Tuesday, 10 February 2015

America's top doc backs evidence-based policy-making (it'll never catch on)

Some parts of what follows did not appear in today's Eastern Daily Press. You can perhaps have fun working out which bits.

Some interesting appointments have been made in America lately, and not all of them are bad.
Take Dr Vivek Murthy, who was sworn in just before Christmas as Surgeon General. Or, as the US media like to put it, “America’s top doc”.
For a start, he’s only 37, which seems very young for the holder of such a key post. Even if, in that weird way Americans have of organising things, he is technically an officer in the military.
Then there’s the fact that, like me, he was born in Huddersfield, which seems an unlikely start to such a career. But then he moved to Miami at age three, got a biomedical degree from Harvard and trained as a doctor at Yale, so you could say he’s pretty well schooled in the American way.
And he looks awfully smart, in an American way, in his sharp, pristine, gold-braided naval uniform.
The pro-gun lobby, who in the USA are used to getting their way, opposed his appointment. He’s not as keen as they are on people carrying firearms around – which seems a reasonable point of view for a top doc, if not necessarily for a top military man.
He did say he wouldn’t use the Surgeon Generalship as a “bully pulpit” from which to preach gun control. Which seems like unnecessary restraint, as well as an interesting form of words.
The fact that he found it necessary to say is in itself a shocking comment on the American addiction to weaponry.
And speaking of addiction…
Dr Murthy also has interesting views on cannabis. A substance which is arguably less addictive than gun-toting, and certainly a lot less lethal.
His latest pronouncement on the matter has predictably produced a chorus of cheers on one side and boos on the other.
He says the drug “can be helpful” for some medical conditions. Which is a simple truth that ought not to be controversial (see below).
While 23 states have already legalised cannabis for medical use – and four now allow recreational use – it remains classified at the highest level under US federal law. Up there with heroin and LSD and above cocaine and crystal meth, which are much more dangerous.
But the really interesting part of Dr Murthy’s statement could apply just as well to everything else the government – any government – takes a position on.
It was this: “I think we have to use data to drive policymaking”.
In other words, he thinks politicians should take notice of expert opinion.
That policy should be based on verifiable research, not gut feelings. On facts, not instant media approval ratings. On tested science, not vested interests.
What sort of fantasy world is the man living in?
The cynic in me says: “He’ll learn”. But how much better it would be if the politicians learned from him, rather than the other way around.


Health stories in the national press should always be taken with a generous pinch of salt.
Especially, it seems, those related to red wine – a reported killer one week, a lifesaver the next. (The salt’s also good for cleaning it off the carpet.)
The latest bulletin says a nice glass of red may help improve your memory. And that reminds me…
Did I really see a headline somewhere last week suggesting that “moderate” cannabis use when young can stave off memory loss when older?
Was that just wishful thinking? Or a raddled, ageing memory playing tricks on me?
No, here it is. Not just one headline, but a whole Google screenful of them.
Research published last year in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease “strongly suggests” that marijuana, “could be a potential therapeutic treatment option”.
Alzheimer’s, the report says, “is thought to result from a lifetime of brain inflammation”. And marijuana, it adds, is “one of the most safe anti-inflammatories in medicine”.
That’ll be some of that data Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was talking about, then.
Now, I’m not recommending that you dash out to score a spliff in the hope of recovering your lost memory.
For one thing, the very fact that cannabis is illegal raises its own problems. Your back-street dealer may not be too hot on quality control, clinical testing or dosage advice.
On the other hand, perhaps I can stop worrying that my moderately wasted youth is behind my growing tendency to forget things like people’s names – and last week’s headlines.
Of course, the red wine may be another matter.


Magna Carta isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.
The document King John was famously forced to put his seal to in 1215 is said to have established the principle of civil liberties and the rule of law. It’s sometimes claimed to have created democracy.
But none of that is quite true.
The principles it enshrined were all about the power of the barons – the landowners. It did nothing at all for the rights of the people who worked the land. Or any other kind of working people.
Nevertheless, it is an important document. And I was pleased to see that a copy, dated to 1300, has turned up in Kent.
The headlines announcing the discovery were depressing, though. They all seemed to mention the figure £10million – as if the relic’s estimated cash value was the most significant thing about it.
What a sorry, cash-crazed age we live in. Perhaps someone can produce a charter to restore some more meaningful values.


