Thursday, 31 May 2012

Two faces of a coin

My childhood, more heavily influenced by the Jewish rather than the gentile (or perhaps I should say ‘goy’) side of my family, taught me horror at any kind of racism.

After all, though I never knew them, it was shocking that ninety people to whom I was related had been murdered for no better reason than they belonged to the wrong ethnic group – and that I would have been one of the victims had I had the misfortune to be living at that time and in that place.

That however also made it much more shocking when I heard racist views from Jews themselves. And I did: friends and family criticising the behaviour of ‘that Paki bus conductor’ or complaining about the ‘noisy West Indians’ next door.

It's got a lot worse since. For instance, last Friday an Arab Israeli was killed by a shot to the head in Jaffa. And a Sudanese migrant was stabbed in the head in South Tel Aviv, where many African immigrants live. 

That second attack is particularly worrying given that a right wing Israeli parliamentarian, Miri Regev, recently told a violent anti-immigrant rally that ‘the Sudanese are a cancer in our body’. The rally took place in South Tel Aviv, and some protesters went on to attack some of them in street and to loot shops.

Miri Regev:
no need for mere reason to get in the way of healthy bigotry 
It’s true that Regev later apologised for her comments. She apologised to Cancer sufferers. She also apologised to Holocaust survivors, who had been themselves described as a Cancer in another context. She did not apologise to the African immigrants.

She was careful to condemn the violence but added ‘I understand the rage and hurt of the residents, of the families that live there. They tell us: ‘Help us. We are being humiliated, look how we live, we are afraid to leave the house.’’ 

The implication that the humiliation and fear are being inflicted by the African immigrants is interesting since Israeli police sources confirm that members of that community are less likely to be involved in criminality than members of the general population. But, hey, no-one who’s attacked immigrants they don’t like has ever worried about whether they were being strictly accurate in the charges they made against them.

Of course one wonders how Regev would react if someone said something similar about Jews. 

What if someone who was keen to drive Jewish immigrants out of his country wrote ‘one must not promote individual Jews as minority citizens, or some such status, within a non-Jewish people, but rather move Jews out to build their own people.’

As it happens, someone did write those words. It was Dr Johann von Leers, one of the Nazi theorists of anti-Semitism. That was at a time, in May 1933, when the final solution (extermination) was a long way off and the Nazis were still trying to ‘solve’ the ‘Jewish problem’ by forcible emigration rather than murder.

One feels that the existence of such documents should make Jews, in particular, careful about how they deploy their rhetoric against minorities and their demands to drive them away.

Strangely enough, though, I don’t draw a negative conclusion from all this. I’ve long believed that anti-racism doesn’t proclaim the superiority of a downtrodden people, but the refusal to accept that any human being is either superior or inferior to another by reason of ethnicity. Those Jewish relatives or friends who cite Kafka or Freud to me as examples of the great qualities of Jews seem to me as misguided as the von Leers who want to prove that Jews are lesser beings.

No, it seems to me that Jews are neither better nor worse than anyone else. Regev’s behaviour proves the point powerfully. Jews, like the Sudanese, Europeans, Americans or any other people, are as capable not just of the highest flights of nobility but of the vilest baseness.

Which is why it’s such a pleasure, but no surprise, to discover traces of noble reason too, among the vileness infecting some areas of the Israeli body politic. In this case they are expressed by the Israeli journalist turned politiciam, Yair Lapid:

‘I support arresting and expelling infiltrators, completing the fence and preventing their entry into Israel, and I think the human rights organisations need to think first of all about the residents of the neighbourhoods, because charity starts at home. But when I see a pogrom in the State of Israel… I wonder how these people have the gall to call themselves Jews."

Yair Lapid: reason as the antidote
Well, quite.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The government: no easy ride for the bone idle

It’s seemed to me for a long time that to be successful in government you have to be a skilful politician, to get elected in the first place, and a good statesman to make something of office once you get there.

Nicolas Sarkozy showed great political skill seeing off his rivals for the presidential nomination in 2007, and then thrashing his opponent (though admittedly she was pretty weak). Once in power, though, he proved so sadly mediocre a statesman that even his superior political talents couldn’t secure him a return to the Elysée.

Back on this side of the Channel, our previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was a fine statesman. Assisted by an able Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, he returned the country to growth in early 2010 after the 2008-2009 recession. Today, that looks little short of miraculous. But his indecisiveness and short temper made him a lousy politician (most notably when he indulged in some choice comments about a voter without realising that he was wearing a live mike). Result: he quickly turned a lead in the polls into a deficit he couldn’t overturn before the last election.

But the people who really take the prize are the present lot, above all the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his Chancellor, George Osborne. They seem inept at both politics and statesmanship.

They failed to win a majority against the hapless Brown, partly because they initially started off telling the electorate just how much the programme of austerity they were planning was going to hurt. So, while I took delight in the damage it was doing to their poll standing, I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of rueful admiration for their honesty. On the other hand, they may have chosen this line because they were expecting everyone to blame Labour – you know, ‘look at the terrible things Labour’s legacy is going to make us have to do to you.’ 

In fact, and unsurprisingly, quite a few voters simply wondered why they’d vote for a party that had nothing better on offer.

When they realised that they were losing votes, Cameron and Osborne switched tack and started talking of the sunlit uplands that awaited us all when they cleared the deficit and reduced the national debt. They stressed the happy ending rather than the painful road they were going to take us down to get there. 

In a sense, that was actually more honest than the previous position, because it revealed them to be just as mendacious as any other politicians.

