Friday, 3 December 2010

So who’s for freedom of information technology?

JARED COHEN is an interesting young man.
When Condoleezza Rice, then US secretary of state, appointed him to the state department, he was just 24, the youngest ever member of the policy planning staff.
He was fresh out of Oxford University, where he’d taken a masters degree in international relations. He already had one published book under his belt – on the 1994 Rwandan genocide – and had another well under way.
This second book, Children of Jihad, was subtitled “A Young American’s Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East”. It was those travels and his thoughts about them that made him so important to Rice.
Almost more remarkable, when the presidency changed hands and Hillary Clinton took over Rice’s old office, she chose to keep Cohen on. Not too many people work as senior policy advisers to both Republican and Democrat administrations – let alone while still in their 20s.
It is surely Clinton’s loss, and maybe America’s, that after four and a half years in Washington’s corridors of power Cohen has now chosen to go work for Google instead.
It’s no surprise Google should want him, though. Because his real area of expertise is not just Middle-East relations, but the internet.
In particular its power to reach out to people, to bring them together, to change lives. In that, he has not only knowledge but zeal.
It was he who took a party of Silicon Valley bigwigs, including some Google engineers and the founder of Twitter, to a meeting with the president and vice-president of Iraq in Baghdad.
It was he who called Facebook “one of the most organic tools for democracy promotion”.
He who believed American technology could be a powerful diplomatic tool around the world.
At a video-linked press conference during that Baghdad trip, he told reporters in Washington: “The platforms that all of these guys here are pushing out from the tech industry are riddled with American values of critical thinking, free flow of information, freedom of choice, freedom of assembly.”
No wonder both GW Bush and Barack Obama thought this flag-waving geek was one of the good guys.
When you consider the huge role the internet played in Obama’s election, the close tie-up between the net and democracy looks pretty clear.
But hang on. What was that about “critical thinking” and “free flow of information”?
Obama might have espoused those values when he was in opposition, but now he’s president it’s a different matter.
He’s incensed about the free flow of information from Wikileaks, which this week posted just the first few hundred of a promised 250,000 formerly secret diplomatic messages.
A White House statement described the release as “reckless and dangerous” and added: “We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.”
Among other things, Wikileaks got up Obama’s nose by revealing that he considers David Cameron “a lightweight”. (You were right about one thing, anyway, Mr President.)
Meanwhile, Clinton described Wikileaks’ latest disclosures as an “attack on the US and the international community”.
So net freedom’s a good thing, then, when it’s spreading “American values” among the youth of Iraq. Or when Twitter is helping dissidents organise protest rallies in Iran.
But when it’s American secrets being revealed, that’s another matter, apparently.
Freedom of information is an essential component of democracy. Until you’re in power.
Jared Cohen’s no fool. Maybe his decision to quit government work is about more than money.


SO Prince Andrew is rude, indiscreet, foul-mouthed, jingoistic and not exactly left-of-centre politically. Glad we had Wikileaks to reveal that to us.
In an era that until now has not been a great one for investigative journalism, Wikileaks promises to become a goldmine resource for the world’s press – and a right pain in the posterior for its politicians. Which can only be a good thing.
Trouble is, there’s far too much material coming out for anyone to make sense of it all. Which leaves the traditional media to filter it – not always good news.
What, among this week’s deluge of diplomatic memos, have we heard most about?
Not the Americans’ real opinion of Vladimir Putin’s Russia (“a deeply corrupt state dominated by its security forces”).
Not US diplomats’ description of Afghan president Hamid Karzai as “an extremely weak man who does not listen to facts”.
Not the inside stories about Guantanamo Bay, Al-Qaeda or Pakistani uranium.
Not even the suggestion that Iran has acquired “sophisticated missiles” from North Korea with which it is capable of hitting western Europe.
By common, almost unanimous, consent the news editors of this little island think what will interest us most is the Duke of York’s ability to open his mouth and insert his foot.
The sad thing is, they’re probably right.
Which just shows how pathetically we remain in thrall to the soap opera of the dysfunctional family we call royal.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The class of 2010 – yours for just £29,310 a year

“COMMONER? I bet she’s not half as common as the bird my son’s marrying.”
That overheard comment is the funniest I’ve met yet on a certain up-coming event. And it could almost go down as the definitive comment on this curious year.
2010, the year of class. The year the toffs took over the country again.
The state-funded grammar school, and more than that the comprehensive school, were supposed to end class in this country.
It doesn’t seem so long since the question, “Is the British class system dead?” seemed one worth considering. Maybe not one to ponder long or hard, but at least a question worth giving a little thought.
Forty years ago, when one grammar-school boy (Ted Heath) displaced another (Harold Wilson) as prime minister, we might have assumed that by 2010 the class system would be history.
Yet here we are, with the poshest (and richest) PM since Alec Douglas-Home in 1963-64 and an only slightly less posh (and possibly richer) deputy.
And about to "celebrate" what has preposterously been dubbed the “people’s wedding”.
Which people are marrying? Not your people or my people, that’s for sure.
This week’s announcement of the date and venue did sadly end the hope that the commoner bride would get a proper commoner’s wedding. A 15-minute ceremony at Slough Register Office followed by a bit of a do at the rugby club.
It would probably have been a good do, too, since the bride’s parents run a party planning business.
More fun, I dare say, than a televised national event squandering millions of the cash “the people” don’t have.
And it would surely have been more within Carole and Michael Middleton’s budget.
Not that they will be expected to foot the bill for the abbey extravaganza. That, indirectly, will be up to you and me.
And not that they are exactly hard up. The national paper that told this week [this column appeared in the Evening Star on Friday, November 26] of their “modest, middle-class background” has a generous definition of “modest”.
I do know some fairly modest families who stretch themselves financially to put their children into private education. I have never understood why they bother, especially as we are lucky enough to have some excellent comprehensives round here.
But I don’t think anyone I know spends £29,310 a year on school fees.
That’s the current base price – before things like uniform, books, music lessons and pocket-money are considered – of sending a child to Marlborough College.
Party Pieces must do a brisk trade.
But if class is your thing, Marlborough is obviously the place to send your daughters (Carole and Michael sent two).
Apart from Kate and Pippa Middleton, other former pupils include:
• Samantha Cameron, prime minister’s wife
• Frances Osborne, chancellor’s wife
• Sally Bercow, wife of the House of Commons speaker
• Antonia Robinson, royal wedding-dress designer
• Emily Sheffield, sister of Samantha Cameron and deputy editor of posh mag Vogue
• oh, and someone called Princess Eugenie.
Not bad for a school that didn’t even let girls in until 1968. It obviously instils a self-confidence in its pupils that can stand up to the attentions of a prince or an ambitious Etonian.
The Middletons may not have old aristocracy in their family tree. But they do have money.
Which may not buy love or happiness – but it can buy you a posh schooling and posh friends.
It can buy power. And that, ultimately, is what “class” is all about.


THERE was much to applaud in the White Paper for education unveiled by Michael Gove this week.
Compulsory foreign-language teaching up to age 16. About time. Our inability to speak other languages has always been shameful, and has been getting steadily worse.
Anonymity for teachers being investigated for “inappropriate behaviour” – about time too. One malicious false accusation should not be allowed to wreck a person’s reputation and career.
How good it will be to have “experts” brought in to review the curriculum depends on who the experts are. Teachers, I suppose, don’t count as experts themselves…
School league tables will be “shaken up”. OK, but scrapping them altogether would have been better.
Targets introduced for primary schools. Oh dear. As if the whole of education wasn’t already overrun with tick-boxes.
Former troops offered sponsorship to train as teachers. You what? I’m all in favour of teachers having some experience of life outside the classroom, but why military experience in particular?
The effect on class discipline might, I suppose, be interesting.
Anything good in the coalition’s policy, though, was overshadowed by the revelation, on the same day, of Ofsted’s overall conclusion about our schools.
And that is that the so-called academies – those quasi-independent schools the government is putting all its weight behind – aren’t better on average than other state schools.
They’re worse.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Why BT musn't get away with their new town plans