A friend of mine posted this on his Facebook wall this morning: “When I was 11, I had two friends. They lived three fields away. I would play with them in the woods. My 11-year-old daughter tells me she has 483 friends, most of whom she has never met.
“I’m not saying one way is better than the other, but the difference is striking.”
It really is, isn’t it?
But there’s this. When I was 11 I moved up to a school 20 miles from home. I pretty soon more or less lost touch with the friends I’d played in the woods with.
I made new friends, of course – but none near enough for us to pop round each others’ houses. Or play in the woods. I got pretty good at kicking a football against a wall on my own.
I’m not sure most kids these days do much “popping round”. But it seems that while they’re awake they’re in pretty much constant contact with each other.
Which may be a good thing – or it may mean there’s just no escape.
If, like me, you regret the demise of kids playing out, you can’t blame the internet. The damage was well under way before the age of the personal computer.
In fact, you could say the net has opened up the world again, broadened horizons in a new way.
And there’s this. That friend whose remark prompted these musings – I’ve never actually met him in person.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Poll of polls and the great debate debate

A poll on the EDP website at the weekend asked: “Has UKIP outlived its usefulness?” (When I cast my vote, the verdict was ‘yes’ by a margin of 56 per cent to 44pc.)
Another poll last week suggested that 15pc of voters intend to put their cross by the names of UKIP candidates on May 7. Which may or may not be a bigger story than the fact that the same poll (by Tory researcher Lord Ashcroft) gave the Green Party 11pc support.
That is, a party considered “not major” by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom, came in two percentage points ahead of the LibDems.
The back story to that – one of the back stories – is that while UKIP support appears to have levelled off or slipped slightly, support for the Greens has grown at a rate almost never seen before in British politics.
Of course, a high percentage rise in not very much is still not very much. But other surveys – including what you might think is a crucial one, a head-count of party members – show the Greens surging past both the LibDems and UKIP.
Among the 18-24 age group, only Labour is now more popular than the Greens. If it were to go on growing at the recent rate (it won’t, of course), the Green Party would be the biggest party in the country by the time of the election.
Part of that is no doubt down to policies. The Greens are the only party to seriously oppose the present government’s policy of austerity. The only one, at least, which appears capable of winning a seat in England.
Much of it is also down to disgust at the aforementioned Ofcom ruling, and the TV companies’ decision – since overturned – to include UKIP but exclude the Greens from their pre-election debates. That seemed to an awful lot of people to be an injustice.
In turning it to their advantage, Green leader Natalie Bennett and MP Caroline Lucas showed a cannier political judgement than has normally been associated with their party.
Much of the debate lately has been about the debates.
Are they, as David Cameron has suggested, a distraction from the “proper” election campaigns? Or are they a crucial factor in forming public opinion?
It seemed indisputable at the time that Nick Clegg’s stellar performance against Cameron and Gordon Brown helped his party in 2010. So who will be the winners and losers in what now looks like being a seven-way debate this time – with the Scottish National Party and Wales’s Plaid Cymru also getting in on the act?
If nothing else, the line-up will demonstrate that British politics is now a multi-party affair. And therefore that the first-past-the-post constituency-based system, which only works well in a two-horse race, is no longer fit for purpose.
There will be an awful lot of opinion polls between now and May, and it will no doubt be interesting to see how the various parties’ support fluctuates.
The only poll that really counts, of course, is the one taking place 100 days from now. It will represent the views of millions, not just a random sample of 1,000 or so.
Its outcome, in terms of parliamentary seats and the colour of the next government, is not only too close to call – it is too complicated to call.
The system means the support of a fifth of the electorate could translate into no seats at all. While the backing of not much more could put a party into power – the LibDems had 23pc of the vote last time.
It is not impossible that either the Tories or Labour could win an outright majority, though neither looks remotely likely to get anywhere near a majority of votes. It seems, on current form, more likely that one or the other will have to rely on the backing of one or more smaller parties.
Which could give UKIP, Greens or the SNP a big say in how Britain’s future shapes up for the next five years.
Yet another poll I examined last week asked people to rate their preferred options among a list of possible coalitions or alliances that could emerge in May.
The second most popular option, with 18pc support, was a Tory-UKIP coalition. Just ahead, on 19pc, was a Labour government reliant on Green support. North of the border, the most popular version by would be a Labour-SNP alliance.
When the present coalition decided on fixed-term parliaments, it was almost certainly with the intention of giving themselves a guaranteed period in power. It’s probably an unintended consequence that the campaigning is now already well under way.
It’s going to make the next 100 days interesting – though not as interesting as the morning of May 8 promises to be.

