Sunday, 30 April 2017

A vegetarian gives me a useful lesson

It’s always salutary to be taught a lesson about your own character.

When the process comes in combination with an excellent meal, the experience becomes invaluable in so many ways. He wins every point, some ancient once said, who mixes the useful with the agreeable. And that was certainly the case here.

It’s not easy to be a vegetarian in Spain. When one of my sons, then still a vegetarian, first moved to the country his announcement that he wanted a vegetarian meal would be greeted by waiters with the statement, “Yes, sir. How would you like your potatoes?” But ten years on, things have changed. Today, in Valencia, which we’re visiting with a vegetarian friend, there is quite a choice not only of vegetarian but even of vegan restaurants.

We booked for one to celebrate my wife’s birthday. When we turned up, however, the manager could find no trace of the booking. At first she denied it had been made but then, as she carried on talking to our daughter-out-law who’d made the reservation, a terrible awareness grew on her.

“It was me, wasn’t it?” she asked, “I spoke to you on the phone.”

In the end she apologised profusely and with great unhappiness. “Come back tomorrow,” she implored us, “the meal will be on me.”

But I was in no mood to be forgiving. I was tired – it had taken us the best part of half an hour to walk to the place – and hungry – the Spanish like to eat late by my standards – and I was in no mood to tolerate poor service.

“Come on,” people kept saying to me, “everyone makes mistakes. After all, you can’t claim never to make any, can you?”

These are people who’ve known me far too long for me to get away with any such claim. Besides, I pride myself on recognising my mistakes and trying to learn from them. So I limited myself to grumbling about bad TripAdvisor reviews.

The next day, I kept demanding that we phone to confirm the reservation before we walked back to the restaurant. But no one did. There was general if unspoken consensus that we ought to trust the manager and that, however much I might want to bear my grudge, as a group we weren’t going to.

And I must admit they and not I were wholly right. We turned up and were shown straight to our table, not even by the manager but by another waitress. She smiled, sat us down and told us the menu they’d planned for us. It was excellent.

The Restaurant Manager
Warmhearted, kind, friendly.
Not at all a suitable object for my resentment
When the manager appeared, I attempted to explain to her that we’d pay for the meal, and when she refused, that we would at least pay for the wine. She refused that too and when she went so far as to place a kiss on my cheek, I really couldn’t maintain any further resentment against her.

Why, she even served my wife a slice of a cake with a candle on it as a belated birthday greeting.

In the end we did the opposite of a runner: we fled the restaurant having left enough money on the table to cover at least the wine and the service.

My TripAdvisor review is, of course, outstanding. After all, I’ve had a great meal. And an invaluable lesson in what tolerance really means, when you live it instead of just paying lip service to it.

Friday, 28 April 2017

A shining window casts a light on our own existence

Two people struck me particularly when we first moved to our present house five years ago.

Right next door was the neighbour from hell. The young woman liked to organise occasional parties that lasted from about 8:00 till 11:00. That’s 8:00 in the evening until 11:00 the next morning. The parties had a well-honed internal pattern: a period of singing, laughing and general good humour; then some tears; next a row; finally, a fight with sounds of broken crockery. A brief period of silence would merely be the prelude to a repeat performance.

It made for – how shall I put this? – a certain level of unnecessary stress.

The young woman had a daughter. She was as angelic in appearance as any pretty eight-year old, and as devilish in behaviour as any inhabitant of a nightmare. Her mother was never keen on clearing up the mess after her parties, so her garden was a real treasure chest of discarded bottles, cigarette packets, to say nothing of stones and sticks.

One of the daughter’s preferred games was to collect such bits of rubbish and throw them over the fence at the back of their garden into the property behind theirs and ours. It was inhabited by a man in his eighties who took great joy in his flower beds, tending them with a care that cost him some pain: he had trouble bending down and making much in the way of serious physical effort. We would see him pottering sadly around his garden, picking up the rubbish and observing with sorrow the damage done to his flowers.

This was the second figure to strike me in our new neighbourhood. He lived behind us, but he would walk slowly around from his house and up our street, painful step by painful step, to the newsagent on the corner to buy his daily copy of the Sun newspaper. Anyone who knows the Sun, flagship of Murdoch’s British print holdings, will realise that I’m using the term ‘newspaper’ loosely. It tends to lead on stories such as the drug arrest of an anorexic fading model, the jailing of a stalker for the murder of his ex-girlfriend or any scandal or whiff of scandal that might embarrass the British Labour Party.

Still, it clearly gave our neighbour some pleasure, as did the walk to buy it, so it gave us pleasure to see him do it. We’d exchange a few words when we met him, but little more than “good morning” or “what a fine day”. But he was a fixture in our new lives and we appreciated him for that.

Eventually, by dint of constantly complaining about her to anyone we could get to listen, we were able to force the departure of our neighbour from hell. I don’t like to see anyone subject to eviction, but when it comes down to a choice between the protection of her right to behave insanely, and the need to take steps to protect our own sanity, I’m afraid I didn’t hesitate. So eventually she went.

Then one day the old man with the Sun stopped walking up our street in the morning. At first we didn’t think much of it, but when days lengthened into weeks, the suspicion began to grow that we might not be seeing him again. Ever.

A lighted window saying that people pass on
Indeed, the house fell quiet and dark, with no light showing at night. Until, one evening, I saw a window lit up again. It had fairy lights hanging above it, and it shone in blue. Not at all the taste of our old neighbour; more that of a girl growing into womanhood or possibly a young woman.

