Friday, 27 February 2009

Why it’s wrong to deliver Mail into private hands

THE letter, from a former pupil, was addressed simply: Mr Semmens, the headmaster, England. It landed on my father’s desk in north London just three days after it was posted in Sierra Leone, west Africa.
This glowing example of efficiency actually occurred 40 years ago. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of something like it happening today.
Modern automation might militate against the degree of initiative involved. But I still wouldn’t bet against a similar display of postal chutzpah.
But what if today’s 30 per cent proves to be just the thin end – well, more like the middle – of the wedge? What if the Royal Mail, a few deliveries down the road, is delivered entirely into private hands?
Will we still get such sparkling service then? Will we still be able to post a letter in Ipswich today and expect it to reach Carlisle, Penzance, Belfast or Inverness tomorrow – and for just 36p?
In a way, the troubles of the mail are a consequence of its own success.
Nobody alive today can remember a time when it wasn’t there to be relied on. We’ve all grown up with it, so we tend to take it for granted.
After all, it’s a public service. But now the service is under threat.
In the post-Thatcher world the old Post Office has lost the telephone system – which might by now have made it a highly profitable source of national income.
It has lost the post office branches – the closure of so many of which is a national disgrace.
And what is left has to compete in an unfair market. Rival delivery companies cherry-pick the lucrative jobs without the Mail’s commitment to reach every home six days a week.
No wonder, as Peter Mandelson says, the Royal Mail “cannot survive in its present form”.
This is precisely because successive governments, including his, have for the past 28 years bullied it and butchered it, forced it to fight with tied hands.
Almost all that’s left is the commitment to provide a service. Which it still does, mostly brilliantly. But for how much longer?
If the government was true to Labour principles – instead of Thatcherite ones – Mandelson would today be saving the service, not kicking it while it’s down.
He would be re-nationalising all the bits that have been scandalously sold off or given away, not selling off more
He would be putting the old Post Office back together. And he would be committing the government to keeping it going as an efficient, reliable national service.
It would cost a lot, of course. Maybe as much as a tenth of what the government has handed out to failed bankers.
(OK, that figure is a complete guess, picked out of the air almost at random. But isn’t that what bankers – and governments – do with their big figures?)
It’s perfectly possible. Merely unthinkable for a government that has lost all touch with its roots.
But isn’t maintaining the post – along with water, power and railways – an essential part of what a government is for?

Hot Bagels had me kvelling up

Moishe's Bagel in full swingA FUSE blew and all the lights went out. But the band simply went on playing. It must have been, if you’ll pardon me, an electrifying moment.
But then the whole performance was electrifying anyway. I know, because although I wasn’t at the Roundhouse in London I did see the band the next night. And they were something very, very special indeed.
I caught Moishe’s Bagel in the unlikely surroundings of Garboldisham village hall, Norfolk. And they proved to be everything I’d hoped and more.
They’re not quite like any other group, the Bagels. I can’t really describe the sound better than their target="blank">website puts it: “Rip-roaring, foot-stomping, jazz-inflected klezmer and Balkan music from some of Scotland’s finest musicians. An intoxicating, life-affirming mix of Eastern European dance music, Middle Eastern rhythms and virtuoso performances.”
Sadly – foolishly, in my opinion – the organisers of the Cambridge Folk Festival thought the jazz element too strong to include them on the bill.
The players’ backgrounds also bring classical, bossa nova and Indian elements to the mix. But it’s the traditional Jewish flavour of Pete Garnett’s accordion and Greg Lawson’s intense violin-playing that really defines the Moishe’s Bagel sound.
Greg (pictured left)is one of my oldest friends. But last time I saw him play in public it was as leader of the Scottish Opera orchestra about 15 years ago. That was good, but this was something else.
Only one member of the band is actually Jewish. The rest just love the music.
The one is sparkling pianist Phil Alexander, whose mother put on the Garboldisham show and admitted she was “kvelling” – a Yiddish word meaning “gushing with family pride”.
If you can extend that from family to friends, the whole performance had me really kvelling up.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Yes we can - but should we?

DWIGHT D Eisenhower is applauded. His successors Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush all get it in the neck. And Obama? Well, we’ll have to wait and see on that one.
The precedents, frankly, aren’t great. The tendency – one might say the expectation – for all US presidents is to go messin’ where they ought to not mess.
The thumbs-up for Eisenhower in a huge new book, A World of Trouble, is essentially for leaving well alone.
Not in Europe, of course, where if you’re to believe the Hollywood version he won the Second World War virtually single-handed. But in the Middle East, where decades of US intervention have created one unholy mess after another.
And that, by some accounts, has led directly to America’s status as Public Enemy No.1 in the eyes of at least one big part of the world.
By that version, the War on Terror is really the war against Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism. A self-defeating struggle if ever there was one.
Or, to take the more cynical view, a self-perpetuating one – good for arms sales, oil annexation and general alpha-male chest-beating.
But George W wasn’t the first to go striding into Biblical lands like a six-gun-toting John Wayne. And neither was his daddy.
In fact Eisenhower is the only president exempted from blame by author Patrick Tyler, whose book is subtitled ‘America in the Middle East’.
Tyler gives ‘Honest Ike’ credit for untangling the mess made by Britain and France over Suez in 1956 and for “recognising the perils of intervention in distant lands”. And even that is to overlook one of the many wrong turns taken in the region.
In Iran in 1953 the democratically elected PM Mohammed Mosaddeq was deposed in a military coup that installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as dictator. Thereby paving the way for all that country’s subsequent troubles (and those of its neighbours).
It didn’t just happen on Eisenhower’s watch, but with the active involvement of the CIA. Backed by American – and British – funds.
British responsibility for Middle East problems goes back even further than the catalogue of US interference. At least as far as the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which led directly to the founding of the state of Israel 31 years later.
You can’t blame all the troubles of the region on the existence of Israel. But it’s clearly been a huge factor and continues to be so.
It might have been better if Israel had never been created. But it was, and that’s the reality the world has to live with now.
The stated wish of those in Iran and the Arab world who wish to wipe Israel off the map is the biggest reason for Israel behaving as aggressively as it does.
And having once put the Israelis there, the Americans, the United Nations and Britain can hardly just leave them to get on with it.
Much the same can be said of Iraq. America should never have got involved – but having done so they are left with a huge responsibility.
Just to say “whoops, sorry” and leave could make a bad situation worse. It certainly did in South-East Asia, where the US withdrawal led directly to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
So, like so many of his predecessors, Obama has inherited a huge problem in a part of the world he was not elected in.
One can say – as Patrick Tyler virtually does – that the problem with America’s Middle-East policy is that there is one. But they can’t just stop now.
Or can they?
That’s one of the biggest questions Obama has to answer. By appointing Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state he seems to have answered: No we can’t.