Only then will we know the true depth of the Green surge – and how useful or otherwise UKIP really is.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Humankind's best friend, a tale of co-evolution and symbiosis

According to new figures, one in four UK households has a dog. That’s a lot of running and leaping for sticks and balls, a lot of wagging tails, a lot companionship, a lot of love.
WC Fields once said: “Anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.” Which, of course, like most of his famous sayings, was calculated to further his comic film-star reputation as a grouchy, unpleasant old man. But it also contains an underlying truth.
Dogs are a lot like children.
They are nearly always addressed as good – or occasionally bad – boys or girls. It’s common among dog-owners to refer to themselves as their pets’ mummy and daddy. My in-laws call ours their grand-dog.
And if that’s a joke, it’s a joke with a lot of affection and a certain amount of sense behind it.
What do you do with your dog? You look after it, you play with it, you love it. You may put its wants and needs before your own – and get pleasure from doing so. You discipline it perhaps, but not harshly or unkindly. You make it a central member of the family. In short, you treat it like a child.
One man and his co-evolved best friend
But why? It’s not really a child, is it?
Well, yes and no.
Its welfare is every bit as dependent upon you as your children’s. And that is part of the point of keeping one.
Loving your dog, and getting its unconditional love in return, may not in the long run bring all the same rewards as bringing up children. But it can go a long way towards keeping you calm, sane and happy.
And, incidentally, doing the same for your human children too.
There is nothing quite like the companionship you get from a dog.
I heard someone recently describe dogs as “parasites” on humankind. There’s an argument to be made there, I suppose, but it’s a pretty poor one.
We keep dogs fed, sheltered and cared for. That’s our side of the symbiotic relationship between our two species. And what do they do for us in return?
Well, provide all those benefits I mentioned above, for a start.
Some still work for a living. And if fewer shepherds, gun-dogs, retrievers and terriers still do the jobs they are named for, that is hardly their fault.
Most dogs nowadays are kept because we find them appealing – “cute”. Which is a horrid, belittling word but does in fact have a serious side.
Research shows that petting a dog, even just looking at a cute doggy face, releases the same hormone – oxytocin – that being with her baby releases in a mother. It’s involved in normal human intimacy. You could call it the love hormone. And it makes you feel good.
A cynic might say it’s the chemical mechanism by which dogs make us look after them.
But it doesn’t just feel good – it really is good for you. It lowers your blood pressure. Plenty of it really does increase your life expectancy. Pets are great therapy.
And we now know that when you cuddle your dog, or speak kindly to it, it gets a dose of oxytocin too. It really does love you - chemically. And that love, more than anything else, is what motivates its behaviour.
It’s a win-win relationship unlike that between any other two species that we know about.
How did it come about? A long, long time ago – much longer, it is now reliably believed, than our relationship with any other species.
No doubt it began when wolves and early humans discovered they could hunt more efficiently together. And then that joining together in a community round the fire made them all safer.
The natural selection process meant it was the tamer wolves that became the humans’ dogs.
Evolution at work. And not just in the dogs, but in the people too. Living with tamed wolves changed humans as much as humans changed the wolves.
It’s been suggested that it was having dogs as protectors of their herds that enabled hunter-gatherers to settle down and farm. And that was the evolutionary “moment” that ultimately enabled a previously small, nomadic human population to adapt and grow dominant over so much of the world.
An experiment which has been going on in Siberia for 55 years shows how the evolution from wolf to dog worked.
Starting with wild silver foxes, Soviet (now Russian) scientists bred generation after generation, selecting for the ability to interact with humans.
They ended up with foxes as tame, affectionate and trainable as dogs. And they found they had foxes that were more playful, and had more rounded, “cuter” faces. Adult foxes, in fact, that were just like overgrown cubs.
Just as our dogs are like wolf cubs, whose “parents” just happen to be human.
From where I sit, I can see people and dogs happily playing together on an open green space. It makes me feel good just to see them.
My end of the street falls short of that one-in-four figure. Although I didn’t grow up with dogs, I am very happy that the one doggy family here is mine.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