Memories flowed back of the two neighbours who had gone. And it came to me that some time we too would go, but the house would stay, as would those of both our neighbours. They’d have new inhabitants who would know little or nothing at all about those who had preceded them, and care still less. Just as little as we know or care about our own predecessors.

In time, the houses themselves would vanish. The street would remain, with new houses where ours now stand. New residents in new houses in the same street.

It takes a long time for streets to go and be replaced. But who knows what the future holds? Nothing lasts forever and eventually even the street, and the town itself, will go.

But we, like our neighbours, friendly or foul, will have disappeared far sooner, leaving no trace.

The lighted outline of a single window at night had evoked a powerful sense of the transience of our existence. We strive so hard, but in the end we’re just making a hole in the water. In no time, it seems, the water flows back in and all those things that once seemed to matter so much, matter no more.

Not a particularly sad thought, though perhaps a slightly sobering one.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Anglos of the World Unite!

Donald Trump approaches the end of his first hundred days with no achievements to boast for them. He tried to undo Obamacare and failed (fortunately). There’s no sign of the improvement in employment or earnings he promised for the poor. He has, however, managed to indulge in some mean-spirited xenophobia with his travel bans. Now he’s running the risk of shutting down the government of the US altogether because he can’t raise the funds to build his wall along the Mexican border. That’s because he has apparently failed in his stated aim to get Mexico to pay for it. The wall is, of course, another measure against the dreaded foreigner.

And yet his supporters remain firmly wedded to him: 81% of Republicans in a recent poll say they are mainly excited and optimistic about his presidency.

Meanwhile in Britain, it becomes increasingly clear that Brexit is going to deliver few if any of the benefits expected of it. Already inflation is edging upwards and, with austerity policies keeping earnings down, that means living standards are being squeezed. Well, squeezed for the poor: the wealthy have seen their incomes and wealth grow impressively since the 2008 crash. In society generally, growth is slowing except in the opening of food banks, for which the demand keeps trending upwards. In spite of all that, much of the population seems convinced that all that matters is to control immigration, to keep out the foreigner.

That desire apparently sustains continued support for Brexit, though it’s far from certain that leaving the European Union will even lead to a reduction in immigration.

Meanwhile, Australia has won itself quite a reputation for its handling of illegal immigrants and refugees, holding many of them in detention centres, some outside its own territory and administered by a private-sector company. Conditions in some of these camps have led to serious controversy, with allegations of beatings, insults and sexual assaults. One of the most controversial, in Papua New Guinea, is slated to close. Meanwhile, attempts to get information out about the centres are blocked by the Australian government.

It seems that Australia too dislikes foreigners.

The Manus Processing Centre on Papua New Guinea
slated to close, but leaving an image to awaken sad memories
It has now been reported that there is debate within the British Conservative Party about withdrawing Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention has nothing to do with the EU. British lawyers played a leading role in its drafting and it was enthusiastically endorsed by Winston Churchill. It predominantly guarantees rights to citizens but, because it can be used by foreigners, sometimes unappealing ones like the Islamist cleric Abu Qatada, many British citizens would like the country to withdraw.

They’d rather see their own rights curtailed in order to deny them to foreigners.

The French talk about the “Anglo-Saxon” world, embracing such countries as the US, UK and Australia. They believe the Anglos have a culture distinct from their own. It’s hard not to feel they have a point. After all, France seems set on barring the far right from its Presidency, while many in the English-speaking world are intent on declining further into xenophobia and the protection of privilege at the cost of rights.

It feels to me as though the Anglo-Saxon world needs a new slogan. I have a modest proposal. How about:

“Anglos of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your rights. You have an elite to feed.”

Catchy, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Left and right: opposite wings or the meeting point of a circle?

“Any delay in the ranks of the left exposes us, at the very least, to a further advance by the far right, which will further reduce the social and political strength of the left in the parliamentary elections.”

That was French Socialist Party politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2002, the first time the far right National Front saw its candidate, Jean-Marie le Pen, win a place in a run-off election for President.

In 2017, no longer in the Socialist Party, Mélechon took a stance on the far left of French politics and came fourth in the first round of the Presidential election, with a respectable but insufficient 19.5% of the votes cast. Once again, the far right is through to the runoff – in this case represented by le Pen’s daughter, Marine. But, amazing to relate, Mr Mélenchon seems to have forgotten his wise words of 2002 about the damage of delay, preferring indeed to delay day after day instead of coming out in favour of the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, front-runner in the first round and now the only candidate able to block “a further advance by the far right”.

Now, why might that be? Could it perhaps have something to do with the sense that rather a lot of Mélenchon’s voters might prefer to go with the hard right in the second round, than with the soft left? And that Mélenchon would rather go along with that than lose contact with a voter base he rather values?

Call me cynical if you like, but that’s what I think is going on. There is in the hard left a holier-than-thou attitude which claims that it’s more principled and honest than the rest of us, but it’s capable of being just as opportunistic and evasive as, say, a Blair or a Putin.

At a deeper level, there is also a deeper link between far left and far right. Both are far out. They like to reason in terms of simple, pure solutions to complex problems, which avoid any of the complexities and messiness of reality. Compromise? That only dilutes the purity of our principles. Instead you end up defending a maximalist policy which, on the left, can lead you to defend the rights of the poor so hard in Venezuela that you bankrupt the country and starve your people. On the right, it leads to taking Britain out of the EU to escape from international control, only to leave it entirely dependent on the whims of the United States (or, worse still, the Trumpiverse).

There is today a taste for the simple and uncompromising. And it leads to the far right and far left both exerting greater appeal than they usually do – and almost interchangeably. Which is why voters can switch from Mélenchon to the National Front without apparent inconsistency.

