that it would be galling to discover that behind the vile public persona there lurked a man of charm and kindness displayed only to his personal entourage. So it was a relief to discover that, unlike Lincoln, he would probably not have been congenial company over a light-hearted dinner.

Another of the figures who did so much to make Europe in the twentieth century the ‘dark continent’, as the historian Mark Mazower called it in an outstanding study, was Stalin. One of his more inspired statements was ‘the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’. So we can probably learn as much or more about Hitler’s personality from the death of a single woman than from his attempted extermination of 12 million Jews.

The woman in question was Angelika ‘Geli’ Raubal. She was Hitler’s half niece. Her mother became his housekeeper at the end of the 1920s and she moved into Hitler's house. For two years, Hitler kept her in a state of virtual captivity, wanting her always accompanied by one of his acolytes if she was out and, according to some claims, keeping her under lock and key when she was indoors while he was away. Finally, on 19 September 1931, her body was found dead in her room, which was locked from the inside; she had been shot with Hitler’s personal pistol – the one that nearly 14 years later he would turn on himself.

Geli was 18 when she died.

The odd thing was that Hitler never left his pistol at home. All the staff had been given the previous evening off, except for one who was deaf. There was, of course, no autopsy and no proper investigation. There’s also a rumour that she had somehow contrived to have an affair – or a brief fling, which seems more plausible in the circumstances – with one of Hitler’s rivals in the Nazi leadership, Gregor Strasser, and had told him that Hitler had some odd sexual habits and problems of impotence.

Strasser himself was murdered in 1934 in the wake of the Night of the Long Knives that wiped out so many of Hitler’s rivals.

The priest who officiated at Geli’s funeral later told a French newspaper that he had given her a Catholic funeral, from which he suggested it was easy to draw a conclusion concerning the likelihood that she had committed suicide. But that seems of academic interest only: whether she was murdered or was driven to suicide, her death does rather suggest that Hitler’s persona was about as endearing in private as it was in public. Which I suppose is comforting in its way: when I first learned of Geli’s story it shocked me but confirmed the impression I had received from photos of him in a supposedly relaxed setting: uniformed as ever, unbending, ungracious, unappealing.  

So, while I think it would have been fun to spend a few hours in Abe’s company, when it comes to Adolf, I think I’d prefer to say ‘nein, danke’.

Simpering instead of smiling, and an uptight uniform. Where's the appeal?

PS. The rudimentary examination of Geli’s body on 19 September 1931 suggested she had died the day before, which makes it the eightieth anniversary of her death as I write these words. A strange coincidence: I had no intention of marking the occasion any more than anyone else will – I just happened to think of all this because I’m beginning to read one of Ian Kershaw’s books on the Nazi leader – if you’re interested in the subject and don’t know his work, I strongly recommend it.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Getting things right, the English way

There are times when things go exactly right. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect– just that they live up entirely to expectation.

Years and years ago my old friend Alasdhair came to see me in Oxfordshire with his American fiancee, who getting acquainted with this green and pleasant land. We lived near Oxford in those days, and on one occasion met to have a picnic in one of the city's glorious parks. I picked up some rather good things – pate and fine bread and fruit and cheeses and prosciutto and cakes – the ingredients of a picnic to remember. I think I may have got champagne too and, if my memory is letting me down, I’d still rather believe it since champagne fits the occasion far better than any other wine would.