I am not only Charlie

The act – the premeditated cold-blooded murder of 12 innocent people going about their daily business – was shocking. Horrifying. As no doubt it was intended to be. That is the point, pretty much the definition, of terrorism.
How many of the consequences were also intentional is impossible to tell. But few of the effects we have seen so far should have been unforeseen.
Within two hours of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, commentators were speculating that the killers hoped to die in a dramatic shoot-out with police. As, two days later, duly and appallingly happened.
Whether Said and Cherif Kouachi truly wished to die as “martyrs” will probably never be known. But once they had been identified, as they rapidly were, it was always likely. Depending on how you interpret that term “martyr” – and what “cause” you might think they were “martyred” for.
Islam? Hardly.
Another consequence, less ghastly but equally predictable, was the near-instant reaction of cartoonists the world over – well, the “Western” world over, anyway.
With five of their number so shockingly slaughtered, it was inevitable that those who wield a pencil with satirical intent should all turn to the same subject. And do so in a wide variety of ways, but all with passion and grim wit.
The raised cartoon middle finger rising from the front page of The Independent was a memorable image.
 So, in a sadder, less defiant mode was the picture of Peanuts character Charlie Brown sitting head in hands under the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie).
That slogan appeared rapidly in windows, on posters, placards and front pages all over France and beyond. The spirit of solidarity, and defiance, that encapsulated was profoundly moving.
But it begs slightly the questions few, so far, seem to have asked. Solidarity with whom? Defiance against what?
The popular answers would be: for freedom of speech, and against terrorism. And who could argue with that?
If only they were complete answers.
And if only governments such as ours didn’t leap to defend freedom of speech by immediately – and predictably – plotting fresh curbs on our freedom of speech. (Tighter surveillance, anyone? Closer policing of the internet?)
As Dave Smith, creator of that Independent cartoon, puts it: “We’re dealing with ideas: religions are ideas, political philosophies are ideas. It’s a cartoonist’s job to challenge these things and to offend where necessary.”
Crucially, and rightly, he sums up: “There is no right not to be offended.”
That does seem, however, to be a right claimed by a great many people who espouse religious views – be they radical Muslim nutters or evolution-denying Christian nutters.
Those who exert their right to hold irrational views so often seem for some reason to claim an extra right not to have them challenged or mocked. Which is precisely what satirists and cartoonists vitally do.
As the killers left the office around which they had sprayed bullets last Wednesday, they are reported to have remarked: “We have killed Charlie Hebdo.”
If they really thought that, the actual consequence of their murders was the opposite of what they intended – but wholly predictable.
Despite the loss of its editor and so many of its most talented contributors, the magazine will appear as usual tomorrow. Well, not quite as usual – the regular print run of 60,000 copies will be raised to three million, and it seems unlikely that will be enough to meet the demand.
Another consequence – this one deeply regrettable – is almost certain to be an increase in anti-Muslim feeling throughout France, and probably right across Europe.
Al-Qaeda no more represents Islam than the IRA or their Protestant antagonists represented Christianity. But however often that is said, the bigoted hard-of-thinking will continue to jump to nasty conclusions.
The treatment of ordinary, decent Muslims in Western societies will get worse, as it did after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Which you might think was an unintended consequence of the Kouachis’ murderous activities. But in fact it is exactly what Al-Qaeda wants.
Because increasing tensions and injustices between communities is what drives recruitment to such anti-social causes as theirs.
Just as it drives up support for right-wing parties like France’s National Front, which will also benefit from last week’s violence.
Of all the cartoons of homage to Charlie Hebdo, there was one whose impact was not quite as immediate or obvious as others. It took a little thought to appreciate it fully.
The drawing by French artist Tommy shows the murdered cartoonists, pencils in hand, approaching Heaven’s Pearly Gates. Before them, enthroned on a cloud, sits a white-haired bearded man in a long robe. “Oh no,” he is thinking, “not them”.
Clearly this is a tribute both to the goodness of the murder victims and their willingness to cause offence in all quarters.
More subtly, and more powerfully, it illustrates the madness of those who consider the portrayal of the Prophet Mohamed in a cartoon to be a capital offence.
Because we all know who that white-haired old man represents. And we know that this fatuous depiction of “God” is such a commonplace that none but the craziest zealot could take offence at it.
Before this confirms you in thinking “we” are more moral than “them”, however, take a moment to ask how many innocent people were killed last week in Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan    all countries destabilised by Western interference.
Don’t know how many? Neither do I, because those casualties go largely under the media radar.
But here are some figures to consider.
According to analysis published last month by international human rights group Reprieve, up to November 24, American drones had been sent to kill 14 men in nine years, mostly in Pakistan. In the process they had actually killed 1,147 people, most of them innocent, many of them children.
And that’s only counting the missions with specific targets (not all of whom were hit).
The independent American Council on Foreign Relations estimates that 500 drone strikes outside Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3,674 people.
I am Charlie. But I am also Sareef, Rachid and Rahela, Hussein, Ali and Asmah.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Where golf spoils more than just a good walk