It wasn’t enough to win them outright victory, but it gave them the opportunity to get their backsides onto cabinet seats in the present tawdry coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The latter, by the way, have consigned themselves to oblivion for a generation for having made this government possible.

In power, Cameron and Osborne have revealed just how lamentable they are as statesmen. The country’s back in recession. Debts have barely dropped. And as unemployment climbs to record levels, the worst of the cuts are still to come.

Meanwhile, their competence as politicians continues unchanged. For instance, when the Unite union threatened a strike by fuel tanker drivers, they saw a great stick with which to beat the opposition: Unite is a major contributor to Labour. So Ministers whipped up a panic about shortages and even urged people to stockpile fuel at home. There were queues at petrol stations around the country, and a woman was badly burned after the petrol she had had the presence of mind to store in her kitchen exploded.

Together with a budget that increased taxes on the poorest and reduced them on the top 1% of incomes, this kind of behaviour led to their turning a narrow lead at the end of last year into a record-breaking lead for Labour in recent weeks (some of that’s soft though: the leaders of the Opposition have a lot of consolidation work to do, but they must be grateful for the help the government’s giving them). 

Cameron and Osborne.
Yep, the picture does them complete justice
What’s fascinating though is the way one of those Opposition leaders is beginning to get right under the government’s skin. Not so much Ed Miliband, the leader, though he’s beginning to land some telling blows, as the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. As the Guardian pointed out at the weekend, he’s been right on a couple of notable points, above all in his assertion that the government’s policies would lead us back into recession without sorting the debt problem. So – balls by name, but when it comes to talking balls, he leaves that to the government, and limits himself to exposing it.

Nothing is so painful for a politician as to face an opponent who told him so. And it’s a test of good politicians that they can rise above that pain. But, as I’ve said, Cameron isn’t a good politician. Faced with Ed Balls’ provocative asides, he’s cracked a few times in recent times, most notably last week when he was heard to call him a ‘muttering idiot’.

Interesting that he takes Balls’ barbs so badly. I can only put it down to the phenomenon Dorothy Parker pointed to when she said ‘I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true’. Whoever said that the truth can never hurt was showing the kind of propensity for talking balls that marks our present government. A lie can be shrugged off, but a true criticism strikes deep and hard.

So poor old Cameron. He’s beginning to lose it. The sure sign of the beginning of the end. 

Couldn’t happen to a more deserving chap, really.

But why is he so bad at all this? After all, he has a background in PR. Why is he so incompetent at communications?

Without wanting to do any pop psychology, I can’t help feeling the answer’s easy. He’s never had to strive for anything. Everything’s dropped into his lap. Eton, then Oxford. At Oxford, he was in the Bullingdon club whose members liked to get drunk in restaurants and then trash them, knowing that ‘Daddy’ would be round to pay for the damage. Why, he even got his chance to enter Parliament because the previous holder of his seat, Shaun Woodward, defected to Labour and had to give it up.

There have been increasing rumours that Cameron simply doesn’t work too hard. A lot of holidays, frequent evidence of attending meetings poorly briefed.

Could it simply be that he’s at last having to work for something and he just doesn’t know how?

Friday, 25 May 2012

Esther: a light in the darkness

The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has raised funds from philanthropists to distribute copies of the King James Bible to schools throughout the country. The initiative marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of what I’m frequently assured is a great work of English literature.

I imagine there will be queues of kids in every school waiting to read their school’s new bible and be uplifted by it. 

Some of them might even gain moral guidance by reading the book of Esther. And what a story it contains.

Ahasuerus was a great Persian King. Some of us like to think of him as Xerxes but, hey, I’m not picky. Ahasuerus will do.

It seems that he decided to hold one hell of a party, inviting all his friends and all his servants to seven days of carousing. From the account in the bible, they got well and truly plastered, and Ahasuerus decided that his friends deserved a treat. He had a particularly beautiful wife, so he called for her to come and be paraded for the revellers.

It’s hard to believe, but she refused. And after being dissed like that, what option did he have? How could any wife reasonably refuse to be shown off to her husband’s friends by her husband? Particularly if that husband is an Emperor? So naturally he divorced her.

That unfortunately left his bed empty, not a desirable state of affairs, particularly for a lustful emperor. Fortunately, he had servants who knew how to look after his every need. So they brought in a bunch of virgins from whom he could take his pick. Of course they were virgins. You expected him to accept someone else’s seconds?

Now one of the virgins particularly attracted him: Esther daughter of Mordecai. Father and daughter had decided to keep it quiet that they were Jews, because as so often since, it wasn’t particularly good news to be known as Jewish around then. 

How Asuaherus fell for it I’ll never know, given they were called Mordecai and Esther, but I suppose the kind of guy who goes on seven-day binges isn’t likely to be sharpest knife in the drawer.

Someone else who fell for the deceit was the king’s adviser, Haman. He decided a pogrom against the Jews might be a good idea, and organised one. He ordered all the Jews to assemble in various places at a particular date so they could be conveniently massacred. This wasn’t news that they took to with any particular enthusiasm. Just so that you have at least one sample of the beautiful writing which so many claim is the hallmark of the King James Bible, here’s how it describes their reaction:

‘And in every province, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, [there was] great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.’

Mordecai was one of those put out by Haman’s decision, especially when Asuaherus endorsed it.

‘You’ve caught the King’s fancy,’ he told his daughter, ‘time to make something of it.’

It turned out that the King was indeed totally smitten with her. She could twist him round her little finger.

‘What would you like? It’s yours,’ he kept saying.

