Wednesday, 16 August 2017

After Charlottesville: Trump and taking down statues

Donald Trump has come up with some interesting remarks on the clashes that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. These were the background that led to the murder of a protester  leading to the murder of a protester, Heather Heyer, and the injury of several others, by a white supremacist who took a leaf out of the terrorists’ book, and drove a car into the crowd. 

Trump said:

Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee. This week, it is Robert E Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? ... Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue? … You're changing history, you're changing culture...

Robert E. Lee: should his statue go?
In a sense, he has a point, though not the one he thinks he’s making. It’s true that iconic figures from the US past have terribly tarnished images: George Washington was a slaveowner who never freed any of his slaves, even on his deathbed.

Thomas Jefferson too, who penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” clearly felt the right to liberty was alienable for anyone with African blood. Why, he even took it from his own family. Visitors to his house at Monticello commented on the strange sensation of being served at table by slaves whose looks made it absolutely clear they were Jefferson’s own sons. He had fathered them on another of his slaves, Sally Hemings. 

He enslaved his own children? What an indictment.

So one can see an argument for taking down their statues.

However, that would mean simply ignoring their real achievements elsewhere. One of Washington’s finest was to have led the American army to victory over the British colonial power, and then to have resisted the temptation to take on the military dictatorship that was clearly open to him. And Jefferson was the voice of the revolution. He may have behaved shockingly in his home, but at least he set certain principles for democratic behaviour – though limited only to white males at the time – which have become a benchmark for the rest of us to aim at (but for everyone).

So maybe their statues should remain after all.

What about Lee?

I’ve never understood why he had monuments anyway. He swore allegiance to the United States, served in its armed forces, and when his state rose against his country, chose to side with his state. He couldn’t, he claimed, draw his sword against his “country”, but by that he meant Virginia, not the USA.

That made him an oathbreaker and turncoat. In absolutely strict terms, he committed treason. And that betrayal was directed at the very country, the United States, most Southerners would loudly uphold today.

Why on earth celebrate such treason? Why tolerate monuments to it? Why aren’t they in the forefront of the movement to tear down his statue?

Don’t think it was the only option open to him. His fellow-Virginian, George H. Thomas, made the opposite decision. He remained loyal to the country to which he had sworn allegiance and to the army in which he served. He became, in my view, the most effective general on either side – significantly better in that respect than was Lee himself.

That view runs counter to the claims of many who maintain that Lee deserves our respect as a great soldier. Really? He sent men to march a mile under devastating fire from enemies in well-protected positions, in what became known as Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. George Pickett himself, the man who gave his name to the charge though he didn’t order it, when asked to put his division in order for a defensive fight after the charge, replied that he no longer had a division.

Men like Douglas Haig, who threw away hundreds of thousands of lives of British soldiers under his command in the First World War, and his equivalents in the French and German armies, simply took Lee’s Gettysburg lunacy to a new level of carnage.

As for Stonewall Jackson, well there’s little to say. He was a religious maniac and a man of appalling brutality. An effective soldier maybe but a thoroughly unpleasant man. Take down his statue by all means.

And why not, indeed, Lee’s too.

So, you see, Trump has a point. Though I doubt he’d agree with it if he thought it through. On the other hand, who’s ever accused Trump of thinking things through?

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Toffee's diary: strange things. Like trains. And adulthood.

Trains. Terrible things. Do you know them? I didn’t. But I found out a week ago.

They go chunka-chunka-chunka for hours and hours. And sometimes woosh-woosh-woosh. Worst of all, when another one goes by, they go woosh-woosh-roar-roar-roar-clackety-clackety-clack.

It’s horrible. Especially because it goes on and on and on.

Still it was wonderful when we got to the end. Its somewhere called Scotland. There’s lots of great places. A river we can wander along. A field with lots of other dogs that Luci could run away from and I could play with. And there was even a sea thing which was fun.

“Yes,” says Luci, “where I went in and you ran away.”

Luci went into the sea thing
But I thought it was a bit safer to watch and bark a bit at it
Not really. I didn’t run away. I went in too. But I only went in just a bit. Paws, you know. That was far enough. The rest of the water just kept moving. Luci may have liked that but I though it made more sense to stay near the sand. Sand! That’s great stuff. You can get it everywhere, and dig in it, and even run across it.

What’s more, there were some really nice humans in Scotland. There was a woman who was like our human number 1, but she was even better at picking me up. Rocking me, you know, and stroking me and telling me how nice I was.

“She doesn’t know you like our number 1 does,” says Luci.

And a man too, who’s terribly big. Bigger than human number 2. Amazing. And the third one’s a puppy. I knew that because she was, well, puppy-like. She was taller than my humans and almost as big as the man one, but still a puppy’s a puppy, and you just know when you see one.

Talking about puppies, something really odd happened to me this week. The humans told me I wasn’t one any more. Not a puppy. No idea why. “She’s in season,” the humans kept saying.

In season? What on earth did that mean?

“It’s summer,” said Luci, “that’s the season. Not that you’d know it with the rain. And it won’t be for long anyway. Trust me, I know. I’ve seen seasons come and go.”

Seasons come and go? So what does that mean? That I’ll stop being an adult and be a puppy all over again? I think I’d prefer that.

But the worst of it was that they started talking about me making puppies. Making them? I like being one but I’ve no idea how to make one. Why don’t they just let me go on as a puppy myself instead of trying to turn me into some kind of puppy-making adult? 

“The humans will sort it all out,” says Luci. 