Nor is this an exclusively French phenomenon. Kate Hoey, left-wing Labour MP for Vauxhall, has an enviable reputation for standing up for the rights of her hard-pressed, poor constituents. And yet, seduced by her enthusiastic dislike of the European Union, she found herself working shoulder to shoulder with Nigel Farage, then leader of UKIP, the British equivalent of the French National Front. They may have come to their common position from opposite directions but ended up, like two halves of a circle, meeting at a single point.

Hoey with her buddy, and supposed inveterate opponent, Farage
In the pursuit of fantasist, simple solutions, people can find themselves with strange bedfellows, though they approach them from different directions. Britain, sadly, is going to be living with the consequences of those fantasies for decades to come, struggling to find a role outside the EU. In France, on the other hand, if the defeat of Mélenchon is followed and confirmed by the defeat of the National Front, that fate may well be dodged.

At least for now.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Holy Grail and other aspirations. LIke European unity.

My wife points out that we face the possibility of moving, for the first time in our lives, to a place where we’ve chosen to live.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve always lived in places we dislike, just that in the past we’ve always moved to them because we’ve had to. It’s either been to take up a new job or, worse, to respond to having lost an old one. Buffeted through life by the whims of redundancy, a tedious fate.

That makes it a pleasure to be in Valencia, in Spain, where we hope to retire at some as yet distant date in the future. As it happens, it won’t just be the first place we’ll have moved to entirely voluntarily, it’ll also be the first place we’ll have chosen before we even knew it.

That’s why we’re out here now, discovering the place.

My first impressions have been excellent. I mean, the city has a town beach of golden sand a kilometre or two long. A beach inside the town? Hey, that alone gives it full marks right off the bat.

But then I discovered more. For instance, I had to make a visit to the cathedral as soon as I learned that it houses the holy grail. I kid you not: the holy grail. They call it the holy chalice but, hey, that’s what the grail is. The thing’s in a side chapel, in a display case, for all to see.

The hunt for the Holy Grail is over:
look no further than this display case in Valencia cathedral
Seems a real pity that no one told the Arthurian knights. Think of the trouble, the desperate quests, the lives truncated that might have been saved. All they had to do was hop on an Easyjet flight in the morning, pop into the Cathedral at lunchtime to take a look at the grail, and they’d have had time to spend the afternoon on the beach with an ice cream. Or a mojito if they preferred.

On the way to the cathedral, I was struck by another sight which was almost as moving. More, to be truthful, if you see things the way I do. The symbol of an aspiration almost as unattainable as the holy grail seemed to be until we found it hidden in plain sight.

Wandering up a Valencia street, I was struck by the sight of three flags flying from masts over the entrance to a court building.

Three Flags in Valencia
On the left was the flag of the country and city of Valencia. It consists of the Senyera, the banner of gold and red bars that marks Catalan nationhood. To it, Valencia adds a blue strip with gold leaves. The whole thing is a proud and attractive statement of local attachment.

In the middle was the flag of Spain, representing the national state to which modern Valencia belongs.

And to the right was the familiar pattern of gold stars on a blue ground of Europe, the free confederation of which Spain is a member, by its own will and with pride.

It struck me as an interesting collocation of local, national and supranational adherence. It says, my roots are here, but I realise I belong to a wider community and, through that community, to something beyond even the old and timeworn concept of the nation, source of so much needless conflict, pain and death down the centuries. Indeed, I belong to an evolving union designed to end all that bitterness and slowly, painfully build something better.

It was encouraging to see that the people of Valencia seem capable of reconciling those three levels of attachment. But it was a little disappointing to think that my own countrymen, back in England, are apparently unable to show that generosity and breadth of vision. They prefer the parochialism of Brexit over the internationalism of Europe.

Ah, well. It’s enough to drive you back to the beach and another mojito. It would have been fun to drink it out of a grail, of course, but hey, a glass will do. The setting and the drink itself are just as good, whatever the container.

A glass is perfectly appropriate to salute the generous courage I saw symbolised out here, and drown the memory of the petty-mindedness back home.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Labour and the coming general election: the context

As we in the British Labour Party prepare for our next general election, on 8 June, it struck me as interesting to look at the others there have been since the end of the Second World War. We are, after all, in a sense still living the post-War era, at least insofar as there has not been such a violent shock in the evolution of society as that war produced. Not yet, anyway, even if Donald Trump’s working on it.

There have been eleven leaders of the Labour Party in that time, not counting deputies who have acted as leader while a new one was being elected (George Brown, Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman twice). Of the eleven, nine have fought at least one general election; John Smith sadly died before he could, and Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader, is about to face his first.

Elections, how Labour did, under which leader
Victories in red, defeats in blue
Worst result in black, best in orange
The table shows how they have all fared.

Curiously, since 1945, Labour has only lost one more election than it has won (nine victories to ten defeats). However, it has managed to hang on to power significantly less successfully than the Conservatives: of the nearly 72 years since the war ended, Labour has held power for only about 30.

The Tories have moulded the era in which we live far more than Labour has.

Of all the elections it contested in that time, Labour reached its nadir in 1983, under Michael Foot, when it won just 209 seats. Under Neil Kinnock, it gradually rebuilt its fortunes in 1987 and 1992, until it achieved its biggest success under Tony Blair in 1997, winning 418 seats – curiously, precisely double the number won under Foot.

Almost as spectacular as Blair’s success of 1997 was his victory four years later, when he won 412 seats, with Attlee’s landslide in 1945 and Wilson’s in 1966 (393 and 363 seats respectively) close behind.