She wasn’t backward in coming forward. First she had the head of the adviser Haman, which presumably taught him he should have been more careful in finding out the background of the people around his boss. Next she had the heads of Haman’s ten sons. And then she really got going. Instead of everyone else getting a day to wipe out the Jews, she obtained from the King that the Jews would get the chance to wipe out their enemies. And when just one day wasn’t enough in the capital – they’d only killed 500 – Esther got them a second day when they could massacre another 300.

What fascinates me about all this is the way it captures the spirit not just of those times but of our own. Binge-drinking. An attitude towards women free of any trace of hypocritical political correctness. And a salutary endorsement of the principle that the best response to anyone who threatens your people is to wipe out rather a lot of theirs.

No wonder that as well as being celebrated in the Jewish festival of Purim, this fine story has inspired many of our greatest Christian artists. One of them, Aert de Gelder, kept returning to the theme. It was one of his paintings, in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, that first put me onto this edifying story.

Aert de Gelder's Esther and Mordecai:
a real inspiration to me, as it should be

What a good move, in this confusing age, that Michael Gove has made sure this kind of material is available to more of our young people. Won’t it provide just the light they need to find a way out of the moral darkness that afflicts us all?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The future of road transport?

Got distracted during a presentation yesterday when a speaker referred to the concept of ‘driverless cars’.

A great idea, isn’t it? Imagine – the car knows the way, it knows the speed limits, it knows when it can cross an intersection safely and when it can’t, without even traffic lights to tell it. Basically, it cuts out the whole human error bit, doesn’t it?

Well, all the human error bit except for the part that goes into the software design. Personally I want my first driverless car to use an Apple operating system. I don’t fancy the car informing me that ‘an unexpected error has occurred in the car driving system’. Presumably the only satisfaction I would get, while hanging from the seatbelts, upside down in a ditch, would be the opportunity to answer the question ‘report error, y/n?’

Still, I suppose that’s no worse than the errors we get these days in the human-driver-based configuration (as I suppose we’ll have to learn to refer to it). And at least it’s a lot better to go to that far-off meeting as a passenger than having to concentrate on the road and fight the growing tiredness.

But then I thought: from driverless why can’t we move to passengerless cars? Not only would I not have to drive to Birmingham for that tedious meeting, not only would I let the car do the driving, I wouldn’t even go myself. I’d let the car go on its own.

Of course, that leads to a problem when it comes to actually holding the meeting. But that’s not a hard one to solve. There are phones. There are Video Conferencing systems. Why, there’s even Skype.

Driverless car: inspire confidence?
Perhaps you might prefer passengerless too
And then I got to thinking some more. We made the car driverless. Then we made the car passengerless. Why not go the extra mile and make the car carless? We don’t send anything to Birmingham at all. Not the driver. Not the passenger. Not the car. 

Think of the fuel we’d save. Think of the accidents we’d avoid. Think of the time we could use for other things.

You know, I believe there may be real mileage to this idea. I wonder who I can suggest it to?

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

As we all get older, do we have the doctors we need?

Not sure whether I have to declare an interest here: I’m writing about age and I am, after all, growing older.

On the other hand, so’s anyone who reads this. What’s more, that’s not just true of us as individuals but also of the societies we inhabit, at least if we have the good fortune to live in one of the wealthier nations. For instance, in Britain between 1901 and 2008, life expectancy grew by 32 years for men and 33 for women. Perhaps even more striking is the finding that life expectancy at 70 is 17 years for men and 19 for women.

Why do I know all this? Because I’ve been reading some articles by David Oliver. He’s the National Clinical Director for Older People’s Services in the English Department of Health and he takes positions on questions of ageing that are both refreshing and challenging.

For instance, he points out that ‘the constant public dialogue of population ageing as being a ‘timebomb’, ‘tsunami’, ‘burden’ or ‘crisis’ is unhelpful scaremongering which colours our attitudes to older people.’ Instead, we should be taking satisfaction from our success in extending life, and realise that it is because of that achievement that we have more older people around: in 1901, 5% of the population was over 65, in 2008, 19%.

There are of course challenges associated with this change, and Oliver delights in throwing down a few himself. Particularly to his own profession. At a conference attended by young or training doctors, he asked:

‘Who in the room wants to spend much of their career looking after people who can’t be cured of their long term conditions or disability, older people, including the ‘oldest old’, the vulnerable, the dependent, the demented and the dying?’

Strong words and one can imagine not many would hold up their hands. But to those who didn’t he had a stark message:

‘You need to get into paediatrics, maternity, a lab-based speciality or under 65 mental health/disability services.’ Or leave the profession. Or leave the country.

Healthcare is changing. We still have a specialty called ‘Care of the Elderly’ but you don’t have to be in it to be treating old, in some cases very old, people. 60% of hospital admissions in England are for patients aged 65 or over, 70% of the bed days are consumed by them. You may be in General Medicine, Rheumatology or Gastroenterology, but sheer demographics are increasingly making your case mix look like a Geriatrician’s.

But Oliver isn’t just saying, ‘that’s the way it is, live with it.’

He’s saying, ‘that’s the way it is, celebrate it.’

Which is good news for all of us when you come to think of it. After all, we’re none of us getting any younger.

Well may he smile: it's not all bad news

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Decisions, decisions. And a question of influence

Odd that people faced with a tough decision often ask for time to think about it.

Odd not because they need the time. Odd because of the claim that they want to think about it. Personally, I find that if I have to confront a dilemma, what I really need is the time not to think about it. Asking to ‘sleep on it’ is much more sensible, expressing the need to think about anything other than the matter in hand or, indeed, to think of nothing at all.

After a period of non-thought, you come back to the question and by some strange process of osmosis, ideas have sneaked into your mind and, voilà, the way forward, so uncertain before, suddenly becomes clear.