BT wants to build 2,000 homes, a health centre, a hotel, a park, a community centre, shops, a café, a pub and two new schools on their land at Martlesham Heath. In other words, a town.
The campaign group No Adastral New Town has done a good job of raising local awareness. I hope they are equally successful when it comes to persuading Suffolk Coastal planners and councillors, and the inevitable public inquiry, not to let BT’s dream become our nightmare.
BT’s purpose, of course, is simply to make money. NANT’s purpose is to prevent them spoiling a bit of still-rural Suffolk for those of us who already live here.
I certainly don’t want the extra bustle, and the extra traffic, that would be caused by having a new town dumped in my back yard.
But my objection isn’t mere nimbyism. And it’s not just about keeping Suffolk special – though of course that’s part of it.
I object in principle to the whole policy of concreting over the countryside.
Of obliterating fields, woods and farmland with yet more soulless new buildings and pollutant roads.
Under the headline “We are murdering our countryside”, the outstanding journalist Trevor Philpott wrote: “After the war we thought our planners would save our countryside. But the bulldozers move over the farmland as relentlessly as ever. The new ‘estates’ spread, like a rash, over the meadows…”
If that was true in July 1954, when that Picture Post article appeared, how much truer is it now after 56 years more pillage?
In 1954 there was at least an excuse.
There was a need still for new homes to replace old ones flattened by Hitler’s bombs.
There was still a need, too, for people to be moved out of decaying Victorian slums and into better housing. Post-war council housing, on the whole, did a pretty good job of that.
But somewhere along the way politicians (and, of course, builders) got addicted to the idea that it is always necessary to keep building more and more houses.
According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, about 21 square miles of English countryside is lost every year to concrete and asphalt.
Since 1954 England’s population has risen by 19 per cent. The loss of land to development has been much greater than that.
Those who want to cash in talk, as they always will, about the “need” for new homes. But what need?
A few questions need to be answered urgently while we still have enough farmland to feed ourselves.
Why must be build new homes when in every town and city so many perfectly serviceable older ones stand empty?
Why must we build new towns instead of making the old ones liveable again?
And – most relevant of all to Suffolk – why do we go on letting wealthy folk from other parts buy up our best houses as “second homes” when there are local people needing first homes?
In 1940, the year of the Blitz, architect Ralph Tubbs designed an exhibition, Living In Cities, to consider what post-war Britain should look like.
In a fascinating accompanying brochure, he wrote: “The advocates of garden cities do not face up to the problems of introducing fresh air and sunshine, trees and open space into the decayed towns of today.
“Dissatisfied with the existing chaos of cities, they start new centres, which are neither town nor country, but little patches of suburbia. They leave the existing cities to rot.”
Tubbs wanted cities to live, not rot. He wanted the countryside to live too.
He was a visionary (who incidentally despised the kind of sham architecture that Prince Charles now champions). It’s a tragedy his vision continues to be ignored.


GEORGE W BUSH says “waterboarding” wasn’t torture. So it’s OK, then, to keep pushing people to the very edge of drowning.
It was legal, says GW, “because a lawyer said it was legal”.
But then, when you’re president of the United States you can probably find a lawyer to tell you anything you want to hear. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what someone under torture will tell you.
Not the truth. Not anything useful. Just exactly what they think you want to hear.
Which is why torture – legal or not, humane or not – is fundamentally useless.
And that is one reason I disbelieve GW’s claim that waterboarding saved British lives by preventing attacks on London.
The other reason I disbelieve it is GW’s own record with the truth.
As I have pointed out over the years to a variety of small children, if you keep telling lies people eventually stop believing what you say.
There’s a story Bush should read, about a boy and a wolf.
But does it matter now if he’s still telling porkies?
He’s yesterday’s man. Finished. No point in knocking him down again, surely?
The point isn’t about Bush himself. He’s no longer important.
What is important is to nail the lie. To stop him infecting future generations with the pernicious idea that torture can ever be justified.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Day Labour abandoned its aims for the big Tory lie

ONE day someone will get round to writing a history of the modern Labour Party that isn’t just re-hashing the tedious details of Blair-Brown infighting. When they do, the date Tuesday, October 4, 1994 will loom large in it.
That was the day Tony Blair gave his first speech as leader to the party conference.
Most of it, frankly, was waffle, though it received the predictable massive ovation.
He even claimed, incredible though it seems looking back, to be a socialist. Though he did insist that “his” socialism “is not the socialism of Marx or state control”.
(Neither is mine, Tony, but unlike yours it’s distinguishable from messianic Toryism.)
The nugget of meaning – I’m tempted to call it the gobbet of phlegm – came four minutes from the end.
That’s when he said: “It is time we had a clear, up-to-date statement of the objects and objectives of our party.”
Which was the first real inkling he gave that he was set on abandoning the perfectly clear objectives which had defined the party since 1918.
Until Blair ditched it, the party’s aim was laid out in Clause Four of its constitution: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
That is socialism. That is what Labour, under Blair, gave up. A coherent ideology. Any ideology.
As it happens, the ideology of those now in power (Clegg as well as Cameron) could be summed up as the opposite of poor abandoned Clause Four:
• To DENY the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry;
• To PREVENT its equitable distribution;
• To ERADICATE any remaining vestiges of common ownership;
• To GIVE UP popular administration and control of anything.
It’s a nightmare. But it does have the virtue of consistent thinking behind it.
At its heart is the idea that private ownership is in every way superior to public ownership. A view quite understandable from those (like Cameron, Clegg and most of their pals) who own quite a lot.
Not so good in practice for all the rest of us. The workers by hand or by brain.
A fortnight ago I reported with incredulity the view of Gordon Brown that “only the private sector is efficient”.
This brought a robust response from one of this column’s more intelligent readers.
For fairly obvious reasons he wishes to remain anonymous. I can tell you only that he is Ipswich-based, works for a prominent local company, and that I agree with every word he says:
“As someone who has worked in the private sector for his entire adult life, I can assure you that the constant assertion of private sector efficiency is a complete myth.
“The idea that people or businesses fail if they are inefficient is complete hogwash. Every single company I have worked for, or contracted into, has been massively inefficient and wasteful.
“Incompetence is routinely rewarded and any suspicion of innovation or creativity stifled at birth.
“Most private companies are extremely risk-averse. Even supposedly high-tech companies (the area in which I earn my bread and butter) tend to be held back by managers who would rather be assured some new technique or technology is ‘proven’ before they consider an investment.
“The difference is that the vast profits to be made from the minority of ideas and products that succeed mask the hideous waste that’s going on behind the gloss and headlines.
“When you consider the level of service that much of the public sector continue to deliver, despite shrinking investment, it baffles me that politicians continue to get away with this lie.”

We’ll end up in the Browne stuff

THE headlines so far have mostly been about the high cost of education hanging over future students. And that is certainly bad enough.
But there are worse things lurking in the detail of Lord Browne’s review of university funding.
I predict trouble ahead if the government tries to implement it – as it surely will, because it fits Tory thinking so well.
At heart, Browne aims to end the notion of higher education as a public service and reduce it to the level of the free market.
Universities will cease to get government support and rely instead purely on fees.
Which courses are available will depend ultimately on “consumer choice”. In other words, on the unrealistic expectations and desires of 18-year-olds.
Not that I have anything against 18-year-olds. But anyone in need of education needs better guidance than comes from a profit-driven market.
And that’s before you even consider society’s need for scientists, engineers, doctors and the rest.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Gambler Osborne has fun at our expense