It’s all very well for her to say that: it seems they’ve made sure she can’t make puppies, and I don’t know how they did that, any more than I know why I can’t either but they think I can.

“You’ll find out,” says Luci.

Oh, well. It was fun in Scotland anyway. And now we’re off again. Chunka-chunka-chunka. Woosh-woosh-woosh. But it doesn’t feel so bad this time. Maybe I’m getting more used to it. And, after all, putting up with it worked out pretty well, considering, last time.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Venezuela: the case for just saying “no”

There is a glorious scene in my favourite book of World War One memoirs, Emilio Lussu’s Sardinian Brigade. He describes a moment when his Italian unit is waiting to charge the Austrian lines. The pre-assault artillery barrage starts up but the fire, instead of hitting the Austrians, falls on its own, Italian positions.

While Lussu rushes about trying to restore discipline among the panicking troops, he’s struck by an astonishing sight: one machine gun unit which is under full control of its officer, a friend of his, marching in fine order – towards the rear.

“What on Earth are you doing?” shouts Lussu.

“Attacking those guns,” replies his friend.

“But they’re our guns,” he shouts back.

“They’re firing at me,” comes the calm reply, “so they’re enemy guns.”

That strikes me as a thoroughly sensible, not to say commendable, attitude. By analogous reasoning, if a government is wreaking havoc on the lives of workers and the poor, it is, by that simple fact, a government hostile to the principles of socialism. It’s crucial to bring it down, as quickly as possible. If it claims to be socialist then, as soon as we’ve got our hollow laugh out of the way, we need to devote ourselves still more urgently to the task – a false friend is far more dangerous than an open enemy.

Why do I mention that just now?

Because there seems to be a belief among certain circles of the British Left that we need to back the present government in Venezuela, on the grounds that it’s ‘socialist’. This is a ‘socialist’ government that presided over a reduction in GDP by 18.6% last year. Inflation was running at a yearly rate of 741% in February 2017. Although the official figures are different, many commentators believe that unemployment is climbing towards 20%.

The face of socialism? Not as I see it
Venezuela is sitting on the biggest oil reserves in the world. And yet it’s GDP per head is a little over $12,800 a head and falling, while even Cuba, with no oil, is running at $11,900. How long before Venezuela falls below Cuba?

There’s plenty wrong about Cuba, but at least it’s delivering a stable economy, secure if low living standards and decent healthcare, in spite of decades of US sanctions. Nicolás Maduro’s government is delivering chaos, in which the first victims are the poor and the workers it claims to protect.

Sure, the parties likely to replace his in power may well be pretty awful. At least they’re open enemies and we can get on with opposing them once they’re in office. The one controlling the regime right down is a false friend and it’s wreaking horrific damage on those it should be defending.

Marching on it at the head of a machine gun detachment probably isn’t a good idea. But doing the same thing metaphorically? It’s firing on our people, which makes it the enemy, so why not?

After all, don’t forget Stalin called himself a socialist too. He proved it by taking out 80 million people. Among whom were all the leaders, bar him, of the revolution that was supposed to bring socialism to Russia.

I got tired decades ago of being told that his successors’ governments had to be supported simply for the principles to which they paid lip service. I feel tired when I hear the same stale old rhetoric being dragged out in defence of Maduro. 

We need to find something more innovative. And actually stand up for the people we’re supposed to represent.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Who'd be a democratic socialist? Depends on what you mean by it

On 21 October 1966, 40,000 cubic metres of stones and mud slid down a hillside in Wales. In their track stood the village of Aberfan and Pantglas Junior School. 116 children and 28 adults died.

Aberfan: aftermath of disaster
The heap that slid was slurry from the nearby coalmine. It had been dumped for years on top of known springs. The constant flow of water made it unstable and many voices had been raised in concern.

The slagheap was the responsibility by the National Coal Board. It had taken control of the coal industry when it was nationalised by Attlee’s iconic Labour government. It was headed by Alf Robens, a former Labour MP who had held the position of Minister for Power in that same government.

Robens falsely claimed that the disaster could not have been foreseen. He strove to minimise the Coal Board’s contribution to reconstruction, which only proceeded when a new Labour government under Harold Wilson came up with some money, though that didn’t stop £150,000 being taken from the charitable fund for the disaster (ultimately paid back by yet another Labour government, under Tony Blair).

Why do I recall that story now?

Because just recently some friends on the left accused me of not being a “democratic socialist”. I don’t take offence at such attacks: they merely balance charges of being a “raving socialist” levelled at me from the right (the centre-right: I don’t knowingly have friends in the hard right). Still, it’s a criticism that deserves consideration.

I’ve always thought that central to socialism is the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. There are huge difficulties with this principle, not least that no one can really say what anyone’s needs are.

Generally, many socialists accept as an intermediate step the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution”. Achieving even that would be a huge step forward. And we’re a long way from doing so.

A recent report reveals that chief executives of top UK companies are, on average, paid in a year what someone on a median income would take 160 years to earn.

Major company chief executives may be doing an important job. But their claims to take responsibility are empty. When companies go wrong, Chief Executives generally just move on. Tony Hayward, Chief Executive of BP at the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, has taken up lucrative new positions with Glencore Xstrata and Corus. As his history shows, these top executives aren’t always as competent as one might hope: the link between ther contribution and reward is hard to see. Certainly, it isn’t established at 160 times median pay.

Tackling this kind of problem strikes me as central to democratic socialism.

Sadly, however, those who most loudly proclaim their socialism take what to me seems a far more reductionist view of socialism. They equate it with nationalisation of industry which they conflate with people’s control. That sounds democratic. Indeed, with people’s control it would seem likely that a more socialistic approach, linking remuneration to contribution might be adopted.