I find this kind of approach even works for blog posts. I write them, I leave them, I come back to them and something a lot better emerges.

Please resist the temptation to come back with comments along the lines of ‘you mean they were even worse before?’ I’m a sensitive soul, easily upset.

Non-thought leading to a decision isn’t of course the way everyone works. For some people it’s just a wonderful way to avoid taking any decision at all. One of the most attractive aspects of
 the place I work now is that its got me away from the kind of people who retreat into their offices and spend hours and days testing hypotheses, collecting huge amounts of data and pushing them around, until the time for an urgent decision has gone by.

They remind me of the four-stage Foreign Office strategy as outlined in Yes, Prime Minister:

   In stage one we say nothing is going to happen.

   Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do
   nothing about it.

   In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but
   there's nothing we
can do.

   Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it's
   too late now.

In the kind business 
I’m delighted to have got away from, the equivalent is:
  • put off the decision to a following meeting

  • launch a project to collect all the relevant information over the next few months 

  • refer the matter to a group of junior employees knowing that they’ll only come back with a request for a decision, or 

  • spend a small fortune on a consultant who will recommend adoption of the proposal, but with the proviso that it might be wiser not to.
This kind of dodging of responsibility has always struck me as cowardly and bordering on the incompetent, but since several of the people I’ve known to behave this way have done extremely well for themselves, perhaps I need to moderate my judgement. My experience does leave me questioning whether decisiveness and boldness are always as crucial to business as the more macho specialists sometimes claim.

Still, on one thing I have absolutely no doubt. It can often be useful to take time over a tricky decision. But not in order to think about it, rather to think about pretty well anything else.

Totally unrelated postscript. We went to see the ‘Turner in the light of Claude’ exhibition at the National Gallery last night.

There seem to be lots of this kind of show on at the moment: Picasso and his friends, Francis Bacon’s debt to Velazquez, Dante Gabriele Rossetti’s influence on Raphael (I invented that one).

It was quite an eye-opener to see Turner canvasses with Claude’s. Not that Turner ever hid his debt: in fact, he asked the National to hang some of his canvasses alongside the Claudes that shaped them. It was still striking to see how closely the compositions mirrored each other. What's more, Turner is all about light, and you could see how he learned from Claude to make the sun a main feature of his painting, its light washing across the landscape to give patches of brightness and dark, its reflection splintering off water.

But I have to say that none of the pictures spoke to me so much as when Turner moved beyond Claude and started to have the light invade the picture and flood it, practically crushing the scene, making the details vanish into haze instead of illuminating them. Then you get the real, distinctive Turner touch, the one that makes me look twice and wonder.

Much more interesting when the pupil at last overtakes the master. Or, perhaps I should say, at least moves away from him.

Claude's view of the Roman Campagna
Turner's light flooding the Cascatelle at Tivoli

Thursday, 17 May 2012

iPhone agony and ecstasy

It’s terrifying how quickly innovation becomes habit and then dependency.

Few gadgets have ever seduced me as entirely as my iPhone. For years, Danielle — for whom I’d bought one to console her for forcing to move back from Germany to England (it wasn’t enough, but it was close) — kept telling me to get one. But work had issued me with a Blackberry and I soldiered on with it, although I never learned to use more than 10% of its functions. Why? Because you had to learn them. For some of them I might have had to consult a manual. Who does that any more?

Then I lost my job. Having had the Blackberry removed from me, I decided to get myself an iPhone to console me for the loss (it wasn’t enough, but it was close).

What a life-changing moment. There's nothing to learn. You want to find out where you are? You click on a thing called maps. You want to be woken up in the morning? You click on a thing that looks like a clock. What’s to learn?

So quite a consolation prize. In fact it keeps consoling me: music, podcasts, audible books, whatever, to console me for washing up, walking the dog, or even worse, running.

When I
m struggling to place an actor, it lets me find out what else shes been in.  It allows me to discover why Dorothy Parker greeted Calvin Coolidge's death by asking ‘How could they tell?’ On the rare occasions when I want to check the press for David Cameron’s latest inanity, it’s my iPhone that takes me to my newspaper

In fact, the only thing it sometimes falls down on is actually being a phone. It may just be the fault of the network, but it does seem a little galling that this extraordinary device still occasionally loses a connection during a call or can’t find one in the first place.

The worst is that it’s converted me into one of those awful people you see in restaurants or bars. You know, four people at the same table, texting others who aren’t there. Sad, isn’t it? Even sadder that I know it’s sad and I still do it.

And of course when things go wrong, I’m totally thrown. Take this morning. I woke up long before my iPhone alarm went off. I looked at it to check the time and found a message telling me that the phone wasn’t adapted to be charged on device I’d plugged it into.

I felt a terrible sense of unease. I found myself talking to the phone, unless in my semi-waking state, I was addressing the spirit of Steve Jobs within it.

‘What the hell do you mean?’ I asked, ‘I’ve plugged you into the charger. What’s your problem? You suddenly don’t like this brand of electricity any more?’

It was like my cat Misty. One day, after years of eating nothing else, he went off the brand of cat food we'd been providing. We had to hunt for something else that he might like. That in itself wasn’t so bad. What was awful was the look he would give me when I served him what had previously been his favourite. So full of reproach. As though he was not so much angry with me as terribly disappointed that I could let him down this way.

Now my iPhone seemed to be doing the same. And to add insult to injury it started doing it in foreign. Have you ever had that? An iPhone that starts talking Chinese to you? At least, I assume it was Chinese. It was using the kind of characters you see on a Mahjong set. It felt to me as though it was trying to get home, back to the country where it was built, and where they gave it the kind of electricity it liked.