FOR months, ever since the coalition grabbed the reins of power, they’ve been building us up for this. I’ve never known a government spending review get so much pre-publicity.
It’s been a protracted softening-up campaign. Make us fear the worst, I thought, so they could look like good guys when it turned out not quite so bad after all.
But half a million lost jobs in public service is bad enough. More than bad enough.
A 25 per cent cut in public spending isn’t good housekeeping. It’s vandalism on a huge scale.
The theory is that the private sector will make up for it and more.
How is that, exactly?
Because lots of little Tories (or big ones) will gleefully grab the broken-off bits of public business and run them, not as a genuine service but for profit?
That’s long been a Tory dream, and everyone else’s nightmare. Or so I imagined.
It turns out to have been Nick Clegg’s dream all along too. Turns out he’s just as much a product of the grab-it-all-now Thatcher decade as his chum Cammers.
The sad irony is that even Gordon Brown, who ought to know better, was infected with the same virus.
According to Professor Allyson Pollock in her book NHS plc, Brown told her in 2002: “The public sector is bad at management, and … only the private sector is efficient and can manage services well.”
Is that why he had to bail out the banks? Because they’d been so well managed?
Is that why Network Rail had to be taken back into government ownership? Because private enterprise had been running it so efficiently?
“Public bad, private good” was the Big Lie of Thatcherism and it seems we’re all still suffering the after-effects. And now we have to suffer some more.
Which is not all the coalition’s fault. It was partly Brown who got us into this mess.
Firstly by allowing the bankers to run wild. Then by getting the rest of us to bail them out.
The idea that giving more power – not less – to self-interested private business is the way out is an insanity that threatens to dash us all much harder against the rocks.
For all the talk about having no choice, the government is actually taking one hell of a gamble.
By wielding a crashing great axe through public spending they risk devastating a lot of private businesses too.
Particularly the small ones, whose customers’ spending power will shrink as they lose jobs or benefits.
Whether the short-term pain will lead to any long-term gain is uncertain at best. I don’t know. And George Osborne certainly doesn’t know either.
Of course, it’s not his life he’s gambling with. It’s ours.
If it all goes horribly wrong it won’t leave rich kids Osborne, Cameron or Clegg jobless or penniless. More’s the pity.
They might be a little less cavalier about smashing things if they thought they might get hurt themselves in the wreckage.


THE LibDems like to talk green. Along with the mythical “fairness” Nick Clegg keeps banging on about, it’s their primary contribution to the coalition.
And it ought to be a hugely important contribution.
A little tough, then, on energy secretary Chris Huhne to have to announce the scrapping of plans for a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary that could have provided five per cent of Britain’s total energy needs entirely sustainably.
Especially as at the same time he announced eight sites – including Sizewell – where new nuclear plants could be built.
Huhne has in the past, for extremely good reasons, been opposed to nuclear power and in favour of genuinely renewable energy. Such as tidal power.
But it’s not all bad. For a start the list of nuclear sites is actually a retreat from the 11 previously named by Labour.
Secondly, without public subsidy it’s highly unlikely the new plants will actually be built.
And as for the Severn barrage, there were good reasons – aside from the £30billion cost – for setting it aside.
Environmental campaigners were always divided on the plan. And it would seem to make sense to try out the technology first by putting it to work somewhere else on a smaller scale.
If it were to prove itself across the Orwell, Deben and Blackwater estuaries, say, it would give us a clearer picture of how it might work in the Severn.
In fact, there’s a lot to be said for thinking small when it comes to power-generation.
The tidemill at Woodbridge was once cutting-edge technology. And there’s no good reason why it shouldn’t be applied again, with the benefit of improved techniques and materials, on tidal rivers throughout the land.


BEFORE the chancellor stood up, bookies were offering odds on how long he would speak for, how often he’d drink water while doing so, and how many times he’d use the word “cut”.
Apart from the opportunity that gave Osborne to make a bit on the side, doesn’t that tell you a lot about our society?
All trivia and gambling.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The joy of fungi

THERE’S something magical about fungi. Not just the ones known as magic mushrooms, but all of them.
And I don’t just mean the edible ones – though they can be truly special.
I’m not sure why we Brits are so shy of them. Maybe, as I’ve seen suggested, it goes back to a rupture in our national cooking habits at the time of the First World War.
Whatever the reason, we seem to have a phobia about wild food. Especially about mushrooms.
Hop across the Channel to France and you’ll find a variety of odd-looking specimens on market stalls.
Visit eastern Europe and you’ll see families trooping off into the woods with buckets to collect their favourites.
Here, meanwhile, there’s only one species commonly to be found on sale, unless you seek out an Oriental or Polish grocery.
And though pleasant enough, the common field mushroom – to many people the only type that gets called “mushroom” at all – is neither the tastiest nor the most nutritious out there.
Of course, you have to be careful. But knowing what you’re doing isn’t that hard if you care enough to get the right books, and err on the side of caution.
And I do mean caution. I don’t want any sick or dying readers on my conscience, thank you very much.
Many guides recommend learning how to recognise the few really deadly species so you can avoid them. Others suggest getting to know four or five of the commoner and nicer edible ones and sticking to those.
Both are sound advice.
There are pitfalls, of course.
A couple of years ago author Nicholas Evans, of Horse Whisperer fame, went gathering mushrooms in Scotland with his wife.
He thought she knew a tasty chanterelle when she saw one. She thought he did.
Result, one basket full of cortinarius speciosissimus, alias deadly webcap. Which, frankly, doesn’t look a lot like chanterelle at all. They should have known better.
Further result, both Evanses, his brother and sister-in-law are on daily dialysis while awaiting kidney transplants. They are lucky to be alive – and especially lucky that their children refused the feast.
Their experience may have added to the popular distrust of mushrooms gathered from anywhere but the supermarket shelf.
But the real lesson is about the value of knowing – really knowing – what you’re doing.
Which I reckon applies to just about anything in life that’s worth doing at all.
And it would be a shame if the amazing bounty of this autumn were to be wasted.
I wrote three weeks ago about the proliferation of fungi, especially parasol mushrooms.
Well, it certainly hasn’t diminished since then. In fact, the best season of my life for wild mushrooms just goes on getting better.
You must have noticed. Go for a walk anywhere that isn’t concreted over and the things are everywhere.
Most, frankly, I can’t identify – or not with the necessary confidence. I still find their sudden and rampant appearance magical.
But there plenty I can put a name to. And a few I’m happy to put on my plate.


The three wild mushrooms pictured here were all photographed by me in Suffolk this week, all within a shortish walk of my home.
One my mother and I enjoyed on toast. One would have killed us if we’d tried. And the other… well, the other’s perhaps the most fascinating of all.
You might recognise the parasol (picture A). Large, unmistakable, delicious. And fabulously common this year.
(At least round here. A former Evening Star colleague now living in Yorkshire tells me there are none to be found up there. He has, though, enjoyed large quantities of ceps, the most unmistakable of all edible mushrooms, while I’ve found only a couple of poor specimens here.)
You might not immediately identify the killer. It’s the little off-white fellow, picture B.
The name death cap tells you everything really. Along with the destroying angel (similar to the parasol, but white and without the scales), it’s said to be responsible for more than 90 per cent of all fatal fungus poisonings.
My father taught me to avoid anything with white gills. That would certainly save you from a fatal error with death cap or destroying angel – but would also deny you the pleasure of the parasol.
The most picturesque fungus of all (picture C) is the fly agaric, or amanita muscaria. The classic toadstool, much beloved of elves, pixies and children’s illustrators.
Though once listed as deadly, it is not known for certain to have been responsible for a single death.
It is famous for hallucinogenic highs, though I wouldn’t try it. Partly because the effective dose is highly unpredictable. And partly because the risk of a “bad trip”, possibly with long-lasting flashbacks, is simply not worth it.
It was, apparently, used by tribes in Siberia, and perhaps elsewhere, as an “entheogenic” drug – one that creates a religious trance.
The latest advice is that it is edible, so long as you boil it first to get rid of the toxins (and make sure you throw away the water).
Personally, I wouldn’t try that either. Maybe just because of the look of it.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Red George enjoys a joke with brother Vince