There are, admittedly, even duller sports to watch. If, that is, darts, sumo wrestling and Formula One motor-racing can even really be called sports.
And I know I’m about to upset some very enthusiastic amateur competitors. Some of my best friends, etc…
But when it comes to golf, I’m with that most brilliant of all newspaper columnists, Mark Twain – as I am on a lot of subjects.
It was Twain who described golf as “a good walk spoiled”. Which may have been the worst to be said of the game in Twain’s time. He died in 1910.
To be fair to all those who are obsessed with the game, I can understand how golf might get you that way. The fine physical and mental details, and the constant striving to improve your own performance, all play to the fundamentals of the human condition.
Having been hooked in the past on snooker and pool, I can appreciate how striving to knock little balls into holes with sticks can become compulsive.
And there is no obvious good reason why patches of the Norfolk countryside in places like Eaton, Sprowston Manor and Caldecott Hall shouldn’t be given over to the enjoyment of the old game.
You might argue that it’s better use of the land than building another “executive” housing development, an industrial park or a shopping mall.
But there are parts of the world where golf spoils more than just a walk.
Take Portugal’s Algarve, where whole fishing villages have been wiped from the map, their people displaced, to build courses for the amusement of holidaymakers.
Or Tucson, Arizona, which is in a beautiful location but a daft place for a sizable city. Let alone five luxury golf courses.
Seen from the air, Tucson National is an unnatural splotch of lurid emerald in an arid desert landscape. It looks mad, and it is.
The two rivers that caused Tucson to be established where it was dried up a century ago. Most of the water there now comes from underground – a resource that won’t last forever. Not with a million people drinking it and washing their trucks in it.
Mayor Jonathan Rothschild expects his citizens to take a “pledge for water”. He has made saving the stuff the central plank of his administration.
The colossal, always-on sprinkler systems keeping those greens and fairways green and fair are hardly setting the right example. It’s one rule for the trailer-park, another for the limo-chauffeured denizens of the National.
This makes a good symbol of the wide – and widening – gap between America’s rich and poor.
If you want such a symbol for the world, you could hardly have a better one than the sporting playground of the United Arab Emirates.
Qatar bought football’s 2022 World Cup. Abu Dhabi has the climax of the Formula One season (given double points last time for emphasis). Dubai, with no cricket tradition, is nevertheless now where that sport has its international headquarters.
And golf’s European Tour mutated in 2009 into the Race to Dubai.
A glittering new playground for the world’s richest built by the sweat of some of the world’s most exploited migrant workers.
Shimmering pools and highly watered sports grounds in a desert. None of which drink up more of that precious water than the sprawling, beautifully manicured, luxuriously verdant golf courses.
A good walk made possible. For the over-privileged few. The acme of capitalism.
Which is just what China is meant not to be. And yet.
It’s the bizarre – you might say surreal – situation in China that has got me thinking just now about the inequalities enshrined in the game of golf.
For a supposedly still Communist country, China has some pretty stark inequalities of its own. And a burgeoning middle class that likes to travel, shop, dress smartly in “Western” style – and play golf.
In 2013, 12-year-old Ye Wocheng from Dongguan became the youngest golfer ever to qualify for a European Tour event. The China Open. Tianjin, a city of 14 million people and the principal port for Beijing, being an even further-flung outpost of “Europe” than Dubai.
Its Binhai Lake Golf Club, and the Tomson club in Shanghai where this year’s Open will be held, are among more than 600 courses in China. It is estimated that 1.1million of the country’s 1.3billion people play the game.
Which would be less surprising if golf hadn’t been technically illegal in China since 1949, when Mao Zedong banned it as a bourgeois entertainment.
In 2004 China’s modern rulers introduced a law banning the building of golf courses. Since when the developers have renamed them “sports parks” and the number of them in the country has quadrupled.
The reason given for that ineffectual law was the protection of farmland. Now, in Beijing, 12 courses have recently been closed in a crackdown intended to ease overcrowding. The capital’s population, estimated at 21m, is reckoned to have grown last year by around 500,000, or two and a half Norwiches.
You might think a city that size could do with a few open green spaces. But perhaps not for the exclusive use of the one-in-1,000 who fancy the occasional round of golf.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A chorus of approval for Helen's Hawk