I was traumatised. I carefully put the phone back down and rolled back under the duvet. When I woke up a bit later, it was behaving again. Messages displayed in English. It was charging quite contentedly. I almost thought I heard it purring.

But I’ve learned my lesson: never again shall I take it for granted. It's much too precious for that, and I depend on it far too much.

A great servant, but sometimes a cruel master

Monday, 14 May 2012

Nightingale and Seacole: 12 and 14 May

If one bothers to learn any history at all, one often learns it from strange sources.

A favourite of mine is W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman’s 1066 and all that which sets out to record all the history any Englishman can remember at the age of 40. Its explanation of the causes of the Crimean War is particularly instructive:

  The Holy Places. The French thought that the Holy Places ought to be guarded

  (probably against the Americans) by Latin Monks, while the Turks, who owned
  the Places, thought that they ought to be guarded by Greek Monks. England
  therefore quite rightly declared war on Russia, who immediately occupied

  The war was consequently fought in the Crimea (near Persia).

The Crimean War was where Florence Nightingale made her name. I first became aware of her thanks to another classic in history education, Ladybird Books: with large, brightly coloured pictures and not much text, they provide just the combination of sentimentalism, patriotism and unchallenging entertainment that is so essential to the development of historical perspective in today’s world.

The Ladybird view of the Lady with the Lamp

Aged ten or eleven, I read the story absolutely spellbound. The sufferings of the wounded soldiers and how little was done for them until Nightingale showed up at the military hospital in Scutari. Her habit of walking the wards at night, leading to her earning the title ‘the lady with the lamp’. The recovering soldiers who would apparently try to catch the hem of her dress and kiss it.

It occurs to me that this may be the source of the tradition honoured in so many war films of showing wounded men in hospital behaving reprehensibly towards nurses. Not that it's usually the hem of a dress they want to kiss. 

Nightingale didn’t get everything right at Scutari. It was the stubborn refusal of the mortality rate in the hospital to fall, despite all the care she provided, that brought home to her the importance of protection from infection: the deaths due to poor sanitation taught her to stress the importance of hygiene in nursing.

Overall, her work in the Crimea and the way she built her experience into her later teaching, made of Nightingale one of the central, if not the primary, figure in the launch of nursing as a profession.

All the same, though her record is outstanding, it isn’t unique. That’s why I didn’t publish this post on 12 May, the anniversary of her birth, but on the 14th, which marks another event that deserves a great deal more recognition than it generally gets.

During our recent break in Istanbul, I saw that several of the ferries that ply back and forth across the narrow waterway dividing Europe from Asia were heading for Üsküdari. That, it turns out, is what Nightingale called Scutari. Not exactly the Crimea. In fact, some 395 miles from the British encampment at Balaclava. Four days, at that period, by boat. Yet another source of misery for the wounded soldiers.

Not that the problem escaped Nightingale, who did open a second hospital on the Crimean peninsula, much closer to the fighting.

Meanwhile, another woman, a contemporary of Nightingale’s, had also discovered a vocation for nursing and an understanding of what a key profession it was. She too set up her own nursing operation, and from the outset it was a lot closer to the wounded men than Scutari.

Mary Seacole, who had learned her nursing in the Caribbean and then in Central America, was unable to obtain any kind of funding to take her skills to the soldiers in the Crimea, and was even turned down by Nightingale herself.

Undeterred, she raised whatever funds she could to get herself to the Crimea. There within a mile of the British field headquarters, she set up her ‘British Hotel’ which was, as its name implies, a hotel and a business: Seacole had to raise money as well as care for soldiers. Supported by her hotel, she would travel out daily to treat the wounded just behind the lines. Her critics, including Nightingale, would later accuse her of keeping something little different from a brothel, but she enjoyed a far better reputation among the soldiers, particularly the many she helped.

At the end of the fighting, forced once more to fend for herself, she struggled back to Britain, only to face crushing debts and eventually bankruptcy. Fortunately, she had some powerful admirers who set up a fund to get her out of trouble, to which, to her great credit, Florence Nightingale anonymously contributed.

Seacole ultimately attained a degree of success and comfort, with property in Jamaica and a good life in London, protected by figures from royal, noble and political circles. She died, admired as a pioneer of nursing, on 14 May 1881.

Following her death, her reputation faded for the best part of a century. However, in the last two or three decades a campaign to recognise her contribution has begun to have some notable success. Both in Jamaica and in Britain, numerous institutions associated with nursing now bear her name, and there is an annual Mary Seacole award for excellence in her profession.

Florence Nightingale undoubtedly deserves the reputation she has won, and her contribution to nursing was historical and monumental. And achieving so much as a woman in Victorian England is all the more remarkable.

But on the anniversary of her death, let’s set Mary Seacole up on the pedestal alongside her. An outstanding champion of nursing and a woman, just like Nightingale. But she laboured under other and greater handicaps that explain her greater misfortunes. Seacole was of humble origins. And she was black.

I’m looking forward to the day when little boys get starry-eyed from reading the Ladybird book about her.

Mary Seacole, 1805-14 May 1881
Pioneer of Nursing

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Topping yourself does no-one any good. Or does it?

It’s a sunny weekend day, so I felt it was time to turn to a cheerful subject.

It’s a theme on which no-one has spoken so well as Dorothy Parker:

  Razors pain you 

  rivers are damp 
  acids stain you
  and drugs cause cramp. 

  Guns aren't lawful
  nooses give
  gas smells awful. 
  You might as well live

Not everyone does decide to live, however, and I’ve known a number of people — a small number, mercifully — who’ve chosen to commit suicide or were close to someone who did.