GEORGE OSBORNE made a joke. Quite a good joke, in fact.
It came towards the end of a rousing, but otherwise laughless speech to the Tory conference in Birmingham.
“Vince Cable and I will do this together,” he said.
“People said we wouldn’t get on. That we’d trade cruel nicknames. That we would knife each other in the back. That we’d try to end each others’ careers.
“Who do they think we are? Brothers?”
Osborne isn’t a natural stand-up. The gag, I’m sure, was not his own.
For all I know, though, he may have written most of the speech himself. And apart from a lot of weary and mostly unfair attacks on past Labour governments, it was a surprisingly good speech.
Surprising, most of all, in that I found myself agreeing with much of it.
“Britain,” said the chancellor, “has no divine right to be one of the richest countries in the world.”
That may be stating the bleeding obvious, but it has a refreshing ring of truth and honesty about it. Coming from a Tory.
He spoke of bringing common sense to health and safety.
About time someone did. Though much depends, I suppose, on what he means by “common sense”.
Then he picked out what he considers his and Cable’s achievements so far: “Council tax frozen. Income tax thresholds raised for millions. And 800,000 people lifted out of tax altogether, with more to come.”
The right-wing goon was starting to sound almost socialist.
And he said another thing I couldn’t disagree with.
“If we don’t improve our education,” he said – “for everyone, our country will become more unequal, more unfair, less prosperous.”
Spot-on, George.
Trouble is, what you and your cronies consider “improvement” looks to the rest of us a whole lot like a wrecking-ball.
When medical students face a personal debt of £100,000 before they even start practising, something must be wrong somewhere.
And I have grave misgivings about Iain Duncan Smith being put in charge of what he promises will be the biggest reform of the welfare system since 1946, when most of it was established.
There’s no doubt reform is overdue in a system that has grown ferociously tangled and complex. But if there are to be £194billion of savings, there are bound to be a lot of losers – especially among those who can least afford to lose.
Mind you, the dismay in the Tory press about cuts to child benefit has been richly amusing. (Quote from ‘a Whitehall source’: “We will be looking at what qualifies as a child.”)
Yes, the plan is unfair. And yes, it will hit working single mums. Those who earn more than £40,000.
As Osborne put it: “It’s very difficult to justify taxing people on low incomes to pay for the child benefit of those earning so much more than them.”
Right again, George. Frankly, that sounds a bit like socialism too.
Then there’s been the row within the government itself over a 20 per cent cut in the defence budget.
Actually, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing – either the cut or the row.
The bad thing is the “promise” to America to retain our phenomenally expensive, outdated and almost wholly pointless nuclear “deterrent”. The finger on the button of which, incidentally, is American, not British.
If we’re going to go on pouring billions into defence it seems a bit wonky to keep the big gun while depriving the ground forces of resources.
It seems strange too to see the party that always bigged up on law and order threatening police forces with budget cuts of up to 25pc.
The Met are proposing to meet it by getting new recruits to serve two years as “specials”.
In other words, to work unpaid for two years before going on the pay-roll.
Which sounds like a dangerous precedent for us all.
But then, as the Tories never tire of reminding us, we are in a time of austerity.
As Osborne also said: “You don’t get to choose the times in which you live – but you do get to choose how you live in them.”
Another platitude, but another that’s perhaps worth repeating and pondering.
I didn’t choose – and the majority of the British people didn’t choose – to live through this time under a Tory government.
And each time they speak of cuts, I keep remembering the business manager I overheard a year or two back.
The man responsible for making others redundant who grinned and said: “You can’t let a good crisis go to waste.”
The economic trouble we – and the rest of the developed capitalist world – are in is just the opportunity the Tories have been waiting for.
The opportunity to take an axe to the state and its dependents.
While, incidentally, allowing their old pals the bankers, who made the mess, to go on drawing billions in “bonuses”.
In what was meant as a final stab at Labour, Osborne spoke of “the national interest or the vested interests”.
He added: “I know which side we’re on.”
So do I, George. And it’s not the one you pretend it is.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Middle for diddle as Cameron tops the class

IN 1919 my grandmother wrote to her sister: “I don’t think that there is any other country where class differences are felt so much as in England.”
Considering she had just arrived here after fleeing the post-revolution civil war in Russia, that is some statement.
In fact, divisions between the haves and have-nots, the working-class and the gentry, the landowner and the serf, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – define the classes how you will – have always been intrinsic to every society.
Social justice – or lack of it – has always been crucial in politics everywhere.
Which is why I applaud Ed Miliband’s insistent use of the term in Manchester this week.
And why I was gobsmacked to read a respected Tory columnist, Matthew Parris, describing David Cameron as “middle class”.
OK, he used the expression, “upper-middle-class” (complete with all those upper middle class hyphens).
But if Cameron is at the upper end, where on earth is the middle middle? And how much room is left above him for the upper class?
I grew up thinking of myself as middle class.
I went to the village primary school, a state grammar school and finally a comprehensive, where I was the first pupil to go on to university.
David Cameron went to the same prep school as princes Andrew and Edward. From there he followed his father and brother to Eton, the most famous fee-paying school in the world and still the chief bastion of British privilege.
His time at Oxford was marked by his membership of posh, right-wing, boisterous – and very expensive – “drinking clubs”.
He probably never saw inside the kind of dark, poky former servants’ quarters that I inhabited at the other place.
Cameron is a direct descendant of King William IV. His family tree is heavy with baronets, dukes, countesses and viscounts. Most of its non-titled fruit (and some of the knights) seem to have been bankers or stockbrokers.
At birth, Cameron had more dosh than I am likely to earn in the whole of my life. Many times over.
If we’re both in the middle, it’s a darned broad middle.
Cameron’s inherited wealth makes his “magnanimous” decision to forego some of his prime-ministerial pay packet a pretty pointless, empty gesture.
And makes you wonder where the axe will cut most deeply in the coming spending review.
Presumably it’s the middle classes who will take the heaviest hit.
It has to be. Because if Cameron’s in the middle, and “middle” extends as far below the centre line as it apparently does above it, then we’re all middle class. Except maybe the Royal Family.
Something tells me, though, that the upper middle won’t feel the pain as much as the middle middle, the lower middle middle, or the bottom middle.


IT’S not that long ago – post-Chernobyl, post-Three Mile Island, post-Windscale – that nuclear power had a bad name for environmental disasters.
These days you’ll often hear it touted as a solution to the problem of high energy demand, disappearing resources and climate change.
So how have the experts managed to solve the safety issues? How have they settled the question of storing up major disasters for future generations?
They haven’t.
A big, lucrative industry has simply bought better PR.
I heard a news presenter talking cheerily the other day about supposedly “green” nuclear power “saving the world”.
There’s some sense in that.
The same sense as there is in curing someone of cancer by shooting them dead.


“LET’S start to have a grown-up debate in this country about who we are and where we want to go and what kind of country we want to leave for our kids.”
“The focus groups will tell you that there’s no votes in green issues. Maybe not.
“But taking the difficult steps to protect our planet for future generations is the greatest challenge our generation faces.”
Good words, Ed. In fact, I thought the new leader’s first speech to the Labour conference was full of fine words.
It was a lot better overall than any individual soundbites you may have heard on the news. As, in fact, the speeches of almost every Labour leader apart from Tony Blair usually have been.
I wasn’t so keen on Jack Straw ending his 30 years on the front bench by looking forward to “a Labour victory in 2015”.
I hope Ed’s chance to take charge comes much sooner than that, and that he’s ready when it does.
The Tory-Tory coalition can do an awful lot of damage in five years.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Cable’s excuses should make interesting history