It begins: “Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees…”
That land is the Breckland, that border region of Norfolk and Suffolk which isn’t quite like anywhere else. The very heart of East Anglia, and almost unknown to the rest of the world.
Except to Helen Macdonald, whose book “H is for Hawk” opens with that evocative description.
The book isn’t quite like any other, either.
For a start, it’s rather hard to categorise. It’s a personal memoir, of how Helen struggled to cope with the grief of her father’s death, and of how she managed the difficulties and joys of training a young goshawk. Intercut with that is the story of an earlier writer, TH White, whose 1951 book “The Goshawk” told of his own inept attempts at hawk-training. And it’s the story too of Helen’s own lifelong relationship with that book, from fascination to anger and back.
The advice to booksellers on the back cover is to place “H is for Hawk” on both the Biography and Nature-Writing shelves. It is much more personally revealing, and more painfully honest, than most works you’ll find in either section.
Its runaway success – bestseller status, a book of the month at Waterstones, the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction – surprised its author as much as anyone.
Having read it in August, just after it first came out, I was a little surprised too at just how well it’s done since. Not because it doesn’t deserve every bit of acclaim – it does – but because, frankly, the glittering prizes so seldom go to the works that do deserve them.
I have no hesitation whatever in joining the Times Literary Supplement and a list of other publications and people who have named it as the book of 2014.
In doing so, I ought to declare a kind of interest. Helen Macdonald is an old friend, at least of the Facebook kind. We did meet once in person, though there’s no reason she should remember that. But my place in her friends list seems enough for me to feel a kind of reflected pride in her glory.
She has written a book that will become a classic. Now follow that, Helen.
And what am I looking forward to reading in 2015 – apart from the tempting stack of books Santa just left by my elbow?
Another friend of mine, journalist Jackie Copleton, has her first novel coming out in July. Titled “A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding”, it’s set partly in the present and partly in pre-bomb Hiroshima and it sounds terrific.


Monty Python was great the first time round. Even the second. By the time half the people you knew were able to quote whole rambling sketches verbatim, however – and far too often did just that – the novelty value, and the humour, were wearing thin. That was some time in the 1970s.
So you had to nod in agreement when someone said in 2014: “Who wants to see that again, really? A bunch of wrinkly old men trying to relive their youth and make a load of money.”
So true. And who said it? One Mick Jagger, at 71 still the lead singer of a popular beat combo that spent much of the year playing sell-out concerts in stadiums around the world, a mere half century after they were acclaimed as “England’s Newest Hit-Makers”.
Sir Mick is no fool, so one must assume he spoke with that famous tongue planted firmly in cheek. A pot aware of his relationship with the kettle.
The same is presumably true of that other knight of the realm Elton John, 67, who described Jagger’s co-Rolling Stone Keith Richard as “a monkey with arthritis trying to go on stage and look young”.
Ooh, scratch yer eyes out, as the Pythons once sang.
There was no humour, malice or irony, however, in the finest, most uplifting quote of 2014.
The 85-year-old science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin gave a speech at the American National Book Awards ceremony last month that was a masterpiece of brevity, wisdom and clear thinking.
“Right now,” she said, “we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”
Hear, hear. And not only writers, I might add.
She went on: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
If there was one thing said, in this depressing year, to lift the spirits and rekindle a little hope, that was it. Thank you, Ursula, for a thought worth cherishing.
I don’t expect 2015 to bring the fall of capitalism, or the ending of the terrifying power now wielded by multi-national corporations. But it will bring their end another year closer.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