Sadly, the real experience of nationalisation is that it produces not people’s control but state control. The bureaucrats who run nationalised industries don’t act in the interests of the people, but generally in the interests of the self-proclaimed elite that includes men of Tony Hayward’s ilk.

Aberfan shows how such bureaucrats can be sucked into the game and ignore the legitimate claims of ordinary people. I sympathise with the Aberfan father who wanted the cause of his son’s death to be recorded as “buried alive by the National Coal Board”. The same coal board would do Thatcher’s bidding and bury the entire British coal industry less than twenty years later.

It also saddens me that many friends on the left line up with the Brexit camp in the great debate that dominates British politics. In a pamphlet on the subject, an MP for whom I have great admiration expressed his surprise at the fact that the far right shares his desire to leave the European Union. Only his surprise surprises me. The driving force for Brexit is fear of immigration and a nationalistic loss of local state power – a fundamental concern of the far right.

On the other hand, one of the few forces to have resisted the hegemony of the Tony Haywards has been the EU. It has ensured the adoption of employment laws that are anathema to the top executives. It represents a bulwark against the kind of behaviour of employers that marked the National Coal Board and Lord Robens at Aberfan. It guarantees freedoms, including the freedom of movement, that give wage earners the right to pursue the best opportunities for themselves anywhere across the world’s largest trading bloc.

Why would any democratic socialist want to give any of that up?

Brexit: "bringing back control" to hand it to Washington?
Thanks for sharing, @AnnEnglishRose

So, friends who doubt my democratic socialist credentials, here’s my answer: if democratic socialism is reduced to state control of industry and a nationalistic refusal of merged sovereignty with our neighbours, then certainly I want no part of it. If, on the other hand, democratic socialism means battling against the injustice and regressive effect of inequity, revealed in individuals being paid 160 times more than others for delivering not even a fraction of 160 times as much; if it means working with other nations to defend our rights and extend our prosperity; why, then democratic socialism is precisely what I believe in.

And isn’t that precisely what the Labour Party should be about?

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Sadiq Khan: what a real leader looks like

There’s “absolutely no way you can disrespect the way the people voted,” claims Shadow Education Secretary and leading Labour Party member Angela Rayner.

This is a curious statement, and by no means the only one of its kind floating around these days, because it’s both true and untrue. Certainly, you have to respect the outcome of a vote in the sense that it sets the framework of politics. But there would be no Opposition if we simply respected, fully, the result of a vote: we’d have to say, “the people have voted for the other side so we should back their policies”.

In reality, we say “this is the way people voted but we’re going to keep up the pressure all the same. We believe people can change their minds and we want to win at the next election as we lost at this one”.

The Guardian article from which I took the Rayner quote was concerned with the statements of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, that it would still be possible for Britain to remain in the European Union. This is coming to be known as an exit from Brexit. It would take another vote, he acknowledges, which is precisely what I would expect an Opposition to demand: beaten in one vote, it works for victory in the next.

Sadiq Khan, outside Westminster.
Is that where his future lies?
There’s a refreshing quality to Khan’s statement. The Labour Party position on Brexit is far from satisfactory. Or even clear. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, recently announced that Britain would have to leave the European Single Market because continued membership of it would be “dependent on membership of the EU”.

This is another of those curious statements, that’s both true and untrue. A small number of nations are members of the Single Market without being members of the EU. Norway is a notable example. But Corbyn is right in a wider sense: to retain its membership of the Single Market, Norway has in effect to behave like a member of the EU, accepting all its regulations and even paying contributions to its budget, but without having any say in setting them. One can imagine that opting for such an outcome for Britain might honour the strict letter of the Brexit vote, but entirely deny and undermine its spirit.

The problem is that it’s hard to be confident that Corbyn is taking this position merely to “respect the vote”. Given his past pronouncements, one has to suspect that he’s hiding behind the will of the people in order not to reveal that secretly he’s in sympathy with the Brexit camp – even though that’s contrary to the official position of the Labour Party he leads.

This would certainly be disingenuous at best. But far more serious, it means that on this crucial question for Britain, the government faces no Opposition. The biggest Party opposing the Tories will ultimately back the government – as has repeatedly happened on Brexit votes. Labour MPs put forward amendments, lose them and then line up under Leadership pressure to pass, docile and toothless, through the government lobbies on the substantial question.

As I said before, taken to extremes, “respecting the vote” means backing the government. On the EU, it feels as though that’s exactly what Labour is doing.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear Sadiq Khan speak out. At last, a leading member of the Party has spoken unequivocally in favour of Party policy. What a contrast with an official leadership which seems paralysed by its own ambivalence over it. Above all, Khan is speaking as a true Opposition leader: accepting that the people have delivered a verdict and that we are therefore heading in a direction we view as mistaken, but refusing to give up the right to work for a change in that decision even at the eleventh hour.

In other words, as an Opposition should, he holds out the hope of reversing a decision that went against us. That’s an approach I’d like to see the whole of the leadership embrace. My fear is that the present leadership may be unable to make such a change, and instead what we need is a change in leadership.

The Mayor of London, I feel, has given us a taste of what that might be.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The sequel to Frost/Nixon could be far more chilling

It’s been fun watching the film Frost/Nixon again. Not just because it’s a gripping film with fine actors, above all the extraordinary Michael Sheen as Frost, but also because it’s a valuable reminder of some significant if deeply unedifying events. A reminder that’s particularly timely today.