IS it just me getting older, or does the present really move more and more rapidly into history?
The Labour Party had not yet chosen its future direction before the shelves were groaning with self-justifying tomes laying bare the inner secrets of the New Labour Project.
Let’s hope we don’t have to wait long for the present government to be history.
For the publication of the diaries that will reveal the rivalries, hatreds and failures at its core.
When that happens, surely the most interesting will be those of Vince Cable.
It will be fascinating to learn how a man whose speeches and public statements are mostly so sound can reconcile himself to a role in such a radical government. One with principles and ideals so radically unlike his own.
How a man who rightly speaks out against “short-term investors looking for a speculative killing”, who rightly condemns big bankers’ bonuses, can bring himself to serve in a government committed to punishing ordinary people for the bankers’ sins.
He will say that as business secretary he is in a position to counter the rigging of markets, to battle for the rights and survival of small businesses against the aggression of the corporate big beasts.
He may nod in agreement with one carefully anonymous “senior Lib Dem” who said this week: “Capitalism left to its own devices just creates monopolies which work against the interests of consumers and inflict severe damage on the wider economy.”
And he may say he’s in his job to try to ensure capitalism isn’t left to its own devices.
But the bottom line is that by being in coalition with the Tories, he and his party are enabling the swinging of the Tory axe.
The rapid and savage dismantling of the state education system.
The demolition of local government as a provider of vital services.
The giving away of the family silver – to use Harold Macmillan’s resonant phrase – to the very capitalists Cable would like to control.
As if cash-driven private enterprise were somehow more controllable than the employees of a democratically elected council.
We’ve heard a lot since May, and we’ve heard it a lot this conference week, that the LibDems had “no alternative” to joining the coalition.
Of course they had a choice. They still have one.
I can understand that they might not have wanted to prop up the ailing remnants of a Gordon Brown government.
It would certainly have been a difficult act to pull off. And I can understand that some among the Labour leadership itself had no desire for a Lib-Lab pact.
For Labour, in fact, a (hopefully short) period in opposition to purge themselves and pick a new leader was probably the best course open.
For the LibDems the proper, most honourable, thing to do would have been to tell Cameron and his crew: “Fine. Form a minority government. Just don’t count on our support to push through cuts or measures we don’t approve of.”
Sadly, it seems the allure of power – even partial, largely illusory power – proved stronger.
Another thing we heard a lot was the argument that “the markets” demanded strong government.
So when did “the markets” – i.e. unfettered capitalism – take precedence in a supposed democracy over the electorate?
Most of whom didn’t vote for a neo-Thatcherite asset-stripping of the nation.
Nick Clegg I think I understand. He is Cameron-lite, a natural ally of a similarly tailored public-school chum. I’m sure he feels right at home playing governments.
Cable’s involvement is harder to fathom.
Which is why, self-justifying and probably smug as they will no doubt be, his diaries or memoirs will surely cast light on the whole present grubby business.
I just hope he’s in a position to release them soon.


LABOUR will announce tomorrow the name of its new leader. Hopefully, the next prime minister.
Boy, do I hope the party in its collective wisdom has made the right choice.
I hope it’s Ed Miliband. I think.
It’s a flaw in democracy that you can never tell quite what a leader will be like in power until you’ve put them there. For now we can only judge on what we’ve seen or heard so far.
David Miliband, on the face of it, might be the man most likely to lure voters away from the ConDem experiment. But do we really want Blair II?
Brother Ed is certainly not the left-winger the shallow media would have you believe. But he might be the best available compromise between sound principles and electability.


THE blackberries were a little late this year, but we’ve certainly got a fine crop now.
The most striking thing about this autumn so far, though, has been the amazing proliferation of wild fungi.
My field guide tells me parasol mushrooms are uncommon. Not round here, they’re not. Not right now. They’ve even sprung up on the verge in Tuddenham Road.
I’ve never seen so many. And I’ve never tasted better.
Just make sure, if you’re thinking of enjoying this bounty of nature, that you know exactly what you’re picking. It can be the difference between a good meal and a bad death.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Bulldog spirit – history’s unlearned lesson

IT’S often remarked that the very existence of the state of Israel is down to Hitler.
It’s not actually true, or at least it’s not the whole of the story.
Zionism – the Jewish movement for a homeland in Palestine – dates back to the Russian pogroms of the 1880s.
The Balfour Declaration, in which the British government promised (as if it was up to them) “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, was made in 1917.
Whichever way you look at it, though, there is some truth in the idea that the survival of a distinct Jewish identity – and the existence of Israel – is largely due to anti-Semitism.
If it hadn’t been for anti-Jewish laws and ghettoes, the Jews would have been assimilated into the wider European culture long ago. Or so the theory goes, and I mostly believe it.
But this column isn’t really about Israel or the Jews. It’s about siege mentality and how it forges unity and community.
If Hitler thought that by bombing London and other British cities night after night he could destroy British morale, he could hardly have been more wrong. Shared peril brought the people together.
Interestingly, German survivors of the Allied bombing of Berlin say much the same thing – even though Berlin suffered far heavier destruction than London did.
(Hamburg and Dresden fared even worse, with more deaths in just two raids in 1943 and 1945 than in all the attacks on Britain put together.)
Like Warsaw before it, and other cities across Europe later, London in 1940 became a place where air-raids, flattened buildings, bomb-craters, broken glass, rubble and fire were commonplace.
My parents married in 1944 in a landmark London church that had been firebombed just days earlier. The roof was open to the sky and cinders from its remains tinkled down on the wedding party as they exchanged their vows.
It’s a romantic image I was raised with.
Other familiar anecdotes are either comic or tell of miraculous escapes. Or both.
Like the woman found unharmed in her bath, supported precariously in mid-air by the surviving sturdy plumbing in her bombed home.
Or the man located in the rubble by the sound of his laughter: “I pulled the chain and the house fell down!”
Those are the tales my father told, not any of the ghastlier things he must surely have witnessed as a London fireman.
All contribute to the same picture – the common one of never-say-die spirit. The “British bulldog” attitude that was no doubt part-propaganda, but part reality – and which still forms part of the way we think of ourselves.
The blitzed or besieged city is, almost inevitably, a “hero city”. And there are starker examples of that than London.
No one in London, as far as I’m aware, froze to death trying to find precious water.
Or boiled leather boots and book-covers for food.
Or stripped paper from the walls to eat the glue.
Or ate the starved corpses of neighbours or family, after all the birds, rats and pets had gone.
All of those horrors were part of life in besieged Leningrad between September 1941 and January ’44.
Leningrad, where 15 times as many civilians died as in the whole of Britain – not to mention 1.5million Russian soldiers – was the hero city to end all hero cities.
The theory is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and in a sense I’m sure it’s true.
Ireland would surely not still be such a strongly Catholic land had it not endured centuries of anti-Catholic oppression by England.
The war in Iraq, supposedly integral to the “war on terror”, has made Al-Qaeda strong in a country where it barely existed before.
And the ghetto-isation of Palestinian Arabs is Israel’s worst and most abiding mistake. As if the Jews – at least that tiny proportion of Jews who constitute Israel’s establishment – had learned nothing from their own grim history.


I HAD to check the calendar to make sure I hadn’t over-slept severely and woken up on April 1.
Did the news really say Tony Blair had been awarded a medal for “conflict resolution”?
Surely not the same Tony Blair who only last week was ducking out of book signings in fear of a few anti-war protestors? Yet who refused to duck out of starting an actual war despite the protests of millions?
The same Tony Blair who aided and abetted America’s shabbiest president in invading a foreign country on a false pretext, causing upwards of 100,000 deaths, destabilising the Middle East, increasing radicalism around the world and with it the risk of terrorism?
A man so monstrously self-centred that in his new book he explains his decision with the words: “To me, the only meaning was in being true to myself.”
As if he hadn’t been elected to represent the rest of us.
A medal for a man many would like to see facing a war-crimes trial?
The award of last year’s Liberty Medal to a Hollywood movie-maker was odd enough. But if I were Steven Spielberg I’d be thinking now of giving my own gong back.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Free schools? It's all the others that have to pay

I’M pleased for Clare that it should get a new high school when the middle school closes in 2013.
I hope the proposed Stour Valley Community School turns out to be a good school. There seems to be no reason it won’t be.
As with any school, a lot will depend on the appointment of a good head. Perhaps even more in this case, since they’ll be starting from scratch with the recruitment of an entire staff.
I wish them well.
I wish more that the middle school – whose buildings the new establishment aims to take over – had not been placed under the axe.
Given, though, that Suffolk is unhappily set on scrapping the three-tier schools system, I understand people in Clare wanting to keep post-11 schooling in the town.
The Clare proposal was the only one in Suffolk among the 16 new “free schools” announced with a fanfare this week by education secretary Michael Gove.
Sixteen. Hardly seems worth all the fuss, does it?
Hardly worth the great noise with which the Tories trumpeted “free schools” as their Big Idea.
Or the unseemly haste with which the ConDem government rushed to get their changes under way.
Most of all, not worth the callous scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future project.
Sixteen new “free schools” isn’t much compensation for the 715 school revamps Gove hurried to cancel, leaving pupils and staff throughout the country in dilapidated premises that had been due for rebuilding.
I don’t suppose the privately-educated Gove knows much about life in collapsing comprehensives. Or cares.
The venue he chose to announce the brave 16 was Westminster Academy in west London. It is a comprehensive, but hardly a typical one.
Founded only in 2006, it moved in 2007 into a new “state-of-the-art” building. How some of our shabbier schools – especially those slung up in the 1960s – could use some of the tens of millions spent on it.
But that, of course, is part of the point of the academies – both those established under Tony Blair’s mis-government and those to come under Gove and co.
David Hudson, a headteacher in Rotherham, put the case against academies very well this week.
He said: “If we were to become an academy, it would in essence take money and resources from all the other Rotherham schools and schools across the nation and simply give it to us.
“I am head of an outstanding, high-performing school. I’m already doing very nicely, thank you very much, so why give me extra money at the expense of other schools that need it?”
Good on him – and on all those other heads of outstanding schools, including Farlingaye High in Woodbridge, that have taken the same principled stand.
Support for both the “free schools” and academies came this week from an interesting source.
The Confederation of British Industry (sometimes referred to as the bosses’ union) wants the “free schools” programme extended to allow profit-making companies to join.
The CBI predictably talks about “value for money”, then adds: “Government must open up services to competition and in the case of free schools, allow profit-making companies to be involved.”
Which sounds to me like what it was really about all along – what privatisation is always about.
Never mind the quality, feel the profit.