At the other end of the scale, the number of seats won by Labour fell at both of the last two general elections, until under Miliband in 2015, it reached 232, just 23 more than Foot took in 1983.

So that’s a little context. The obvious question is will the trend reverse in 2017? Will Corbyn, like Kinnock, put the party on a road back up towards power? Or will he merely continue the downward trend from Brown to Miliband? Will he move us off the bottom or, conversely, set a new post-War low?

I shall be out canvassing with other members to ensure that we achieve the former outcome rather than the latter. The polls are against us but the polls can be bucked. Seven weeks from now, we’ll know whether we’ve pulled off that trick.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

UK General Election: the real action starts the day after

Exciting times for us in Britain, as we head for another, and rather premature, general election.

Well, moderately exciting. There is a general sense that the actual result may be a bit of a foregone conclusion. But that’s only based on the most recent polls suggesting the government has a lead of around twenty points. That’s only the polls – there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, even if in this case it would need to be more of an avalanche than a slip.

Indeed, without an avalanche to knock them back, the Conservatives may well be winning by a landslide. Perhaps that’s the most exciting aspect of this campaign: if we can’t block Theresa May’s re-election, can we at least limit its scale and prepare for a Labour comeback in the future? We shall see. The election’s on 8 June. One certainty in this campaign is that a fierce debate will start the following day.

Theresa May. Going to the country
At a time that suits her...
How about the timing of the election?

In 2010, the Liberal Democrat Party, for a long time the conscience of the Centre-Left, frequently sniping from the Left of the Labour Party on civil rights issues, amazed us all by going into coalition with the Conservatives. This put them in partnership with a party that stood against practically everything the Liberal Democrats claimed to believe. They claimed they’d influence the government to enact some of their measures but in fact, and unsurprisingly, pulled that trick off very seldom. Instead, they were simply dragged along behind their dominant partners until their inevitable and richly deserved punishment at the polls in 2015, reduced from 57 MPs to just 8.

Of their losses, 27 went to the Conservatives: after all, if you have to choose between two members of a coalition, you might as well go for the senior partner.

One of the few things they did achieve was the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This was designed to put an end to the custom of Prime Ministers calling elections when it suited them (generally when they saw the best chance of being re-elected), forcing them instead to go to the end of the five-year maximum term for which a Parliament can last. It would take a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons to overturn the measure and allow an election to be called early.

In the event, the vote was 522 to 13 which, in case you don’t want to do the maths, does constitute a two-thirds majority.

Odd, isn’t it? The vast majority of MPs voted for the election, even though a great many of them are at serious risk of losing their seats. Sound like turkeys voting for Christmas? The reasoning seems to be that you must never let the other side think you’re afraid of facing an election. Political machismo, it seems, comes first, even at the cost of letting the Prime Minister play the system to her advantage.

It also shows another accomplishment of that sad coalition government between 2010 and 2015 failing at its first test.

Ah, well. At least we’re now only seven weeks out from clearing the political air. By then we should know some of the questions that have been troubling us for the last couple of years.

Can Labour put up any kind of reasonable showing against the government?

Has the electorate swung massively over to the Conservatives?

What are the prospects for rebuilding a progressive alternative?

A new phase of interesting times starts on 9 June.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Corbyn and Peter Pan politics

“Every time a child says, ‘I don't believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”

Peter Pan leads the way to a fantasy land
where fairies depend on children's beliefs

“I believe it because it is absurd,” said Tertullian, one of the fathers of the Christian church. It’s a powerful and highly sophisticated statement.

Christianity, like any belief system, requires faith, an ability to believe despite a lack of evidence, even against all evidence. After all, you need no faith to believe that the sun will set in the West: that’s the definition of the West. To believe that a man can be executed and rise on the third day, that does require faith.

This is as true of trivial beliefs as these more profound ones, such as Peter Pan’s statement about fairies. Or the belief that a portly, white-bearded man in a red suit will come down a chimney to bring good children presents.

I find it impossible to make such an act of faith. I say that even though I know the great comfort that faith provides. It’s no accident that the words “communion” and “community” are linked: shared belief creates a community and belonging to one is a deep human need and a source of consolation in a difficult world.

Even so, I can’t make that leap. Like Diderot, I find it less of a miracle that Lazarus was brought back from the dead, than that nobody, but nobody, chose to record the fact. Surely, somewhere there’d be something from a neutral third party: a spice merchant from Asia Minor, a Roman officer writing home, perhaps a sailor from Alexandria, even if all they were saying was “there’s a really weird tale going around this place at the moment, about a guy called Lazarus. They say, would you believe, that he died but a visiting miracle-worker brought him back to life.” Instead, nothing, nada, nix. The only authority is from the gospel writers themselves, those who were promoting the belief in the first place.

Not a problem, of course, for those like Tertullian who believe because it is absurd. But for someone like me, looking for evidence to support a point of view (which isn’t quite as strong as a belief: it can be overturned by new evidence), I simply can’t accept the story on such thin backing.

So I’m deprived of the child’s joy in waiting for the tooth fairy to call, believing in the fairy even though no one’s ever seen her. Or indeed the sense of belonging that inspires a mass at its best, even though no one’s ever documented the conversion of a biscuit and a chalice of wine into flesh and blood. Or indeed, the atmosphere at a meeting of Corbynistas, encouraging each other to further acts of faith, even though no Opposition leader in history has ever won an election from a base of unpopularity as dire as their guru’s.

That’s a double misfortune for me. In the first place, because I can’t enjoy the simple comfort of the believer drawn from the mere fact of belief. There must be joy in the fervour of the Corbynist who can, like Tertullian, convince himself of the truth of an absurd notion, such as John McDonnell’s that Corbyn can turn the poll position around in twelve months. I can’t share in it.