Frost (Michael Sheen) interviewing Nixon (Frank Langella)
The film tells the story of what remains one of the more significant interviews ever shown on TV. That was the interview of Richard Nixon by David Frost. At the time, Frost was a man who’d made a strong though not first-rate reputation first as a comedian, second as a talk show host. It was extraordinary that, with such a background, he should have decided to interview the former US President three years after he had been forced to resign from the White House. Nixon went as a result of the Watergate scandal, once it became clear that his denials of involvement in the attempted cover up of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee were simply mendacious.

The film shows how Nixon initially ran circles around Frost but, eventually, the interviewer was able to turn the tables on him and extract the only public admission of guilt that Nixon ever made and the closest he came to an apology.

The most telling line of the film comes at the end. Sam Rockwell, playing journalist James Reston, points out that thanks to Watergate, Nixon’s “most lasting legacy is that today, any political wrongdoing is immediately given the suffix… ‘gate’”.

There has, however, been a move in recent years to try to rehabilitate the memory of Nixon. Apologists for him point to his construction of better relations with the Soviet Union, to his opening up of China, and most powerfully to his working through the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War. These are, it is true, major achievements, but I can’t help wondering whether other Presidents might not have been able to pull them off too, given the changing atmosphere both domestically within the United States and across the world. More to the point, while ending the Vietnam War was certainly a huge success, it’s worth remembering that Nixon had earlier extended it into Cambodia, inflicting terrifying numbers of casualties and, more important still, precipitating the seizure of power there by the Khmer Rouge. These instituted the most violent regime the world has seen, wiping out more people, proportionately to their population, than even the Nazi Holocaust.

All this adds up to my watching the revision of Nixon’s reputation with considerable scepticism. He may have had some achievements but I feel that his contribution was only to see, and seize, opportunities he had little role in creating.

Meanwhile, as the Watergate Scandal unfolded, we watched him retreating from position to position, admitting one offence when he could deny it no longer, while still denying others, throwing colleagues, often long-term friends, to the dogs rather than resign himself. Eventually, though, the options ran out. With the House of Representatives about to vote for impeachment, and the Senate almost certainly to convict him, he resigned. Soon after, his successor Gerald Ford pardoned him, ensuring that he was never brought to account for his misdeeds.

The damage has been long lasting. Nixon believed, as he claimed to Frost, that whatever a President did was, by that simple fact, not illegal. This is a claim worthy of a monarch, not the President of a republican form of government: a king by divine right might feel that nothing he does can be regarded as a crime or be sanctioned by law. But the nature of a republic is that it has at its core the notion of rule of law, making it impossible for any citizen, however powerful to be above it.

Nixon, like every President, had sworn to uphold the Constitution. By his behaviour, he had broken that oath. It was a fundamental betrayal, and it set a precedent.

That precedent is being cheerfully followed today. Trump’s Nixon, in spades. Charmless and dishonest just like the 37th president, he only lacks his predecessor’s competence and effectiveness. Sadly, we have to be grateful that he does. If he were to chalk up any achievements, they would be far more those of war than of peace – Nixon bombing Cambodia rather than Nixon talking peace in Paris.

They have in common their indifference to the law and their contempt for the Constitution they swore to uphold. But here too there is a major contrast. Nixon may have lied and cheated and obstructed, but he didn’t commit high treason by collaborating with a foreign power hostile to the United States.

It’s worth watching Frost/Nixon even if you’ve seen it before. It’s entertaining as well as insightful. Just remember that, relevant though it is, the President of that time was merely loathsome and criminal.

This one is profoundly toxic too.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Austerity: is it really a Tory blind spot?

A joke frequently told against Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour governments led by Tony Blair, that he was having an extramarital affair. The object of his affections was a mystery woman known as Prudence. He simply couldn’t stop himself mentioning her whenever he spoke, so that the catchword for everything he did in dealing with the country’s finances was that it was down, he claimed, to Prudence.

“Mock on, mock on”, he might be saying today. And “what side of your face are you laughing out of now?”

After David Cameron brought the Conservatives to power, Prudence was unceremoniously dumped for a much less attractive siren known as Austerity. Far from seducing the Chancellor alone, Austerity seems to have bedded most of the senior figures of the Tory Party. Which isn’t to say they weren’t warned. Anyone at all familiar with the ideas of Maynard Keynes pointed out that there was a paradox at the core of the notion Austerity: when a government puts the brakes on spending the result isn’t necessarily a saving, but often the exact contrary. Reduced spending leads to reduced economic activity, and therefore reduced taxation, and far from emerging from indebtedness, the government merely sinks further into debt.

UK Debt as % of GDP: steadily growing under austerity
Source: BBC
Seven years on, it’s clear that this is exactly what has happened. Back in 2010, Cameron made a great deal of the supposedly unbearable cost of debt Labour had amassed, a toxic burden being passed on to the future generations. It was approaching the trillion-pound level at that time. Seven years on, it is now projected to reach £1.8 trillion by next March, but curiously the Tories have stopped talking about it.

Despite years of austerity, with constant cuts to essential public services, even the government’s deficit – the amount by which spending exceeds income – is rising again. In June, it was nearly 50% higher than it was in the same month last year. Keynes’s paradox of thrift is being verified with a vengeance: thrift cuts revenue and not just cost, so it can make things worse rather than better.

Anyone reading this piece might feel there’s nothing new in my making this claim. I’ve said it all before, haven’t I? So why am I saying it again now?