The most bizarre case I came across was one I heard about from a young couple years ago. I say ‘young’ but neither them was more than a year or two younger than me — this was in the days when even I was young.

Which reminds me of the ghastly thought that I’m older right now than I’ve ever been before.

Still, back to the main subject.

It wasn’t the woman who told most of the story, even though she was undoubtedly the protagonist. It obviously made her far too uncomfortable. So it was her partner who explained what had happened.

A few years earlier she had been living with a different young man but, unfortunately, things had become increasingly difficult between them. Eventually, the animosity became so pronounced that she felt she could stand it no longer and moved out, ending the relationship.

It was a bad time but at least he avoided making it any worse: he didn't ring to recriminate, or follow her around, or even write to her. Instead he kept himself to himself and left her alone.

A few months later she started another relationship, and it had stood the test of time: it was her new partner who was telling me the story.

Having heard nothing more for two years about the previous, abandoned boyfriend, they assumed that he’d simply turned the page and got on with his life. So it came as a terrible shock to hear through mutual friends that he’d committed suicide.

That though was just the beginning. A little while later they were contacted by a lawyer. She had come into rather a large sum of money.

It turned out that within days of their breakup, her ex-boyfriend had taken out a substantial life assurance on his life, with her as beneficiary. It had contained a clause preventing payment on suicide within the first two years of the contract. The day after the two-year period had ended, he had taken his life.

It was a grim tale to hear. I felt for them both. What an appalling legacy to pick up. Talk about blood money. It must have been devastating for them.

But how had we got on to the subject? Well, they’d wanted to explain why it was that they were in the unusually fortunate position, for people under 30, of owning their house outright.

The suicide must have weighed heavily on their consciences, but if it allowed them to clear their mortgage, that was probably one heck of a counterweight.

Still, I felt no temptation to indulge a sense of moral superiority. I hadn't 
faced such an agonising predicament.

And if I had, could I really be sure I
’d have made a different choice? 

Dorothy Parker - got it right on suicide, as on so many things.
'The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue'

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Farewell to the Golden Horn. For now.

We caught the plane home from Istanbul at what proclaimed itself ‘the best airport in the world’. I suppose false modesty is a character flaw and at least this was certainly free of any trace of it. 
Tourist patrol in Istanbul: policing with a smile
if you're not an unlicensed street trader
It reminded me of the time I was using Liverpool airport regularly. It was the run up to the city becoming European Capital of Culture. Signs inside the passenger terminal proudly informed us that we were in the ‘official airport’ of that capital. All I could wonder is how many other airports had competed for the title. Had Glasgow perhaps been pipped at the post, Birmingham mounted a plucky but ultimately forlorn challenge?

Fortunately, however great its airports, Istanbul has a lot more going for it than that. There are the seven hills: seven naturally since this was the location of new Rome and it had to have the same number of hills as the original, even though it’s not that clear what exactly counts as a hill. There three different seaways, including the Golden Horn which snakes right into the heart of the city. And there are magnificent buildings recalling the past grandeur Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman grandeur as well as illustrating the dynamism of one of Europe’s great modern capitals.

What made the trip most pleasant,though, were the people. Everywhere we went we found friendliness, courtesy and good cheer. Even when they jostle you on the trams, they apologise so fulsomely and with such a winning smile that it’s hard to bear a grudge.

That kindness was so widespread that we were a little surprised when a policeman on one of those three-wheeled stand-up scooters went straight past us as we were trying to ask for directions. But then, as soon as he’d achieved his objective of driving away a bottled water salesman, he came straight back to where we were standing.

‘You had a question?’ he asked with the ubiquitous disarming smile.

Not only did he answer our question, but he took us to the door of the place we were looking for, and as soon as he realised Danielle was French, he expressed all his joy over the departure of Sarkozy, which only endeared him all the more to us.

Overall, it feels a Liberal city. Take the example of women’s dress: there are women wearing the full black costume and face veil, but probably no higher a proportion than we meet back in Luton. A much larger number wear a headscarf and cover up so extensively that the heat must be uncomfortable. But the largest number dress like any other women in Europe.

Islamic observance was, however, the one area that feels upsetting. A friend from the city told us how he’d seen the number of women in full Islamic dress grow over the last fifteen years. In itself, that’s not a problem. Where it becomes one is when the strict believers decide that they’re on to such a good thing, they ought to impose it on others. We’re seeing that in Western Europe too, in the slighter wackier fringe sects of Christianity, such as the upper echelons of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

With an Islamist government in power, however moderate, there has to be concern over wether Turkey can retain its vibrancy by preserving its liberalism and tolerance of diversity.

On our final day the city came up with another glimpse of its warm heart. As we were waiting in the hotel lobby to leave for the world’s best airport, a basil plant was delivered to reception.

‘What was that about?’ we asked.

‘The City distributes them to every single household, to help celebrate the Spring.’

A small gesture of generosity by the public authorities, without utilitarian value, only because it can spread a little goodwill.

Now that’s something that wouldn’t go down amiss in our own societies either, would it?

Saturday, 5 May 2012

What Christianity can teach Islam. With a Jewish story to make the point

It is a truth universally acknowledged, or at any rate, a point of view widely acknowledged to be true by self-styled ‘Christian’ circles in the West, that Islam is a religion badly in need of an education.

And those same circles imply that no-one is better placed than they are to provide the necessary lessons.

That is a belief with a long pedigree or, at any rate, since a pedigree suggests nobility, a long track record. Certainly, it motivated Christendom in the Middle Ages, when it decided to teach Islam decency and a love of peace at swordpoint in the Crusades, and it continues today with tanks and drone attacks replacing such less flamboyant weaponry, in Iraq or Afghanistan.