TWO things shocked me among all the sordid tale of Wayne Rooney’s extra-marital shenanigans.
The world, we are told, is awash with young women eager to give their bodies to famous footballers. Yet here is Wazza, probably the most famous of the lot right now, feeling he has to pay for sex.
Shock two is worse.
It wasn’t the revelation that he paid £200 for a packet of 20 Marlboro. Hell, what’s £200 to a man paid a reputed £120,000 a week?
But what on earth is a bloke who gets that sort of dosh to keep himself fit doing buying cigs at any price?


“I WAS running down the middle of the road where there wasn’t quite so much broken glass, and a man came running from a side street and joined me.
“We were running side-by-side towards the fire, which I thought might be my home. I said: ‘Good evening.’ And he said: ‘Good evening.’
“Then he said: ‘I just came out of my house and it fell down around me.’
“ ‘Oh, I am so sorry,’ said I. ‘Oh well, goodbye’ – because our ways parted again. It was just as matter-of-fact as that.”
The words are those of my mother, then resident in London. And of course she was recalling the Blitz – which, as you may have noticed, began 70 years ago this week.
If nothing else, that one episode reveals how far Hitler failed in his aim to destroy British morale.
In fact, all these decades later, the “Blitz spirit” is still very much part of how we define our Britishness.
And I’ll be sharing more thoughts on that in this column next week.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Handkerchief, magnet and spanner

I NEVER knew my grandfather. Like so many, I was deprived of that privilege by Hitler.
And arguably, in my particular case, by the rigidity of the Royal Navy and obtuseness of one medical officer.
A studio portrait, taken in May 1922, of Clive and Vera Semmens with their infant son George (my father)There were special circumstances. Perhaps, when one looks at individual cases, circumstances are always special.
Growing up, I was only dimly aware my grandfather had ever existed. Now, through that curious way things have of trickling down through families, I have hundreds of photos he took, dating back to 1912.
No doubt it is from him, via my father, that I inherited my fascination with photography.
As a child I knew the photos, not by him but of him, that hung on my grandmother’s walls.
The one of him probably about 30, already a little gaunt, in naval uniform. The other elderly, grey-haired, in the vegetable garden behind their little terraced house in London.
Elderly? He was two years younger when he died than I am now.
But that was already a lot older than most of the men who were sent to war.
Clive Semmens was 50, and newly toothless, when he was called up in 1939.
This I have learned only now, through acquiring a handful of old pocket diaries – his and my grandmother’s.
The waterfront in Shanghai, taken by Clive Semmens from the rail of HMS Emerald in about 1924Mostly they record only such mundane things as meetings, lists of letters sent and received, rent paid, vegetables planted.
In his case there are also times of sailings – “Weighed anchor Gibraltar 10.30” or “Anchored Shanghai 5.10a.m.”
One day in 1926 he notes: “Tried to get to Stamboul.”
The following day he records: “Got to Stamboul.” There is no note of what he made of the place (now known as Istanbul), though I have a dozen photos he took there (including the one below) – as I have of Gibraltar, Shanghai and many other exotic places.
It was in 1905, as a 16-year-old, that he followed his two elder brothers into the Navy.
The Hagia Sofia mosque in Stamboul (Constantinople), pictured by Clive Semmens in 1914Though he never conquered his sea-sickness, and always refused his rum ration, he remained in service up to 1929 in the engine-room of successive vessels.
But it is my grandmother’s diaries for 1939 and 1940 that have shed a new and poignant ray of light.

“Saturday, August 19, 1939: Clive’s holidays started.

“Tuesday 22: Went by car to Rustington. Picked some sloes and blackberries on the way. Lovely weather.

Boy artificer Clive Semmens in his first naval uniform at age 16 in 1905
“Wednesday 23: Clive received a telegram recalling him to barracks owing to international situation. Has to rejoin by noon tomorrow. Clive had the last tooth out.

"Thursday 24: Clive left home 8am to join the barracks. With his mouth still bleeding and not a tooth in his mouth he is passed as dentally fit and sent to a destroyer the same night!”

It was ten years since he had completed 24 years in the Navy, including active service throughout the First World War (pic below). Now, after a decade in civvy street as a radio engineer, he was back below decks as a “naval pensioner under 55”.

For the first few months of war he was on almost constant patrol in the Channel, escorting troop ships and clearing mines.
By an odd chance, he was home on his first leave at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation. The diary for these days includes more mundane detail than at almost any other time.
A naval engagement - or more likely exercises - hot at sea by my grandfather, Clive Semmens, from the deck of his vessel during the First World War

“Thursday, May 16, 1940: Clive’s leave started at noon; left Chatham 1.30pm, arrived home, after shopping in Greenford, about 4.30.

“Friday 17: Clive planted two rows haricot beans, one blackcurrant, 12 celery plants. Went to do shopping in the car.

“Sunday 19: Windy, warm, sunshine all day. Planted out one marrow, four cucumbers. Clive worked all day in the garden.

“Tuesday 21: Bright, sunny but windy. Went for a ride to Burnham beeches in the afternoon, had picnic tea there.

“Monday 27: Helped Clive to earth up the air raid shelter.

“Tuesday 28: Spent a few hours in the garden with Clive. Last day of his leave. Position very serious.

“Wednesday 29: Clive went back to his ship. I went to the station with him. Fine at first, clouds gathering in the afternoon. Late in the afternoon thunderstorm. Washed, dried and ironed.

“Friday June 7: Letter from Clive. Posted one to him.

“Sunday 9: Heaviest thunderstorm of the season. First of own strawberries for dinner. After the rain air raid shelter has several inches of water.

“Monday 10: Baled water out of the air raid shelter, hoed the onions.”

Added later in different ink: “Clive’s ship bombed off Le Havre, two bombs explode in the Engine Room. Clive injured.

“Tuesday 11: 8.30p.m. Telegram informing of Clive having been injured on war service.

“Wednesday 12: 4.15p.m received telegram informing of his having been admitted to Haslar Royal Naval Hospital, Gosport, seriously ill with injuries. Left at once for Gosport, arrived there about 9pm and told he is dead.

“Saturday 15: Clive buried at Gosport Naval Hospital at 11am with Naval Honours. Dorothy and Jim came, by car. Sis and Percy arrived just in time for the funeral. From a talk with the lieutenant of his ship I found Clive was conscious after the explosion.

“Wednesday, August 7: Received from Haslar Hospital Clive’s last-minute things – dentures, matches, cigarettes, handkerchief, magnet and spanner.”