Because now we learn that the Tories are not only persisting with their austerity policies in the face of evidence that they aren’t working, but even in the face of evidence that they’re costing them votes

Now that’s truly odd. Because if the Tories are anything, they’re an election-winning machine, hypersensitive to any chance to win a vote, or any risk of losing one. It’s quite extraordinary that they’re sticking – for now – to a policy they know might lose them power.

Which leads to a further question. If it isn’t working financially; if it’s costing them votes politically; then why on earth are the Tories continuing to pursue austerity?

Could it really be that they are, ultimately, entirely heartless? Do they truly believe that the poor need to be punished for the offence of being, simply, poor? And the best way of punishing them is to impoverish them further?

I find it hard to believe that any but a few of the Tory leaders are quite that ruthless. Sadly, though, that leaves only one explanation: that they simply can’t see what they’re doing. Which suggests that the Parliamentary Conservative Party has simply lost all contact with reality.

Surely we wouldn’t want to suggest that Tories might be that benighted, would we?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Luci's diary: how to play the puppy. In both senses.

Funny creature, the little one.

I say “little” partly because Toffee really is little, partly because she just goes on behaving like a puppy, which when you get to be nearly eleven months old, you really can’t pretend to be any more. Well, you can pretend, but it fools no one.

Toffee likes to keep playing the puppy
But I'm so mature it sometimes just leaves me yawning
Now me, I’ve put all that puppy-dog stuff behind me. Long since. But then it won’t be long before I’m three. The humans have come to think a bit better of me these days. I can’t go tearing around all over the place like I used to, and Toffee still does.

Not that I don’t miss it, just a little bit. It was fun. Human number 2’s always good for throwing things for a dog. You know, a ball or a soft toy or whatever. But human number 1 always likes to sit at the end of the sofa, near the long end of the room, you know, where the sitting room blends into the dining room. That means when number 2 throw something it has to go beyond her.

Not a problem, of course. We can just jump over her. Or rather, because when you’re a right-sized dog instead of one of those silly giants that seem to inhabit the park these days, you need to have places you can jump to and then from again, once your legs are ready for another effort.

The thing about number 1 is that she has a really nice, comfortable front to land on and take off from again. So I’d land on her before taking the second leap to reach the floor and go skittering and skidding over to the toy, or ball, or whatever that number 2 had thrown.

She didn’t always appreciate that. She’d make a kind of “ouf” noise as though the wind had been knocked out of her, and then, once I’d done it half a dozen times or so, she’d say to number 2, “oh, I think that’s enough now. You don’t need to throw that for her any more. Do you?”

Of course he needed to keep throwing it. But when number 1 says something in that tone of voice, it’s better not to answer the question, but just obey the tone.

“Of course, of course,” he’d say and stop throwing the toy, pretending to concentrate on the telly instead.

Well, these days it’s Toffee that does the jumping. The “ouf” is a little less intense because Toffee is, after all, just a tad littler than I am. As for me, as becomes a near three-year old, I just sit on the back of the couch and watch. With a small trace of envy, I have to admit. It reminds me of carefree times, before I took on the responsibility of a young dog. It would be unbecoming, but there are times when I wish I could do that too.

Still, I think I’ve found a good solution. Now it’s Toffee that bounces on the belly and goes sliding over the slippery floor, her claws scrabbling away, to grab the toy (she particularly favours a little stuffed lion whose nose she’s chewed off). All I do is watch and wait. And when she’s nearly back at the sofa, toy in mouth, panting and expectant, ready to beg number 2 to throw it again, I go into action. Off the sofa I come and dart across the floor like a flash, on an intervention course. And Toffee fails to spot her impending doom every time. Seconds it takes me, sometime barely a second, to grab the toy from her nerveless jaws. Then up I get on the sofa again and refuse to hand if over to number 2 to throw again.

And I growl. How I growl. Toffee knows I don’t mean it but there’s just a little bit of her that isn’t quite sure. So she stays down on the floor looking a bit piteous, and yapping uncertainly from time.

“Grr, grr, grr,” I growl at her, and she lunges briefly forward before backing away again nervously.

Eventually, Human number 2 takes pity on her and takes the toy to throw again. But I don’t mind. Because it’s just a chance to start all over again.

Clever, isn’t it? I can get as much fun as ever, but without making anything like the effort. And without looking like a puppy again. Brilliant.

Having a littler dog around does have a bit of use, then. Sometimes.

Toffee with her silly lion toy.
They're even the same colour

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Medical Science: so hard to keep up with

It’s a lot of fun working for a company that has a product that actually does what it says. Sadly, rather a lot of people selling information technology to the National Health Service seem to regard it as a slightly dull but dependable, and above all uncritical, source of funding. You know, they’ll never make your fortune, but you can dump mediocre systems on them and they’ll buy them, not perhaps at the highest of prices but at a price that’s always paid, and with few questions asked.

Sadly, I’ve worked for a few of those companies. I remember being ambushed at one conference at which I was presenting, when a representative of a client hospital asked, in public, why on earth anyone should trust us, given how badly we’d let them down on another product?

Well, it’s a blessed relief to be away from all that unpleasantness. Today I’m working with an evidence-based medicine product that does exactly what it claims to do: provide rapid access to carefully evaluated, up-to-the-minute information reflecting the most recent understanding of medical knowledge.

To take them or not to take them?
The answer may depend on when you ask the question
It’s just as well it does so. One of my colleagues pointed out at a recent presentation that about 15% of all information affecting medical practice changes every year.

Fifteen per cent.

Every year.

That may seem extraordinary, but I have a personal anecdote which seems to confirm it.