DAVID NUTT’S job as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is to advise the government on drugs policy.
As an experienced professor of psychopharmacology, he is as close to an expert on the subject as you will find.
Now he has another experience under his belt, though he’s hardly the first to learn it the hard way.
The lesson is that speaking the truth in public and to government ministers is not always what’s wanted.
Nutt said the dangers of taking ecstasy were no greater than those of riding a horse.
Actually, given the statistics on both, that may be slightly underplaying the dangers of riding. But I’ll bow to his superior judgement.
Unlike home secretary Jacqui Smith – effectively his boss – who chose to lambast him in parliament and then ride roughshod over his considered advice.
The difference between Nutt and Smith is that he knows what he’s talking about.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Green can also mean gullible and naive

I AM all for making human endeavour as environmentally responsible as possible. In fact it’s probably up there with tolerance and non-violence as my most treasured moral principle.
But sometimes I’m tempted to wonder whether green isn’t, for some people, merely the new black.
Take these innovations being trumpeted this week as great designs for our glorious green future.
First up, the ingenious gadget that converts coffee grounds into “a sustainable source of ink for your printer”.
That rather begs the question just how sustainable it is to drink real ground coffee every day. But I suppose if you’re doing that anyway, using the ullage to save on chemical ink is at least a neat trick.
I’m always fascinated by architecture that makes a claim to environmental friendliness. Building with straw bales, for instance, or Scandinavian-style turf roofs seem good to me – and that’s just the basics.
These days there are plenty of grander architectural projects in which environmental economy seems to play as big a part as aesthetic values. In fact, it’s often hard to disentangle the two.
Take the latest fine building in Concepcion, Chile, a bustling university city about the size of Birmingham.
In the heart of the thrusting, high-rise business quarter a new office block has appeared that enjoys “the insulating and air-purifying benefits of green walls”. Which is clearly a good thing.
It’s actually the head office of the architecture firm that built it, so it had better be good. And I think it is.
Plus points for using mostly local materials – and for being a pleasantly eye-catching addition to the street scene.
Maybe we could do with something like it among the welter of new buildings that have so changed Ipswich in recent times.
But what is that “green wall”?
It’s a “double green skin” that both insulates the building and shades it from the hot Chilean sun. It’s “a wooden outer structure overflowing with bougainvillea, jasmine and plumbago”. Lovely.
Or, to put it another way, it’s a big trellis with creepers growing up it.
So potentially it’s not just the language that’s flowery. I bet it’ll look great when it’s in full bloom.
But plants growing up the outside of a building? Whoever would have thought of such a fancy idea?
And finally, how about giving your kids some “cute organic play-food”?
Or, to put it another way, soft cuddly burgers, bagels and cheese-on-toast.
That burger may be knitted out of “amazing sustainable textiles” – in this case kapok fibre from the Malaysian rainforest. Which may or may not be a good thing.
And you may pretend the fabric bun is filled with “organic” lettuce, tomato and pickles, “organic beef patty” and “farmer’s pickles”.
But to any kid presented with it it’s surely just a big fat juicy burger. And at about £27 it’s not the cheapest way to get them started on the greed-is-good, fast-food road.
Remember sweet cigarettes? The cuddly burger doesn’t sound that different to me.


AS a once committed trade unionist, I have seen few more depressing sights lately than that of strikers protesting against foreign workers.
Yes, I have sympathy with those who have lost their jobs, or fear losing them. I’ve been there. It’s not nice.
But one glimpse of that “barge” in which the Italian workers live, moored near the controversial Lindsey refinery, should tell you one thing. These people are themselves the biggest victims of the situation.
The banner waving over the strikers there and at other troublespots bears the ironic name “Unite”.
That word was once part of a famous slogan which ought to mean something to trade unionists.
It followed the words “Workers of the world…”


I DON’T think much of the Israeli government. I can’t disagree with all those friends of mine who find Israel’s war-making against Palestinian civilians in Gaza repulsive. Or the view that Jews, of all people, should know that genocide is evil.
One dissenting voice told me the other day that he thought of Israel as “our team” and that criticising Israel was an act of anti-semitism.
To him I can only point out that nothing is more calculated to foster the anti-semitism he rightly deplores than Israel behaving badly.
But having accepted all that, one tricky question remains. What SHOULD you do when your neighbour keeps lobbing missiles at you?
The Israeli government, as usual, has come up with one seriously wrong answer. But what is the right one?