It wasn’t however those ingredients, memorable though they were, that fixed the moment in my memory. It was that just before we met the heavens opened in what wasn’t simply rain but something far more torrential. A veritable monsoon. It was of course July, so you could hardly expect good weather in England, but this was really special. It certainly underlined the fact that England doesn’t have a climate, merely weather.
Fortunately, we found one of the University cricket grounds. These days you can’t get in but then you still could. There was a pavilion on the edge of the ground, an attractive wooden building with a deep terrace at the front. It even had a table and wooden chairs – true luxury. There we sat, completely sheltered, and watched the sheets of rain batter down on the cricket pitch.
Not perfect but exactly right, you see. Perfect would have been blue skies dappled with clouds, green grass with a white sheet on which we would have sat in our shirtsleeves, enjoying  a brilliant picnic in the pleasant warmth of an English summer. Lovely but unmemorable. But picnicking in the rain – now, that was quintessentially English and unforgettable. Particularly next to a cricket ground. And – as we were dry – why would we complain?
This weekend we had a visit from two old friends from Australia, Meredyth and Kenn. This time of course we weren’t anywhere near Oxford but, fortunately, there are places nearby that are just as spectacularly beautiful. One of the finest is Luton Hoo, a fine stately home, now a hotel, set in fabulous grounds part of which have been turned into a golf course. 
On the lawn behind the hotel the owners have thoughtfully laid out two croquet grounds, and even been kind enough to leave a full set of wooden mallets and balls for passers-by to enjoy a game.
Now that gave me another wonderful opportunities to introduce foreigners to somet English culture. Croquet is a game that embodies the essential aspects of the national character: it is gentle, delicate, slow, courteous – and profoundly vicious. You can be going quietly about your business, knocking your ball steadily through one hoop after the other when – suddenly and without provocation – one of the other players knocks your ball with his – or quite often hers – and this provides the opportunity, immediately seized, to knock yours right off the field of play, over to that curious little bit of shrubbery in the distance with a pond in the middle or it.
You might have been winning right up until then, but now suddenly you’re so far out of the game that you might as well start all over again.
What could be better for a couple of Australian friends than to introduce them to this piece of fiendishness? They happen to be from South Australia founded, as they assured me, by free colonists and not populated by convicts (inhabitants chosen, as the old expression has it, by the best judges in England). Even so, I was sure that they must have the same deviousness as all other Australians, inherited from their distant English relatives.
Kenn and Meredyth learning the niceties of English life
Before rubbing my nose in them

They took to it like ducks to water. So well in fact that they forgot rule 1 – let the Englishman win. But despite that deplorable oversight on their part, we all had a great time, contributing to the sense that we had picked up an old friendship after an eleven-year gap as though we'd only had a brief interruption in a long and pleasant conversation.
To make things exactly right, it even rained half way through the game. We played straight on, of course. That’s what the English do. And we dried off soon enough afterwards – the wind was blowing more than hard enough to ensure that.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Trainers for deviance

Overheard on a London bus: one mid-teen schoolgirl  saying to another, ‘do you think it’s weird for a boy to buy his trainers from Topman?’

Topman is, of course, a shop which among other things sells trainers.
Now buying trainers from Topman may show a canny eye for a bargain, or it may be a proof of bad taste. It may simply be an indication of laziness in a boy who never goes further than the shop next door. But weird? How can it be weird?
Enough to get you booted out of your group?
Weird would be buying your trainers from a butcher’s. Weird is sinking a well in the Sahara. Weird is claiming earthquakes are a divine message to politicians and still thinking you’re a suitable candidate for the White House.
What I'd overheard was identification of the boy’s behaviour as deviant from social norms to which the girl felt her group should cling. So she was providing further proof of how powerful the pressure to conform is in childhood.
That pressure is overwhelming in our teenage years. You don’t like the trainers some unfortunate boy has chosen so you shun him. At least that has the merit of focusing on something that doesn’t really matter very much. But then the mentality rolls forward into adulthood when race, creed or sexual orientation become wonderfully fertile ground for identifying forms of behaviour to categorise as deviant.  Attention switches from an insignificant item of clothing such as shoes to a much more potent one, such as a hijab. Those who get their values in these areas wrong by our standards, those who behave ‘weirdly’, are diminished in our eyes. And the crucial, final step is taken by those who decide that any action is legitimate against such diminished people, even if it leads to suffering or death.
Is it completely fanciful to suggest that this idea of weirdness lies behind the 9/11 attacks or the mayhem unleashed on Iraq in response?
So maybe I need to review my own thinking. Perhaps we ought to get back to associating weirdness only with a choice of trainers. At least no-one dies that way.  

Thursday, 8 September 2011

An intellectual giant - but why in the White House?