Friday, 27 August 2010

Sport's alpha males and the law of the jungle

SO Tiger Woods is now divorced. No great surprise there, surely.
The real question is: So what?
I can see it may be a vital issue to Woods, his ex-wife, their children and maybe a few close friends and family. But to you and me?
Personally, I’ve never met the man. And I don’t suppose you have either. So his divorce is, frankly, none of our business.
Neither, really, are the sexual antics (whether actual or merely alleged) of all those footballers whose names neither I, nor various national newspapers, can reveal.
I can’t reveal them because I don’t know them (though I’ve heard a few salacious hints and rumours).
The papers can’t because of a growing list of injunctions and legal threats preventing them from telling us what they know.
And that’s where I get a bit queasy about it.
Not at the sex part, but all the legal bits.
It might not matter much to me that “a married England star” has been cheating on his wife.
I can understand that he might want to keep his extra-marital affairs private – especially if he hasn’t fessed up to his wife.
Even more so, perhaps, if he has a lucrative sponsorship deal or two that rely on him retaining a squeaky-clean public image.
If or when the story does appear, part of me may take some prurient enjoyment in reading the smutty details. A bigger part will probably yawn and turn away from yet another tedious tale of an alpha male behaving as alpha males do.
It’s hardly news that famous, over-paid, physically fit young men should attract a lot of amorous female attention. Or that sometimes they might succumb to that flattering attention.
Let’s look at it in terms of evolution. There’s an obvious imperative for the fittest males to sow their seed as widely as possible.
Meanwhile, in many species – including the human – there’s a competing imperative for the female to keep her male to herself and enlist him in the process of rearing their offspring safely to maturity.
Hence marriage. And hence divorce.
That may be a cynical view, and it’s certainly a very limited one. We humans, even the simplest among us, are a complicated species. We’re made more complicated by things like society and morals.
But however much we dress it up, basic evolutionary drives are never really that far below the surface.
Woods has merely been behaving as tigers do (though I couldn’t say whether his kind of oh-naughty-me hypocrisy has any part in jungle lore).
The same goes for all those “soccer cheats” who have been caught – allegedly – with their shorts down.
Sex goes on before, after, in and out of marriage. We all know that. Does it really matter who does it with whom, so long as it’s purely between consenting adults?
Do we need to know? Probably not.
But the use of heavy-handed, and extremely expensive, legal instruments to keep us in the dark is a worrying trend.
And not only because it’s a weapon that’s only available to the very rich.
On current count, there’s more than half a team of Premier League players who have taken legal action to prevent us hearing about their away games. Others have had their gambling habit hushed up.
With so much of British law being based on precedent, it adds up in practice to a privacy law.
A law brought in by the back door – rather like the antics whose perpetrators it protects.
Its purpose is the preservation of reputations that arguably don’t deserve preserving.
One of its (presumably unintended) effects is to besmirch the reputation of ALL top-level footballers.
If I were one of those many players whose lives are beyond reproach I wouldn’t be too pleased to have my reputation dirtied by association and suspicion.
Come to think of it, on that basis I wouldn’t much care to be a footballer’s wife, either.
The few I’ve met didn’t seem to deserve what has become their collective reputation.


MY O- and A-level results looked pretty good at the time. Good enough, as it turned out, to get me into one of the supposedly “top” universities.
Put them alongside the latest batch, though, and they’d look distinctly average.
This week’s GCSE results showed that 22.6 per cent of papers were graded A or A* – one percentage point up on last year.
Almost three times as many pupils got top grades as when the exams were introduced in 1988.
Last week we heard that A-level grades were up for the 28th straight year.
Does this really mean our kids are getting brighter, working harder, being better taught, every year?
Or is mere inflation at work here, steadily devaluing the educational achievements of all of us who went before?
And, incidentally, unrealistically levelling out this year’s crop too, undermining the best and hardest-working.
Today’s sixth-formers are expected to go on to university, yet know that even a fistful of A grades won’t guarantee them the place they want.
I don’t believe they’re cleverer than we were. But I wouldn’t mind betting they’re more stressed.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Why animal testing isn't humanly acceptable

I HOPE Ben Gummer is ashamed of himself. If he isn’t, he should be.
In the run-up to the general election, hundreds of candidates were contacted by the Safer Medicines Trust.
Of the 64 who troubled to reply, 63 supported the trust’s campaign. The only one opposed to it was Gummer, who is now the MP for Ipswich.
Young Ben may have seen red at the very name of Tony Benn at the top of the campaign’s literature.
He may even have suffered an allergic reaction to Benn’s fellow patron, Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party and now its one MP.
If he’d bothered to read down, though, he’d have seen support from all shades of the political spectrum. And, more pertinently, a wealth of scientific and medical support for the campaign against animal-testing of new drugs.
Not on anti-vivisectionist moral grounds – though I’d say those are pretty strong too – but because animal-testing is bad medicine. Very, very bad medicine.
The arthritis drug Vioxx has now been withdrawn. But not before it caused hundreds of thousands of heart attacks and strokes in people it had been prescribed to.
Vioxx had been thoroughly tested on animals. Results from those tests had led to the claim that it was actually good for the heart.
For the mouse heart, the rabbit heart, the monkey heart, maybe. For the human heart it was a huge disaster.
Current British law doesn’t just allow new drugs to be tested on animals. It insists on it.
The requirement was put in place in 1968 after the thalidomide disaster, in which a prescribed sedative led to thousands of babies being born with a variety of physical deformities. Of about 2,000 born in the UK, 466 survived (including actor Mat Fraser, the third SMT patron).
Ironically, thalidomide itself had passed a variety of animal tests, and probably still would.
A study two years ago revealed that a million people a year in Britain need hospital treatment for problems caused by prescribed drugs. That’s a lot of pain and trouble, as well as a £2billion annual bill.
And it’s not just cash and discomfort. It’s a matter very much of life and death.
The number of people killed by Vioxx has been put at 140,000. And that, though it may be the worst, is only one example.
Staggeringly, reaction to prescription medicines is now listed as the fourth highest cause of death in the western world.
And all those prescribed killers were tested on animals before being administered to humans.
The easiest conclusion to draw is that the only animal you can use for accurate testing of a drug’s effect on humans is a human.
But how safe is that?
Remember those six young men who nearly died in 2006 after being human guinea-pigs in tests for a new anti-inflammatory drug?
It didn’t help that the drug had earlier proved perfectly safe – for monkeys.
Science and technology has moved on since 1968, particularly in the field of human biology.
It’s no longer necessary to endanger actual humans to see how they will react to drugs.
Computer modelling, microdosing, DNA “chips” and human tissue, from individual cells to surgical “waste”, all provide safe, more reliable ways of testing drugs than trying them out on other creatures.
The Safer Medicines Trust is not – yet – calling for animal-testing to be banned. What the campaigners want first is a proper independent comparison between the new technologies and the old methods.
Between advances in human biology and inhumane, irrelevant, and potentially fatally misleading testing on animals.
That is what will be called for by the cross-party private member’s Safety of Medicines Bill, first put to Parliament last month and due for its second reading in October.
MP David Amess, who proposed the Bill, said: “If replacing animal tests could benefit drug safety, who could fail to be happy?”
Ben Gummer, apparently. A man who, as author of a book on the Black Death, ought to have some insight into death, disease and how ignorance can compound them.
David Amess – Mr Gummer, please note – is the Conservative MP for Southend West.


How Wayne Rooney gets ahead in maths

YOU might not have guessed it from the World Cup (or from Monday’s performance against Newcastle), but Wayne Rooney is supposed to be good with his head.
According to Marcus du Sautoy, each time he goes to meet a cross into the opposition penalty-area, Rooney rapidly solves the quadratic equation x=b+√b2-4ac/2a in order to meet the flight of the ball.
Maybe that’s what went wrong with Wazza in South Africa. Perhaps he read Professor Du Sautoy’s book The Number Mysteries. Since when his head has been full of maths instead of instinct whenever he’s tried to redirect a ball with it.
It might be an interesting question whether Oxford egghead Du Sautoy is better at football than Rooney is at maths, or vice versa.
Or indeed whether The Number Mysteries (or Num8er My5steries as it appears on the horrible cover), though undoubtedly better written, will ever catch Rooney’s wittily titled My Story in the graph of figures for sales.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Nation - an idea that's dominated history