Then there’s the second misfortune. A child whose parents are sufficiently indulgent, and sufficiently well-heeled, will wake up in the morning to find that a coin has replaced the tooth she placed under the pillow on going to bed. Unless the parents are exceptionally indulgent, an adult who does the same with a lost tooth is likely to suffer acute disappointment. Generally, indeed, we expect adults to grow out of such childish beliefs.

In the case of Corbynist fancy, not growing out of it has serious consequences for everyone in Britain: clinging to the belief that Corbyn can defeat the Tories prevents us replacing him by someone who might make some progress against them. That simply ensures continued Tory rule. The results are all about us to see: hospitals offering doctors nearly £1000 to do a shift in A&E to prevent complete collapse into unsafe service, kids from poor backgrounds far less likely to attend good schools, families of dying invalids deprived of basic support.

Unlike the Peter Pan claim, in the Corbyn fantasy, it isn’t lack of belief that kills. On the contrary, it’s belief itself. The longer we cling on to that absurd faith, we ensure the suffering, even death, of more people – not fairies, let me stress, but people.

Personally, I can’t believe that fairies exist and depend on the belief of children to assure their own survival.

I can’t believe that the universe is run by a God who took human form to suffer and die to redeem humankind from a fate to which he’d condemned it in the first place.

And I can’t believe that the least popular Opposition leader in my lifetime has the slightest chance of winning a general election.

Well, it would be absurd, wouldn’t it?

Friday, 14 April 2017

Be careful what you wish for...

Do you remember FBI Director James Comey announcing, just eleven days before the US presidential election, that he was once more investigating Hillary Ciinton over allegations about her time as Secretary of State? Only once the damage was done did he let it be known that no charges were going to be brought. Many believe his intervention may have cost her the election.

It’s particularly galling that it has now come out that Comey was investigating Trump at the same time, for the contacts between his team and known or suspected Russian agents. Comey said nothing about that. Imagine the impact on Trump’s campaign if it had come out before the election that his campaign had clandestine contact with a foreign, and not particularly friendly, intelligence service.

Comey may have been instrumental in putting Trump into the White House, but that hasn’t stopped the President he helped create rounding on him. Trump now claims that Comey “saved Hillary Clinton's life” by not recommending charges against her. Comey may have given Trump the shove he needed to get in, but he has no control over him now.

James Comey: is Trump biting a hand that once fed him?
And what about Comey’s other investigation? Whether or not it ultimately discovers any wrongdoing by the Trump people, it’s fairly clear Putin was keen on a Trump victory and prepared to do what he could to facilitate one. Like Comey, he may be wondering now how wise that attitude was. Though candidate Trump was more than complimentary about Russia and Putin, during his visit to Moscow on 12 April, Secreatry of State Rex Tillerson described US-Russian relations being “at a low point”. In that, he was echoing Trump’s own views.

Meanwhile, Trump is finding it hard to deliver on his domestic pledges. Like so many other inept and authoritarian leaders, he’s resorted instead to military action. It’s so much easier to fire missiles at Syria or drop a massive bomb on Afghanistan, than to make deals with Congress (the “great deal-maker” Trump is proving he doesn’t deserve even that title), far less to improve incomes or extend employment opportunities at home.

Like Comey and Putin, many of those who believed Trump’s pledges to help them out of their difficulties, may soon be wondering whether they were as smart as they might have been in backing an amateur’s bid for the White House.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, it’s becoming increasingly clear that leaving the EU won’t increase opportunities or improve trade. On the contrary, the country is likely to find it hard to sign trade deals that would be as beneficial as the arrangements it currently enjoys with its European partners. Nor does it seem that Brexit will even lead to any decrease in immigration – Britain needs the foreign manpower – even though that was the principal aim of many Brexit supporters.

Comey and Putin may just be the tip of the great wave of disappointment likely to sweep the US and UK in the coming years. It would be gratifying if that disappointment would drive people back towards more sensible positions than backing Trump or Brexit. Sadly, disappointed people aren’t always the most rational. The reaction may be a switch to even more extreme positions.

We’re going through difficult times. They may become a great deal more difficult still. But we need to get through them if there’s to be any hope of resuming progress once this retroactive period is over.

In the meantime, it’ll do none of us any harm to be a little more careful what we wish for.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Science comes to my rescue

It’s a privilege to witness the achievement of a truly significant breakthrough in science. It must have been wonderful to be around when Newton discovered that apples fall from trees, something which no one had apparently noticed in all the previous history of human existence. Or, equally, when Einstein came up with his celebrated theory that time can apparently distend to appalling lengths in the company of certain relatives.

However, t’s particularly gratifying if a discovery happens to have a direct impact on one’s own life.

I’m glad to say that such a breakthrough has just occurred.

It’s sadly the case that I have won myself an undeserved reputation for being unable to do up my shoelaces effectively. Well, perhaps a deserved reputation. Nevertheless, I would like to reject out of hand, as a monstrous libel, the suggestion that I may have to stop five or six times during a walk to retie my laces. Sadly, I can’t, but only because I don’t believe the truth can be construed as a libel.

Oh, blast. Again
So, it was with unmitigated delight that I learned from a Guardian article, that a team led by Professor Oliver O’Reilly, a mechanical engineer at Berkeley, had established beyond doubt that knots unravel under the simple effect of the impact of a foot on the earth, followed by the swing of a leg while walking.