It seems to me that a staggering piece of news emerged from last night’s debate in the US among contenders for the Republication presidential nomination in 2012.
Challenged on his scepticism about climate change, the frontrunner, Texas Governor Rick Perry, mounted a vigorous defence of his position in a minority by pointing out that ‘Galileo got outvoted for a spell.’
That’s electrifying news, isn’t it? I mean, who would have thought that Rick Perry was a man to compare with Galileo on scientific matters? It just leaves me wondering, ‘why is he running for president?’ After all there were seventeen US presidents in the last century. When it comes to scientists of Galileo’s stature, how many were there? Einstein? Schrödinger? Strain a bit and we can probably get to five, but I bet not everyone would have the same names on the list.
One scientific giant
No, to be right up there with Galileo, you have to be pretty special. And if Rick Perry belongs in that rarefied company, why he needs to give up on all this politics nonsense and get stuck into the science. I’d recommend he take a look at some kind of unified theory, spanning Einstein’s relativity and Schrödinger’s quantum mechanics. Unification has been a bit of a Holy Grail for some time now, and it will certainly take an intellect and a vision on a par with Galileo’s to secure it.
... inspired another. Virtually indistinguishable aren't they?
Wouldn’t Perry just put Steven Hawking back in his box if he pulled that one off!
So forget the presidency, Rick, and concentrate on the book that takes us beyond Einstein. That would be a monument truly worthy of you.
And I tell you what: make it happen and I’ll believe you on global warming. That and practically any other subject you care to mention.
In the meantime, just by getting out of politics, you’ll have made a major contribution to humanity.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

What's best forgotten down memory lane

Down in the glorious county of Devon at the weekend, to drop in on a reunion of people from Dartngton, scene of my undistinguished school career at the end of the sixties. I stayed some three hours, which represented about a twenty-fourth of the time the event lasted, but that was plenty for me: I find this kind of thing a bit like drinking Aquavit – great at first but then it begins to pall a little.

Actually, with Aquavit if you can get to glass five or six you can generally keep right on, and that’s probably true of school reunions too: once you get far enough into them you keep going. But since the school was in one of the most beautiful parts of England, it would have been a pity not to take advantage of some of the places around. For instance, a pub lunch by the side of a creek, with water in front, wooded slopes before and behind, sun in blue skies overhead, good company at the table.

The school closed in 1987. That means that nobody at a reunion is likely to be under forty, giving the whole experience a slight tinge of pathos. Schools after all are ultimately about children – when only the middle aged or frankly elderly are there to celebrate it, something fundamental seems to be missing.

So it was a bit of a relief to see three girls playing pat-a-cake on the lawn. Hard to imagine a more traditional sight, more symbolic of childish innocence (and what can be more traditional than childish innocence? Even if, as most parents know, it usually just hides a good solid streak of wilfulness and dsobedience).
Ah, the nostalgia: a picture of innocence.
But if they're like mine were, it's just a picture
I enjoyed making contact again with the people I remembered liking, and avoiding the others. However, as countless American films have made clear, one of the major purposes of attending this kind of event is to catch up on missed sexual opportunities, so I was delighted to overhear the following conversation. I’ve changed the names, naturally, to protect the guilty.

‘Elisabeth, isn’t it?’ I had absolutely no memory of the speaker, a man three or four years younger than me. Couldn’t remember Elisabeth either, as it happened, and she hadn’t recognised me, so it was a bit of relief to have our meaningless conversation interrupted.

Elisabeth gave him a bright smile of utter non-recognition. I’m prepared to be charmed, it said, but have no idea who by in this instance.

‘Wonderful to see you!’ went on the man.

Another friendly look and smile.

‘Didn’t you have a sister?’

The smile had frozen a little, the response was less warm.


‘Diane, wasn’t it? That was her name?’

‘That’s right, my sister’s Diane.’ The thermometer was dropping fast.

‘A real looker wasn’t she?’ All I could think was ‘You’re in a hole – for God’s sake stop digging.’

‘Yes, she was,’ came the response, with I felt a slight emphasis on the ‘was’, and in a tone that was becoming glacial, ‘and she knew it.’

‘Oh, and is she coming down?’

‘I don’t know. We don’t keep in touch very much.’

‘Really? You know, I used to be totally in love with her.’

I walked away. The sun was still shining outside the marquee, but just where that conversation had taken place, conditions were positively polar.

I can’t remember whether the school was particularly good at teaching us tact and sensitivity. But if it was, one person at least had clearly skipped those classes.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

So hard to agree with the Right, however hard I try

It’s difficult finding common ground with the political right. Even when I agree with one of their cardinal principles, I find they don’t agree with it themselves.