A year or so ago, my general practitioner decided that it was time to have my blood tested and assess my level of risk of having a stroke or heart attack in the next ten years or so. You may well guess that at stake was whether or not I should be put on statins. I had wish to start taking those drugs but, then, I had even less wish of suffering a stroke or heart attack.

Well, the results were clear. My risk was above 10%. That was the threshold level. The doctor prescribed statins.

I didn’t take them for long. My digestion turned lousy, I started sleeping badly, I was getting headaches. Classic symptoms.

However, having looked into it a bit – well, to be honest, my wife did – I rather think the reaction was psychosomatic. I was, at the time, working for the worst of the purveyors of dire quality to the health service. My boss had cut me out from doing any actual work on the software, which was good for my conscience but lousy for my long-term employment prospects. It wasn’t a good time, which I think may have contributed to my poor reaction to the medication.

A year or so on, and in a satisfactory job at last, I felt I should take a look again at whether I ought to be taking statins after all. I made contact with the GP again. Once more, he had my blood tested. And, again, the risk of stroke or heart attack was above 10%.

But, lo and behold! Medical science had changed. As he explained to me.

“We used to think the threshold for statins was 20%. Then it was reduced to 10%. But now it’s back up to 20%. And your risk is under 20%.”

So? What did this mean? Could I still live statin-free?

“So,” he went on, “I’ll not be prescribing any medication for now.”

Wonderful! My conscience is clear. I did all that was necessary. And science made the decision for me.

Isn’t it great? But doesn’t it just underline the importance of keeping current? Because how serious your condition is doesn’t just depend on your health – it also, apparently, depends on when you ask the question.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tories: a party of integrity

There are moments when I fear I do the British Tory Party an injustice. 

At times, it strikes me as profoundly dishonest, bordering on corrupt. However, this is merely a matter of point of view and that, viewed in a different light, the Tory Party does just what it’s committed to doing, in full and without reservation.

Conservative fundraising dinner.
Where the wealthy buy access to ministers, and get what the paid for
When a flight or a train I’m planning to catch is delayed or cancelled, I don’t just feel irritation at the inconvenience, I also have a sense of being cheated. It feels to me that when I handed over money for my ticket, the train company or airline entered into a contract with me to deliver me, on time, to the agreed destination. When it fails to do that, I feel they’ve broken their commitment to me.

There are, of course, circumstances beyond the control of the companies: they can’t be blamed for an icebound airport or, as happened on a recent train journey of mine, a fire at London’s Euston station. No, I’m talking about the kind of delay explained away as “due to the late arrival of the inbound aircraft”. What? “We’re late because we were late already”? We’re supposed to say, “oh, well, that’s OK then”?

It’s clearly an increasingly widespread belief that such behaviour isn’t acceptable. That’s why airlines and train companies are having to reimburse passengers for poor service. There is a general feeling that it is in the nature of a paid, commercial transaction that the provider of the service enters a commitment to its customers, and must honour it or compensate them.

The British Conservative and Unionist Party is nothing if it is not the embodiment of the commercial spirit. It is just what it’s paid for. Like a good company, it takes payments from its customers and delivers a service to them.

Some voters are naïve enough to think that this means it owes a service to everyone. We all pay, after all. But the reality is that we pay the government, through taxation, but even when the Tories are in power, that isn’t the same thing as the Tory Party. A great many of us pay nothing to the Tory Party; some, and I include myself in this number, are even benighted enough to make contributions to a different party. In my case, the one best placed to replace it in power.

How can we possibly expect the Tories to look after us?

Indeed, they don’t. The last ten years have seen the lowest rate of income growth in Britain for – wait for it – drum roll – 150 years. The ten years of weak growth have been covered by three years of financial crash followed by seven years – yes, you’ve got it – of Tory government.

As income growth across the board stalls and inflation rises, the Resolution Foundation – from whose report that figure came – finds that living standards are falling, and have been falling for three quarters now.

This is affecting the vast majority of the income distribution. Inequality is falling across 99% of the population. But that does leave a precious 1%.

It’s what’s happening to that 1% that changes the picture. That is, of course, the 1% at the top. Where I use the words top and bottom in terms of income, naturally, not worth. Their income is now growing fast enough to account, on its own, for growing inequality in Britain, despite the lowering inequality across the other 99%.

Indeed, with 8.5% of the all national income, the top 1% have now recovered to where they were before the crash. That’s just short of the all-time high, back in 2009-2010, of 8.7%.

So the Tories have delivered. Just not to everyone. All that guff about “all in it together” that we were given back in 2010 – well, it was just guff.

Now let’s see who pays for the Tory Party.

According to the Electoral Commission, as the recent general election campaign got under way, in the week of 3 to 9 May, the Conservatives received £4.1m as opposed to the £2.7m that went to Labour. Some of the contributions were particularly striking:

  • John Griffin, founder of the huge and growing taxi company Addision Lee, paid £900,000.
  • John Armitage, Britain's ninth-richest hedge fund manager, stumped up £500,000
  • Sir Henry and Lady Keswick gave £25,000 each. Sir Henry previously owned the right-wing magazine, The Spectator.
  • David Mayhew, who formerly chaired banking group JP Morgan Cazenove, gave £25,000
  • Property developer David Rowland gave £200,000.

So it goes on. The outstandingly wealthy paid for Tory success at the polls. I say ‘paid’ advisedly: these aren’t gifts, they are purchases. And as when I buy a rail or air ticket, the purchaser expects something in return.

The Tories are delivering. No “delayed because we were late” for them. They take the money, they send the wealth flowing back towards the wealthiest.