In other words, my problems with shoelaces are nothing to do with personal ineptitude. We are up against a universal law here. It’s as inevitable and ineluctable as the law of gravity. I can no more be blamed for my shoelaces coming undone than I can for weighing.

Well, I mean, I can be blamed for how much I weigh, but not for weighing at all.

And I have the full power of science to support my position.

The Guardian gives us the background

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Anyone but Corbyn? Don't be silly...

It began to feel like a trend when the third person in two days referred to me as belonging to the “Anyone but Corbyn” group, neatly abbreviated as “ABC”.

It seems this is the latest term that supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, current and flailing leader of the Labour Party, have come up with in their increasingly desperate attempt to label everyone else as part of one, homogeneous and, it goes without saying, despicable group.

We were all at one time “Blairites”. It was hard to get that label to stick to people, like me, with a long track record of opposing Blair as energetically as they now oppose Corbyn.

“Red Tory” didn’t work for people who’d spent a career opposing the Tories, in some cases winning elections against them. 

The label “plotters” (because they supported the supposed “coup” against Corbyn) suggested that there was a conspiracy embracing a couple of hundred thousand people, and you have to be profoundly paranoid to believe such a plot even possible.

They still, though, seem to need a single, simplifying term to brand us all. “ABC” is the latest attempt. Sadly, though, it merely shows how hopeless it is to impose such a simplification on a phenomenon far too complex for it.

I would never go for anyone but Corbyn. Why, we could end up with someone even worse – and there are people who would make an even more dire job of leading the Labour Party than Corbyn. John McDonnell, his Shadow Chancellor, for one. If we can cast the net beyond Parliament, the devious and authoritarian leader of the Unite union, Len McCluskey, would be another.

Perhaps “ABTC” would work: anyone better than Corbyn. Unfortunately not. I thought Ed Miliband, the previous leader, was desperately weak. More lamentable as leader even than his own predecessor, Gordon Brown. But either of them would be an improvement over Corbyn, and the last thing I want to see is either of them back.

What about “AALBTC”, anyone a lot better than Corbyn? I’m not sure that works either. You see, Tony Blair was massively better than Corbyn (or Brown or Miliband) at winning elections; he was dismal at resisting the lure of power and therefore followed the then most powerful man in the world, Dubya Bush, into the catastrophic Iraq War. That’s Dubya who was himself the worst President of the United States, or so I imagined until I discovered Trump.

No. We need someone with the ability of Blair to win elections but the guts to say “no” to power. An earlier Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was good that way, refusing to take Britain into the Vietnam War, but he wasn’t exactly the straightest of individuals and he does suffer from the inconvenient handicap of being dead.

Harold Wilson: said no to LBJ over the disaster of Vietnam
But not exactly pure as driven snow...
So what we really need is anyone but Corbyn who’s a lot better at winning elections without being opportunistic about essential principle or kowtowing to inept political leaders. Sadly ABCWALBAWEBWBOAEPOKTIPL doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

Which perhaps makes my point. We’re talking about a complex view, not susceptible to simple summary. Trying to encapsulate it with a single word or pithy abbreviation is bound to fail.

On the other hand, if you absolutely insist on coming up with a single term for those of us who oppose Corbyn within the Party, I do have one that I feel goes a long way towards filling the bill.

I like to think of myself as a Labourite.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Another three films you could enjoy: Arrival, A United Kingdom and Sing Street

One of the more confusing forms of science fiction writing involves time travel. People meeting themselves in the past or changing history in ways that might, perhaps, lead to their never having been born – it’s all just too much to get a mind around, if it’s as bound as ours are to following time in a single direction, at its own good pace.

But then you get the approach of Kort Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. Here the protagonist doesn’t so much travel around in time as up and down his own lifetime, unable to change anything, but able to relive as often as he wishes all the best moments, or even some of the worst if he finds that useful. And if you don’t know Slaughterhouse 5, the book and the film are both outstanding in slightly different ways, so you have a joy in wait for you.

In Arrival, Louise Banks, winsomely played by underrated actor Amy Adams, learns that trick too. She’s a linguist, brought in to communicate with aliens who have arrived on earth for no reason anyone can tell, but with whom humans initially decide to talk, instead of just trying to exterminate them. So the first task she has to undertake is to learn to understand, and later use, a language about whose forms of expression she knows absolutely nothing. In the end, she learns not just language but something else just as powerful, from which she can derive the skills needed to prevent a potential catastrophe.

Amy Adams working on communicating with aliens in Arrival
A film that provides a fine way to spend a couple of hours.

The same is true of A United Kingdom. We’ve known the scriptwriter, Guy Hibbert, for years and it’s been uplifting to watch his career slowly develop and finally take off with some notable successes, including this one. Initially, most of his pieces were perhaps best characterised by words like “raw”: they provided powerful insights into some of the ghastly things people do to each other and the pain they inflict on all around, including themselves. More recently his work has retained its capacity to shock but adds to it some more gentle tones, that both entertain and uplift.

In the late 1940s, Seretse Khama was in line to become King of Bechuanaland, now Botswana and then a British protectorate (a colony in all but name). During his stay in England to study law, he met and fell in love with a (white) English woman, Ruth Williams. It was a joy to see David Oyelowo playing Seretse Khama, especially as the last time I saw him he was in a completely different role, with a different accent, playing Martin Luther King, in Selma. Rosamund Pike, previously the deadly protagonist of Gone Girl, was excellently cast as the gentle but determined, decent and dignified Williams.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo in A United Kingdom
The mixed marriage between these two people caused major tensions both in England and in Africa. Khama’s uncle, who was acting as regent, and a great many of his future subjects, found it hard to understand why he could not have chosen a wife from among his own people. Meanwhile, just across the border in South Africa, apartheid had just been introduced and the last thing they wanted to see was a mixed couple on the throne of the country next door. The behaviour of Britain, anxious above all to placate the South Africans, major suppliers of uranium, was despicable; even one of the great iconic Labour governments, the one headed by Clement Attlee, behaved in ways that were frankly craven.