The principle is question is the one they refer to as ‘small government’. As I’ve pointed out before, it was most eloquently summarised by a radical of the left, supporter of the revolutions  in America and France, Tom Paine: ‘That government is best that governs least.’

Tom Paine: would have supported the Boston Tea Party,
but probably not the modern variation
I feel the wisdom of this view all the more strongly the closer any of the alleged supporters of ‘small government’ get to power. Michele Bachmann proclaiming to Americans that hurricanes are warnings from God to Obama to reduce the deficit. Rick Perry asserting the right of the United States to launch pre-emptive wars. Yep. If they ever get anywhere near government, I’d like it kept as small as humanly possible.

But do these people actually favour small government themselves? After all, Rick Perry launched his presidential campaign with a prayer meeting. He and Bachmann seem deeply committed to governing with God.

How much bigger can you get than that?

Over this side of the pond, the ‘small government’ lot are in office right now. In the aftermath of the recent street disturbances, David Cameron called for powers to shut down Twitter and Facebook at times of trouble.

One of the more remarkable reactions to the looting was the great cleanup in Clapham the following day. It was organised through Twitter. Had Cameron’s approach been adopted at that time, this highly positive response wouldn’t have been possible.  

Sadly, the momentum seems to be going out of Cameron’s initiative, as it has out of rather a lot of others in the past (selling off Forestry Land, reorganising the NHS, sucking up to Murdoch). Still, he probably thought it was a good idea because of how much better life is in countries where governments can shut down bits of the internet at will. Like China. Or Iran. Or North Korea.

In what sense, though, would it keep government small?

Postscript: a woman’s right to choose and everyone’s right to know
Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and Labour MP Frank Field are pushing a parliamentary measure to force women considering a termination of pregnancy, to get counselling first from an organisation that is not involved in the performance of the abortions themselves.
This would sound sensible if, say, those organisations had some financial interest in maximising the number of abortions they carry out. They are, however, charities with no such incentive. And most of the organisations who might provide the ‘independent’ counselling seem to be aligned with the anti-abortion movement.
But just who are they?
Difficult to tell. Asked to reveal who was backing the campaign for her measure, Dorries wasn’t prepared to say.
Curious, isn’t it, given that the campaign calls itself the ‘Right to Know’.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Weather alert

We may be facing stormy times at work.

Not that things have taken a downturn or anything. On the contrary, we’ve had an extraordinary year so far, to the extent that we’re all rushed off our feet. So it was a relief to hear that we were recruiting new people and, what’s more, some of our colleagues from abroad were coming over to lend us a hand for a while too.

The first to arrive was Irene from the States. She turned up just as the hurricane called after her was ravaging the east coast of her country. Obviously, it would have been in terribly bad taste to make jokes about whistling up a storm or showing the energy of a whirlwind. I’m well known for my restraint in these matters, so you can be sure I resisted the temptation to make such comments. Or at least to make many of them.

Now Katya from Ukraine is about to come over too – and, blow me down (if you’ll excuse the pun), but tropical storm Katia has just been upgraded to a hurricane too.

Katya's heading for London
What are we to make of all this? Michele Bachmann, worthy successor of Sarah Palin in both intellect and ambition, recently described the earthquake and hurricane that afflicted Virginia as a sign from God of his disapproval of the actions of the Washington administration. It seems that the Lord isn’t happy about Obama’s failure to tackle the debt crisis and found no better way of showing his displeasure than to damage a lot of houses, injure a great number of people and leave 24 of them dead, even though none of them had anything much to do with the US debt crisis as far as I can tell.

Bachmann has since assured us she was just joking, but I’ve never really trusted people who have to tell me they’re joking. I find the wit of people far funnier if I can appreciate it without having it pointed out to me. And, in any case, knowing and loving Michele as we do, does anyone believe her?

Anyway, with Irene and Katya due to storm around our offices next week, I’m sure Michele would have some interesting homilies to share with us. If only we could bring ourselves to listen.

Unrelated postscript: someone came knocking at the door today.

‘I’m not a salesman,’ he assured me, which immediately told me he was, though perhaps not a terribly good one.

‘My colleagues are just going around offering people free quotations on work they could have done on their houses.’

Just the quotation was free, you notice, not the work.

Perhaps he really wasn’t a very good salesman. Certainly if the measure of a good salesman is winning the order. This prospect wasn’t buying.