Which, when you think about, is a kind of integrity of its own. Isn’t it?

Friday, 14 July 2017

A craze driving me round the bend, that may not be so crazy

A girls’ school in England has decided to impose a ban on fitbits and mobile phones from next term.

While it’s generally to do with the damaging effect of social media on girls at an impressionable age, it is also more specifically concerned with how it drives anxiety over body image into bad behaviour. Some girls, it seems, have been counting steps and calories in the mornings and, if they have too few of the one or too many of the other, skipping lunch. Now, that’s a tyranny I understand from personal experience so I sympathise with the school authorities.

Not that I miss lunch or anything. I may be crazy but I’m not that crazy. Not, it’s the way the craze has taken over other aspects of my life that gets me worried.

Recently my colleagues have been taking part in a ‘fitbit challenge’. They record their steps, their flights, their anything else that seems to contribute to fitness, daily, with the hope of winning, at the end of a period – you guessed it – a fitbit. So they can keep on doing the same thing, I suppose. Just as well they’re not at a girls’ school in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

I’m not taking part in this challenge. Oh, no. But its mere existence has somehow influenced me, to no small harm to my quality of life.

I need something from upstairs? Why, I have to look for my phone before I go and fetch it. Can’t miss out on getting another set of stairs counted.

Phone fitness tyranny:
got to do more, got to do more
There was a time when I would blissfully drive to the station if I needed a train. Wow, the joy, the comfort. But – that’s 2500 steps. I can’t forfeit that number. Got to walk. I need my 10,000 steps.

I don’t have to go to the office too often, which is just as well. It’s on the fifth floor. If it were on the eighth, I’d take the lift. But five floors? I can manage that. And if I pop out to lunch – I don’t do missed lunches – why, I have to climb five floors again. I couldn’t take it if I had to do that more than three or four times a month.

Recently, by one of those strange series of coincidences that sometimes happen, I’ve had to go down to the Docklands area of London. Way out to the east. It means changing trains at Stratford International station. Ever seen the steps up from the platform? Let me tell you, they’re impressive. And these days I feel obliged to use them to build my count of flights.

Appalling, isn’t it? Gone is all trace of comfort. Of my pleasant life where what mattered was the gentleness of the moment. Now I too am counting all these senseless measures. And like the authorities at the Stroud school, I’m far from convinced that it’s doing me much good.

Well, I wasn’t convinced. Until, that is, I read an article about Big Sur in California. This is a picturesque but isolated part of the state’s coast, more than usually cut off by the fact that storms have left it completely cut off by road. The result? Residents use a mile-and-a-half long path cut for them to get to schools or shops.

And what has been the effect? Why, a noticeable improvement in health. Including, it would seem, reductions in diabetes. Walking, it appears, really is good for you.

A galling conclusion. It make me feel that, for anyone other than adolescent girls at least, getting those steps taken, those flights climbed really is actually quite a good idea. Which means that the agony must continue.

Oh, Lord. Why don’t I nip upstairs for something? But where did I leave my phone?

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Italians: more in common than I thought

One of the many features that I like about the job I’ve been in since last November is that it takes me to Italy from time to time.

While my roots are unquestionably English, I was born in Italy – specifically in Rome – and spent my first thirteen years there. Each time I return therefore feels like a homecoming. That’s true even when, as on my latest trip, I travel to Milan.

The trouble with Milan is that it isn’t really in Italy. That’s a proposition vehemently denied by most of its inhabitants when I put it to them, but since it’s not unusual for them to assure me earnestly that “Africa starts at Rome” (one told me on this occasion, “a long way north of Rome”), I try to impress on them in turn that Milan is, essentially, in southern Austria. It’s far better organised than most of Italy, cleaner and wealthier, but also – in my experience – just a tad more standoffish and sure of its superiority.

The Milan Duomo: fabulous but just a touch Austrian?
Romans, by contrast, have more of a devil-may-care attitude about them. “Yep,” they seem to say whenever they do something egregiously inappropriate, whether it’s do a U-turn in heavy traffic or litter the streets, “in another, better life I might not do that, but I’m a mere mortal and have none of the purity or the remoteness of the angels.”

Still, as I begin to get to know the Milanese better, I’m beginning to enjoy being with them more. Not that I haven’t enjoyed Milanese company in the past, I hasten to add. My wife and I have a good friend from the city who first introduced herself to us as a ball-breaker, because at the time she was doing life sciences research which involved crushing mouse testicles (not usually while they were still attached to a living mouse, as I understand it). With such a beginning, how could the relationship be anything but a warm and close one? And these days I have an excellent Milanese colleague who always contrives to make visits rewarding and cordial.

What was new on this visit was that I also had some good contacts with complete strangers. One was in the taxi that took me to the airport, which was particularly gratifying as my first encounter with a Milanese taxi driver ended with badly because, as I explained that I needed to get to a hotel near the airport, he decided it was all too much a bore for him to deal with, made a gesture of impatience and drove away leaving me at an empty taxi stand in the middle of the night.

On the latest occasion, on the other hand, we had a perfectly cordial explanation. He explained to me that he wanted to catch up with a friend and colleague of his who was at the airport, but at the part that deals with private planes. I assured him that I was taking a scheduled flight.

“Oh, I knew that, from the start of the trip,” he assured me, and then broke off, clearly concerned that he might be offending me.

I decided that he didn’t mean his statement that way. That, if anything, his comparison between me and most private plane users was likely to be favourable towards me rather than the contrary.