Hibbert writes this aspect masterfully, drawing the contrast between Attlee’s weakness and the principled stand taken by Winston Churchill and the Tories. Just until they got back into power and showed themselves to be far worse than the Labourites they replaced.

But at the centre of the story is a couple that faces intense hostility but finds a way, though quiet and dignity, to assert their rights and mould their own destiny. In doing so, they also prepare the ground for one of the most successful moves to independence of any nation previously under British dominion. A great story, well told, with an uplifting message – and boy, do we need those these days.

For unadulterated good cheer and unbridled fun, you could hardly do better than watch Sing Street. Set in a rough school in Dublin, among sixteen and seventeen-year olds, you might suspect that it is principally aimed at teenagers. I’m sure it’s appreciated by that age group, even though it’s set in 1985 so the music may not be entirely appropriate, but it appeals to a far older audience too (as I can testify).

Raphina (Lucy Boynton) is a classical figure: the beautiful, mysterious and unattainable older woman (she’s seventeen). Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is the younger admirer (he’s sixteen) who dares to approach her, to try to break the shell of her remoteness. To awaken her interest, he tells her he’s in a band; the moment he walks away from that first conversation, he tells his friend who’s been watching from a safe distance, “we’ve got to form a band”.

Lucy Boynton and Ferdia Walsh Peelo
The obscure object of desire and the admirer in Sing Street
The way they set about doing that is sheer delight. They have the encouragement and intelligent support of Conor's elder brother (a great character played by Jack Reynor), who failed to make the break he longed for from his dysfunctional family, and now gets the chance to live it vicariously through his brother instead. He coaches the emerging group to write songs which move from the embarrassingly amateurish to the surprisingly excellent.

Along the way, we get some great lines (“my mother’s in and out of hospital. She’s a nurse”), some good music and some excellent comic situations. The end, too, is a gem: the story wraps up at just the right moment, with a glorious, funny and optimistic scene.

Its also a pleasure to see Maria Doyle Kennedy as Conors mother, while his fathers played by Aidan Gillen (Little Finger in Game of Thrones).

Three fine films. If you haven’t seen them, you have a great pleasure in store. Three times over.

Four if you count Slaughterhouse Five.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Spin: the right's good at it. But the left's not bad either

What’s in a word? Or, for that matter, a number?

Well, they’re invaluable if you want to communicate information. Or, for that matter, disinformation. The latter even requires a little ingenuity.

For example, when UK Prime Minister Theresa May formally told the EU that Britain would be leaving, she expressed the hope that a mutually beneficial new relationship could be established but warned that, in the event it could not, “in security terms, a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”.

The EU reacted with some heat to what it saw as an attempt at blackmail: give us a good deal or we stop cooperating on security and crime. May was shocked and pointed out that she intended no blackmail. Despite her denial, however, the threat is not out there – and won’t be forgotten.

What she forgot to mention in her letter was the status of Gibraltar. So the EU had its own surprise for Britain: arrangements for the rock have to be agreed with Spain. This is a horrific notion to true Brits: how does the obvious geographic fact that Gib is part of Spain trump Britain’s right of conquest?

Fortunately, former Conservative leader Michael Howard set the record straight.

“35 years ago this week,” he announced, “another woman Prime Minister sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people, against another Spanish-speaking country. And I’m absolutely certain that our current Prime Minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar.”

Some misguided observers, including me, took this parallel as suggesting a parallelism in planned action too. Was war with Spain imminent? Oh, no, Howard quickly assured us, nothing could be further from his mind. The Prime Minister herself laughed at the idea.

Again, though, it’s out there.

This smart use of ambiguous or imprecise language is an aspect of spin, and the Tories are good at it. But, it turns out, it’s not a monopoly of the right wing. The left uses the same methods. In Britain, the Labour Party is dominated by a left-wing trend that backs the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Under his leadership, Labour has reached a low-point in the polls which suggests it is heading for its most calamitous defeat for 80 years.

Among his supporters, however, none of this is attributable to him. For instance, a recent Corbynista blog post I read included this table:

Numbers: they’re so reliable.
Except when they aren’t. And words are still worse
That use of the word ‘coup’ is smart. A coup is the kind of thing that was attempted against Turkish President Erdogan. It involves threatened or actual violence; it is illegal and extra-constitutional, its methods sanctioned by no law or agreement. 

The Labour Party ‘coup’ was a vote of no-confidence by Corbyn’s colleagues in parliament. He lost it massively – 80% voted against him. He had to stand again for the leadership. None of this is extra-constitutional: on the contrary, it followed procedures specified by the Labour rulebook.

It’s arguable that the decision to precipitate a new leadership election was unwise politically, since Corbyn won it with a large majority. That, however, is a political view. It does not make the move against him a coup. But calling it one neatly intensifies the opprobrium against his opponents: a coup is illegitimate, treacherous, despicable.

There is, however, an opposite political view, to which I personally subscribe. If his fellow MPs felt Corbyn was leading the party to defeat, they had not merely the right, but the obligation to act against him. My feeling is that nothing we have seen since does anything but confirm the fears of his opponents: the decline is spectacular and there is no sign of its ending.