One of my favourite Jewish stories concerns two friends working together in the City of London for many years: Moishe, of my people, and Seamus from County Cork.

One day, Seamus announced to Moishe that he would be travelling home to Ireland for the weekend and suggested that his friend might like to accompany him. Moishe was more than happy to accept the invitation, and the weekend started brilliantly with an outstanding dinner with the family on Friday evening, a day’s fishing by the local trout stream the next day, followed by another dinner, practically a banquet, with all the neighbourhood had to provide in the way of good company.

On Sunday morning, Seamus admitted slightly shamefacedly, ‘you know, I’m seen as the squire over here, and if I’m around on a Sunday morning, it’s generally expected that I attend mass.’

‘Why,’ says Moishe, ‘I’ve never been to a Catholic service. Would you mind if I joined you?’

Father O’Connor made no objection when Seamus told him that ‘though he’s not of our faith, my fiend Moishe would like to attend mass this morning.’

The service began and was going along just fine. Then there was a ring of a bell and a collecting plate came round. Seamus put in a ten euro note and Moishe did the same. A little later there was a second ring and another appearance of the plate, but this time Moishe had no ten euro notes left, so he put in a twenty. Not long before the end, there was a third ring of the bell, and this time he was obliged to contribute 50.

As they were walking back to the Church door, Seamus asked what he’d thought of the service.

‘Very interesting,’ replied Moishe, ‘in fact I’ve a few questions for your priest.’

They approach Father O’Connor, and Moishe asks his first question.

‘Tell me, that Jesus Christ. Wasn’t he a Jew?’

‘Why, yes, most certainly he was.’

‘And all those disciples, weren’t they Jews too?’

‘Yes, indeed, good God-fearing Jews, every one of them.’

Moishe shakes his head. ‘You mean we started this business? How on Earth did we let it slip from our control?’

To this day there are Christians who would deny that the religion is a business at all. Some point to the tale of Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple. But Christianity has evolved down the ages, and the mainstream has long known that there are certain naive aspects of the early Church that need a more sophisticated rationality, to help interpret them and accommodate them to reality.

These days the moneylenders don’t ply their trade in the temple. They basically own it.

Some years ago we went to St Peter’s in Rome. The entry charge made no concession to understatement. As we approached the door, we discovered that the men in the group, dressed in shorts on a baking hot Italian summer’s day, were going to have invest another fine sum in disposable plastic trousers, just to cover our knees.

Oh, yes. There was a good commercial brain behind that gig.

Yesterday, we visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. In passing, let me say that for sheer lofty beauty and an atmosphere of contemplative tranquility, I’ve never seen anywhere to surpass it.

As we approached the door, I pulled out my wallet ready to pay the undoubtedly steep entrance fee. And then I saw the sign: women would have to wrap themselves in skirts, available at the door, if their knees were showing, and the Mosque also provided headscarves to cover their hair. I checked to make sure I could cover this additional expenditure too.

And then — imagine my delight when I discovered that entrance was free (we were asked to make a donation on leaving, but without compulsion, and many visitors made none). I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the over-skirts were being provided free of charge. And the staff on the door were welcoming women visitors with a smile and telling them that if they chose not to wear a headscarf, they didn’t have to.

Ah, yes. Islam has a lot to learn from Christianity. And Christians have a lot to teach it. But I’m in no hurry to see the lessons delivered or received.

The Blue Mosque looming majestically over our hotel
In Suleyman the Magnificent's Mosque,
Breda and Danielle show they can be respectful
And Danielle can even blend in


There are certain drinks I can't abide outside their original environment. Guinness is a drink which I wouldn't normally touch if you paid me, but when I was in Dublin a few years ago, I drank it every evening.

Similarly, while in Istanbul, I've developed a strange predilection for Turkish coffee, which I've not felt anywhere else. Still, in one restaurant at least, it seemed the only safe option: an advertising poster rather suggested that they had no idea how to navigate the vagaries of the Western European varieties.

If you advertise cappuccino with an illustration of long espressos,
just what can you be trusted to serve up?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Istanbul: Christianity, Islam, strife and civilisation

If a city can have identity problems then it must be the one I’m in today. 

The tiny village of Byzantium became Constantinople, then reverted to being Byzantium but trasnformed into a metropolis and heart of an Empire, and today it’s Istanbul.

It was pagan, it became Christian and then specifically Orthodox Christian, before succumbing to Islam. Today it’s run by secular authorities while remaining overwhelmingly Moslem in its population.

In fact everywhere we go there are mosques, with minarets in every vista. Which makes me wonder again why the Swiss banned the building of minarets: what’s their problem? Minarets adorn a skyline, far from taking anything from it.

The multitude of mosques will however mean a problem I’ve come to expect from visits to countries with a majority Moslem population: we had a call to prayer thundering through our room this evening; I’m dreading the experience at 6:00 tomorrow morning.

All those identities and those clashing cultures and religions have made Istanbul the vibrant city it is today. And the processes that forged it were never simple, never black and white.

The great Christian bastion, the last of the Levant, fell to Islam and the Turks in 1453 but its back had been broken by the Fourth Crusade two and a half centuries earlier: it never recovered its capacity to resist after the crippling blow the Crusaders inflicted and that made its eventual fall inevitable.

So if the Turks finally took the city, breaching walls that had successfully resisted all previous attempts for a thousand years, a major contribution was made by Crusaders — by people who were ostensibly of the same, Christian faith. That’s what it means to worship the same Prince of Peace.