“The private plane types tend to be a bit arrogant?” I asked.

“Exactly right,” he told me. “Why, I had to drive one to a meeting 70 kilometres away. He decided to stop on the way for a meal, and left me kicking my heels in the car park while he had his excellent lunch.”

I made some appropriately sympathetic response.

“The worst of it,” he went on, “is that he was from a bank which we’re baling out of trouble right now. My money. Flowing to a bank which is being rewarded with public funds for running itself into the ground. And the money I’m paying allows a man like him to keep eating fine meals while keeping people like me waiting for him the car park. It sometimes makes me wonder why IX bother to vote.”

A man after my own heart. I too feel upset at the privileged existence of people who see themselves as entitled, and are perfectly happy to have us finance their entitlement for them. It’s reassuring, though not surprising, that at the opposite ends of Europe, ordinary people face the same problems and react to them with the same resentments.

What saddens me is that though we should be making common cause against the arrogance that abuses its power this way, we in Britain have decided that we should cut our ties with those like my Milanese taxi driver. “Bring back control” our Brexiters say, but we’re simply reinforcing the control over our lives of the people who cause this injustice, in England as in Italy. United we might stand a better chance against them; by separating ourselves off, we make the task far harder.

Ah well. We all have our problems. In Italy, it’s to know where Austria ends and Africa begins. In Britain, it seems to be an inability to decide that we’re not a global power – and that illusion is far more dangerous.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Misty's Diary: the weirdness that is Toffee

Right. That’s it. Official.

The new little dog – well, she’s not that new after six months, but you know what I mean – is absolutely the weirdest thing the humans have inflicted on me.

So far, I hasten to add. I don’t want to tempt providence by ruling anything out in the future. I’m not sure there’s any weirdity that’s beyond my particular pair of domestics. You won’t catch me saying, “they’ll never introduce that into our household”. They’d probably go out and get one the next day.

“A poisonous snake?” they’d say, “wonderful! I bet Misty would like one of those.”

Anyway, that puppy Toffee – I guess she is still a puppy, judging by her behaviour, whatever the month count may be – really is bizarre.

Every morning the domestics serve her and Luci the best kibble I know. A bowl for Luci in the kitchen where she does the sensible thing, and just gobbles it down.

“I don’t gobble,” says Luci, “I’m ladylike.”

OK. There’s some kibble in her bowl one moment. There’s none the next. Somehow it’s got from where it was into her stomach (I assume ladies have stomachs, though they probably don’t like to admit it). I don’t know whether the process that gets it from one place to the other is too ladylike to be called gobbling. Let’s just say that it that’s damn fast, and impressively effective.

What about Toffee?

She gets her bowl put in a little bed for her to think about. Breakfast in bed. And that used to be my bed before she muscled in on it.

What? What? It’s my kibble and I'll eat it when I'm ready
Think about it is exactly what she does. She sniffs at it from one side. Walks around behind the bed to sniff at it from the other side. Climbs in and pushes the bits of kibble around with her nose a while.

It’s maddening. I’d like nothing better than to get at it myself. It’s so much nicer than what I get.

“It isn’t any nicer, you know,” Domestic number 2 tries to tell me, “it’s just because it’s somebody else’s that you want it. I know you better than you do.”

He knows me better than I know myself? I don’t think so. I think I’ll be the judge of what kind of kibble I like or don’t like. He’s never even tasked any of the stuff – far too high and mighty to enjoy mere dog or cat food – so how can he possibly tell?

What amazes me with Toffee’s way of nosing around her food for ages and ages is that there are other things she just goes for straight away. Toys, for instance. She gnaws and pulls at them until they fall apart. Domestic Number 1 has even bought a new thing she pushes around to pick up the little bits of toy from the carpet where Toffee leaves them. The dog we used to have here, Janka, the one who went away and never came back, used to rip up toys too but she was a proper size and at least the toy would be dismembered in no time. This one takes forever, like she wants to make their suffering last.

Abused toys, their insides, and the push-around-thing to pick them up
And bits of wood! She just loves them. Brings them in from the garden. If she sees the domestics around she hurries into her little house – what used to be my little house – and gnaws and gnaws and gnaws. If she can get away with it, she jumps up on the couch and gnaws and gnaws and gnaws there. Then she gets bits everywhere and Domestic Number 1 has to get into action with the funny little push-around-thing to pick up the bits.

“Oh, Toffee, what have you done?” she says.

I hope the question’s rhetorical. Because it’s bleeding obvious what she’s done: exactly the same thing she did yesterday.

“Oh, you really are the naughtiest dog weve ever had,” she goes on, which is about right, except I prefer the word weird. In the context. 

So some things she gnaws enthusiastically, but then she walks away from her bowl in the morning, tempting me to move in while she’s thinking about something else. But she comes rushing back to push me away if I make an attempt on whatever’s left of her Kibble. And if she doesn’t drive me off, Domestic Number 2 will try to. 

Still, sometimes they both get distracted.

Determined plunderer in action.
Focus too soft for you? Don’t blame me.
That’s Domestic no 2. Can't handle motion photos
“Especially under a table,” he adds.
I’m a pretty determined plunderer when I can pull it off, so sometimes, just sometimes, I get away with it.

Satisfaction. I got the bed back And the bowl to clear
All the same, I still say she’s weird, that Toffee. I try to keep her a bit sane by beating her up from time to time. But nothing seems to work, not even that.

Ah, well. I live among strange creatures. Including the domestics.

A little beating up helps correct weirdness in a puppy
Still, doesn’t seem to work with Toffee