May your god go with you. If you happen to have one

The music was divine, the children’s voices heavenly, the acoustics in the old church near perfect. The deep baritone in one of the front pews was pitched not to the treble of the choir but the lower notes of the accompanying organ.
For the first “Oh come let us adore him”, the baritone fell silent. At the second he joined in gently. At the third he came in on full boom, contributing his part to a joyous wall of sound that filled the church.
Never mind the Christian setting, the Christian message of the lyric, this was one atheist who was thoroughly enjoying the singalong. I know, because that man was me.
And I know I was not unwelcome in joining in, either. The vicar, bless him, made it quite plain in his delightfully ecumenical speech at the close of the school concert that all were welcome, of whatever religion or none.
He stressed, as he does every year, that tolerance, and caring for others, were the important features we should all share and encourage.
A message and an attitude which – of course – is not confined to the Church of England, but which nevertheless seems to sum up that church at its best.
An old favourite joke of mine came up again the other day. Maybe it isn’t really a joke at all. It’s more a statement of attitude, and one which at heart I share, true unbeliever though I am.
It goes like this: “I’m sick and tired of all these Christians who have forgotten the true meaning of Saturnalia.”
Celebrating the birth of a new year, a new season, at the very dead of winter, is a splendid tradition that goes back a lot further than the birth of Christ.
New religions have always thrived best when they have adopted, and subtly altered, the rites, rituals and holy places of the older religions they have displaced.
Christianity has always been masterful at this, which probably accounts for its very survival in early centuries, as well as its widespread success from medieval times on.
A tradition of drinking, carousing and eating well with gathered family and friends around the winter solstice was well established in Rome – and no doubt a great many other places – long before Christianity was around to lay claim to it.
We know from their often astonishingly precise alignments that stone-age monuments such as stone circles and burial chambers were built by people who placed great importance in the winter solstice.
Santa may have got his red coat from a Coca-Cola promotion (he used to be in green) and be more associated now with consumerism than with Christ. But if you’re looking for “true meaning”, his origins appear to lie in the High German, Old English or Anglo-Saxon god Woden. So perhaps we should celebrate him every Wednesday.
Isn’t there something decidedly pagan in the Yule log, the ceremonial tree and the wreath?
And, come to think of it, don’t some of those old carols we all enjoy singing so much have more than a touch of the older religion about them? The greenwood and the fertility rite. The Holly and the Ivy.
So yes, we can all enjoy the lovely church buildings, the lovely music, the singing and togetherness.
And yes, we can – and should – all remember those less blessed than ourselves, be it through famine, war, pestilence or poverty.
And, as the great Dave Allen used to say, may your god go with you. At this time as at all times. Whichever god that may be. If you happen to have one.
Happy Hanukkah.


We were talking at breakfast the other day, as you do. (Well, maybe you don’t, but we do – it’s a crucial part of what makes us the close family we are.) And, as we do, we had the radio on in the background.
“That’s a good question,” said a voice over the airwaves in response to I know not what. Prompting our daughter, 15 and thoughtful, to ponder: “What IS a good question?”
Which, when you think about it, is a pretty good question itself.
The answer depends, of course, on what you want to get out of it. Some questions just want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘tea’ or ‘coffee’ sort of answer. But in an interview – on the radio, say, or for a newspaper column – you want something that provokes a fuller response. Something, ideally, that makes the other person (and the listeners, or readers) think a bit.
A good question might be one the other person can’t answer – or doesn’t want to. In which case it might be more honest of them if they replied: “That’s a bad question.” Which, strangely, no one ever seems to do.
We’re about to enter a general election year, one in which the outcome is as hard to predict as I can ever remember. We are bound to be hearing a lot of interesting questions over the next four or five months. Can we expect to hear them answered straightforward, honestly – or at all?
Now that, I think you’ll agree, is a good question.