In fact, because the Ottoman Empire had a great many Christian provinces, there were more Christians among the Turkish besiegers of the city than among its Byzantine defenders.

The fall of the city had massive repercussions on the rest of the world, for better or for worse — I leave it to you to judge. With all trade from the East now necessarily passing though Ottoman hands, and therefore liable to monopoly pricing, it became urgent to find a sea route to the East. So it’s no surprise that just 39 years after the fall of Byzantium, Christopher Columbus managed to make the most monumental error, with the richest results, in the history of navigation, and open up the New World to European colonisation.

The rest is history, as Europe brought its civilising influence to bear on a lot of other peoples who hadn’t asked for it and might well have been more than happy to do without it. It strikes me as fascinating that the first cases of syphilis, a disease imported from the New World, were recorded as far away as Beijing within three years of Columbus’s voyage. What a measure that gives of the spread of European enlightenment to other nations!

All this was running through my mind as we wandered the glorious streets of Byzantine Istanbul this afternoon. Everywhere we went, I saw the key symbol of Islam, the crescent moon. Which made me think of the equivalent for Judaism, the star of David. And then of course the equivalent for Christianity, the cross — an instrument of execution by torture.

Perhaps the Crusaders’ sacking of Byzantium isn’t that surprising after all.

Fortunately, none of this tension and pain was visible on the streets today. Instead, we were treated everywhere we went with friendliness and charm. And constantly met reminders of a gentle and pleasant way of life which we could do a lot worse than to emulate.

A smoke, a tea, a game of backgammon:
the Egyptian couple at the next table understood how to relax
Even a machine-gun toting sentry (‘Jandarma’ it read on his shoulder badge, but he was a lot friendlier than most of the French ‘gendarmes’ it’s been my misfortune to meet) allowed me to be photographed next to him.

The gendarme had a machine gun and a smile
Even a potential threat can be delivered with charm
A city and a nation that has suffered and learned and managed to stay civilised. How sad that so many, in the name of a Christianity which badly needs to address its own deep flaws, want to exclude it from the European community to which it rightly belongs. So far this visit has done nothing but confirm my long-held view that it is high time the European Union invited Turkey in. And not just because this huge, populous, dynamic and above all young nation can contribute so much to our economies — if only by helping solve our pension problems. 

Just because we could do with all that warmth.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Spads, Spuds, a Hunt and a skinned Prime Minister

Those who have been following the Hunt saga with bated breath won’t need any introduction to its salient points. Just in case, however, there are readers in some remote and benighted corner of the world like the United States, who haven’t been enthralled by this edifying tale, here is the gist of it.

Firstly, it has nothing to do with pursuing a fox to extinction. That activity has been banned in Britain for many years, a matter on which we liberals congratulate ourselves with great satisfaction even though the practice continues unabated, with the police turning the kind of blind eye towards it that they reserve for the misbehaviour of the ruling classes.

No, in this case the quarry is the Hunt himself. More specifically, it is Jeremy Hunt who is our Minister of Culture. If you tend to think of ‘culture’ as the kind of thing a life scientist produces in a lab in order to grow large numbers of unpleasant bugs, then you’ve probably got a pretty accurate picture of the man.

It has recently been revealed that he, or at any rate his office, had been far too close to Rupert Murdoch’s empire, at a time when Hunt had to adjudicate over an acquisition which the Murdochs were keen to make and which would have been very lucrative to them.

It has to be said that Hunt has shown all the honour we expect of him, and allowed a special adviser to fall on his sword on his behalf.

I didn’t get much further with this story because at about this point the article I was reading began to refer to this special adviser as a ‘spad’. I’d forgotten that this was the familiar term for these characters. My problem is that I can’t see the word without thinking of ‘spud’, the humble potato that naturally bears so little resemblance to the noble spad.

But then, on the other hand, perhaps they’re not that different. We used to have a chain of shops int this country, and possibly in others (perhaps including the benighted States), called ‘Spud-U-like’. It used to serve jacket potatoes which you could take with any of a wide range of toppings. They always smelled mouthwateringly good and turned out to be rather disappointing: once the topping, the superficial attraction, was gone all you had left was a mushy pile of starch with little flavour and even less nutritional value.

Which, come to think of it, isn’t that different from a spad.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Hunt goes on. Yesterday Members of Parliament summoned the Prime Minister to come and talk to them about the affair. David Cameron looked deeply upset at being treated this way.

‘Me? They dare to summon me? To appear in front of them?’ He looked like Charles I, the last British monarch convinced of his divine right to rule, a delusion Cameron probably shares.

Playing the role of Cromwell to Cameron’s Charles was one of the great institutions of the House of Commons, Dennis Skinner. Despite being eighty, Skinner can still wield a mordant wit as sharp as any executioner’s axe. He asked the Prime Minister whether he was protecting Hunt out of a sense of self-preservation, knowing that if Hunt went he, the Prime Minister, would have to face the ‘bullets’ himself.

‘Well, the honourable gentleman has the right, at any time, to take his pension and I advise him to do so,’ Cameron quipped back.

Oh dear, oh dear. I’ve always thought that the saying ‘the truth never hurts’ revealed particularly limited understanding of life. Didn’t Cameron prove the point? If Hunt goes, he certainly is the next in the firing line. And that truth has got him so rattled he can no longer control his temper. Not even in Parliament.

Perhaps he ought to remember what happened to his illustrious predecessor who believed he ruled by the grace of God. Charles I also treated parliament and certain hard-hitting parliamentarians with contempt.

Look where that got him.

The moment Charles I realised he could have
chose his tactics more judiciously