What about the numbers in the table? The “pre-coup” figures showed Labour ahead in one poll in April. The message seems compelling: look how the plotters spoiled things!

The broader picture.
Gives a better view. Unless that’s just what you’re trying to avoid
Source: UK Polling Report
But set the figures in context and a different picture emerges. The graph shows that at the time of Corbyn’s ascension to the leadership, the Conservative poll lead was somewhere in the 5-10% range. This was desperately bad, because to win an election, an opposition needs to be well ahead a year or so into a parliament. For a brief period, from about March to June 2016, the position became a little less dire with Labour trailing by between 0 and 5 points. Not too much importance should be assigned to the few polls that went so far as to show a Labour lead: occasional extreme findings are bound to happen by pure chance. The overall picture is of a general Conservative lead, though a smaller one than in the autumn.

Since then the position has steadily worsened. Long after the “coup”, Corbyn’s reaffirmed leadership has failed to turn the tide: in the polls, it continues to flow strongly against him. Again, ignoring occasional extreme results, the deficit seems to be of about 15 points, with an underlying trend against and not for Labour.

Whatever certain Labourites may have done against him, Corbyn is clearly proving unable to do anything for the party. Not, at least, as far as staunching the wound through which our electoral life blood is flowing.

That’s a painful message for his supporters. It’s not one they want to mention or even think about. It’s much more comforting to spin it with references to coups and one or two spurious poll results.

Well, who can blame them? The Tories have shown the technique works. Just don’t claim it’s left-wing.

Or particularly honest.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Nostalgia: it just ain't what it used to be

It was a pleasure to discover that my youngest son was visiting the family of our daughter-out-law this weekend. That took him to Belfast. And that took me back to some old memories, with feelings a little like nostalgia.

I say “a little like” because the word “nostalgia” suggests more attractive memories than those that came to my mind.

The first time I travelled to Belfast, I stayed in the Europa Hotel, reputed to be the most bombed in Europe. Indeed, when I arrived, one side of the hotel had all its windows boarded up after a bomb attack. To get in, I had to walk through a corridor with a chicane leading to a security area where luggage could be searched. Ironically, the whole cumbersome structure was unmanned, which was convenient since it saved me time, but also unnerving because it didn’t inspire much confidence in the security measures.

My room overlooked the headquarters of the Ulster Unionist Party with its sign, “Keep Ulster British”. That struck me as ironic since I was a Brit and little about the place struck me British.

Normally, alone in a new city, I’d wander out to get the feel of the place and find someone pleasant for a meal. I felt so afraid of those eerily empty streets that I found it hard to take the plunge on my first evening in Belfast. In the end, in order not to give way to simple cowardice, I walked quickly around the block opposite the hotel, saw nowhere that attracted me for dinner, and went back to order room service instead.

Later I got to know the city rather better, and had many of the classic experiences: driving without knowing it within a few hundred of metres of a major attack (the Ulster Defence Association’s shooting of Catholic civilians in a betting shop, leaving five dead and nine injured), asking directions of a flak-jacketed, machine-gun-toting policeman and being surprised by the cordiality of the answer, walking with other civilians through the middle of an army patrol…

A scene from 1971:
how civilians and soldiers mixed in Northern Ireland
I also learned to appreciate many of the ironies of the Northern Irish existence. For instance, the Ulster Defence Association that carried out the betting shop murders, was officially “loyalist”. Loyalty, it seemed, did not require respect for the law or traditions of the country, Britain, to which these gentlemen saw themselves as loyal. But then, outside the Northern Ireland Assembly building there still stands a larger-than-life statue of Sir Edward Carson, the man who raised an illegal army to fight the British government’s moves towards a timid measure of home rule in Ireland. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”, he proclaimed, and though a lawyer and a Member of Parliament, he mustered forces to support his claim. However, his treason was met not by imprisonment or the rope but by a statue to his memory.

Some years earlier, I had travelled to East Berlin. I landed in the West and took the Underground into the Eastern sector, seeing for the first time the dimly lit ghost stations of the East, closed to passengers and patrolled by armed policemen. When I emerged at Friedrichstrasse, the only station left open in East Berlin on that line, I also had to walk through a corridor with a chicane, but this one was far from unmanned, as I came around a corner nearly into the arms of a young policeman with a machine gun clutched to his chest.

Armed police in a Berlin ghost station
As in Belfast some years later, I was nervous about wandering out into the streets of East Berlin. I quickly realised, however, that East Berlin fulfilled a positively Thatcherite vision of urban peace (Maggie was firmly enthroned back then, made secure by Labour’s decision to equip itself with a leader no one was going to elect Prime Minister – oh, how we learn the lessons of experience): the streets were safe, with more police on view than anyone else. Only near the Brandenburg Gate did I feel nervous again: there was the wall, suddenly blocking off the great boulevard of Unter den Linden, with a small opening guarded by armed men, and the glare of the searchlights in the death strip beyond them.

Thinking back today to those two experiences, of Belfast in the Troubles and Berlin in the Cold War, made me realise that nostalgia will soon not be what it once was. The nastiness of those days had a quality of drama, inspiring many a novel or film: how often have you seen floodlights on barbed wire in spy films based in Berlin, or blacked-up British troops patrolling past IRA murals in films about Belfast?

Whereas today’s ghastliness has replaced drama by farce. People who don’t know what they’re wishing for have elected an unstable moron to the White House or voted to take Britain out of the European Union, without understanding the wound they’re inflicting on themselves.

On the other hand, the farce is a dangerous one. An unstable moron with his fingers on the nuclear button? Sheer slapstick, for sure – but hardly a laughing matter. 

I preferred the old nostalgia.