THE past, they say, is another country. But why must so much written history have national boundaries imposed upon it?
A quick glance along my bookshelves reveals such titles as The English, Elizabeth’s England, The Black Death in England, Gothic England, English Social History, The English Abbey, A History of English Architecture, The Earliest English, England in the Age of Thomas More, various volumes from a series called simply English History, and another entitled History of England.
Then there’s Britain BC, Blood of the British, British Prehistory, Britain in the Middle Ages, The Isles (you needn’t guess which isles are referred to) and, by way of slight variation, India Britannica.
That’s a selective sample, of course, but I think you’ll see a pattern emerging. And I’m no little-Englander.
If it’s true (and of course it is) that history is written by the winners, what do such titles tell you?
Not that it’s England, or Britain, that’s victorious in the world. I have other books bearing the names of Ireland, Russia, the Jews, the Roman Empire.
The true, overall winner is simply the idea of the nation.
Not just this nation, but any nation. In nearly every case (the Jews, until recently, and the Gypsies being the major exceptions), a people associated with a particular territory.
It’s a concept so deeply ingrained that most of us, nearly all the time, take it for granted.
An idea we almost never question. But it is only an idea.
History needn’t be defined along such geographical or tribal lines. It just nearly always is.
Yet the world hasn’t always been divided entirely – as if naturally – into countries, with borders and frontier security. It only looks that way to us now.
It may be relatively easy for us in Britain, surrounded as we are by sea, to imagine our territory, and our nation, as fixed.
But look at all those book titles with the words “England” or “English”. What place do the Scots, or the Welsh, have in that history?
And what of Ireland, divided as it is between independence and subservience to its neighbour?
What about all those people who live in Britain but retain a strong link with a heritage elsewhere?
Or those – vastly more numerous – who live in other lands but have British heritage? All those many millions Winston Churchill tried to scoop up in his History of the English Speaking Peoples (another title on my shelf).
On the mainland, of Europe or any other continent, the picture gets rapidly more blurred.
Consider that territory which in the past 100 years has been successively Russian, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Russian again, German again, Soviet Russian and is now independent Lithuania.
Today it’s a tiny country, but once it ruled part of what is now Poland, a large slab of what’s now Russia, and all of present-day Belarus and Ukraine.
Should any written history of Lithuania consider all the lands it once contained, or only the small area it denotes now? Or should its focus keep widening and narrowing as it moves through the centuries?
Some of my ancestors grew up in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, considering themselves Russian, speaking Russian. The Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz was raised there as a Pole, speaking Polish.
Yet somehow the Lithuanian language survived and now flourishes, within its much reduced borders, along with a strong sense of Lithuanian identity.
The question is: Why?
The answers are many and complex. Some of them are no doubt beyond my understanding.
But the question is still worth asking. Not just about Lithuania, or Russia, or the Jews, or England, or Britain.
Why, when throughout history it has caused more wars, death and suffering than any other idea – except, maybe, religion – do we cling to the idea of the nation?


I PASSED a girl in the street the other day in a heavily Muslim part of east London.
She was fully veiled, so I didn’t see her face, but I could positively hear her smile.
She was hopping from trainer-clad foot to foot in typically teenage enjoyment while chatting loudly on her mobile phone, the way kids do around the world.
I didn’t hang around to eavesdrop, but the tone of her voice suggested she was probably discussing the normal sort of “relationship stuff” with a girl friend.
Whatever she was talking about, she was doing it in a broad Cockney accent liberally seasoned with good old Anglo-Saxon vulgarity. Did my old heart good.
What her presumably more straight-laced elders would have made of it I don’t know.
Or those French law-makers intent on making it illegal to wear the full veil in public.
I have some sympathy with that attempt. I think it’s probably well-intentioned – but wrong.
Not because the niqab or burkha is a long, respectable tradition – it isn’t.
And I don’t think the good intention has anything (or much, anyway) to do with fear of “terrorism” or strangers in our midst.
I hope it’s motivated rather by a desire to free women from an uncomfortable, de-personalising, objectifying imposition forced on them by men.
I fear the effect, though, would not be an increase in Muslim women’s freedom to go unveiled.
More likely it would be a decrease in their freedom to go out in public at all.
Which would do nobody any good.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The latest hot spells just a change in the whether

ST ANDREWS, traditional home of golf, where Louis Oosthuizen won The Open last weekend, has no apostrophe.
St Andrew’s, home of Birmingham City Football Club, has one.
You may never have noticed this obscure distinction before – and if you have, you may not think it matters a whole lot. But as a sports sub-editor (which I have been, among other things, for more than 30 years), it’s the kind of thing I’m supposed to know.
Then there’s the case of Newcastle United’s ground.
I was virtually raised as a football fan on its terraces. Throughout the 1980s I was a regular attender in its press box.
Its name, as I’ve known well most of my life, is St James’s Park. Except that apparently it isn’t any more.
We were discussing this the other day around the sports desk of the other paper where I work. (You get such interesting discussions round sports desks.)
The conclusion that was reached is that the famous old Tyneside stadium should now be referred to as St James’ Park.
Indeed, horror of horrors, against all tradition and well-established pronunciation, the club itself, on its website and its headed stationery, has now lost the second ‘S’.
Never mind that this flies in the face of the grammatical rule that I, like most of us, was brought up with.
St James, being singular, needs an apostrophe and an ‘S’ after his name to denote his possession (or, in this case, a dedication).
St James’ suggests something jointly owned by (or dedicated to) several people, each of them called St Jame.
Or is that being too pedantic?
News rooms are full of people who think such things do matter.
I’ve had colleagues who get quite hot under the collar about the use of apostrophes.
About whether “aging”, unlike raging, staging or paging, should have an ‘E’ in the middle.
About whether “under way” should be one word or whether “anymore” should be two (you can see above what I think about that one).
The astonishing sales achieved by books such as Lynne Truss’s (NOT Lynne Truss’) Eats Shoots And Leaves suggests that plenty of other people care about such things too.
I once wrote a book about it myself. Not a bestseller, unfortunately, but one aimed exclusively at Evening Star journalists.
It was the paper’s Style Guide, in which – among a great many other things – I stipulated all the above points about spellings and apostrophes.
My version is now being updated by another journalist, as these things must be from time to time.
Language changes. An earlier guide insists on the spellings “to-day”, “to-morrow”, “un-likely” and “any-way”, which may already have been a little old-fashioned when it was written.
Modern habit suggests that “underway” probably has contracted from two words into one.
It seems bizarre, looking back, that I used to care either way.
One of the things I found while writing my guide was that the more I considered each entry – whether, for example, a free-kick should be taken with a hyphen – the more arbitrary it seemed. And the less important.
(An earlier arbiter of style would have seen red at that last comment. To begin a sentence with “And” – aargh! And yet… )
Does it still make sense to insist that “decimate” should mean reduce by exactly one tenth? Or should we accept that it now denotes vaguer, usually greater, damage?
There was a time when it would have made me quite cross to see St James’s Park reduced to St James’. But why should it?
Now I find I really don’t care anymore. Well, not much anyway…

A Cable tied in knots

AS a statement of political analysis it was straightforward enough:
“We face the prospect of rule by charming and utterly inexperienced young men armed only with a sense of entitlement to run the family estate.”
Some of us might struggle to see the charm, but essentially that’s a fair description of the incoming Tory government.
The irony is that the man who wrote it, leading LibDem Vince Cable, is himself now a lesser member of that very government.
And I wonder how George Osborne – as chancellor, effectively Cable’s immediate boss – feels about this honest assessment: “I never rated George’s understanding of financial and economic matters.”
The quotes come from Cable’s memoir, Free Radical. Originally published last November, it has just appeared in paperback.
The intervening election, and the job it propelled Cable into, will no doubt have given his book a good sales push – as well as making it a rather squirmy read.
Cable may still manage to sound mostly as if he’s talking more sense than any of his new colleagues.
But he can hardly be called radical any more. And certainly not free.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The law's an ass to put out to grass

I AM tempted to start this week with a bracing burst of song. Only slightly misquoting the late Edwin Starr, let’s all sing along now:
“Law – huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
Well, OK, I wouldn’t really go quite that far. The proscription against killing people, for example, is quite important, I think. Or injuring them unpleasantly.
And the stuff about driving fast in built-up areas (though that’s really just putting detail on the bits about killing and injuring).
A lot of the rest essentially merely imposes the opinions or preferences of one group of people (mostly the better-off) on everyone else.
Like most folk, I was brought up to respect the law. And I suppose, broadly, I do. I certainly don’t go out of my way to break it and I wouldn’t encourage others to break it, either.
The problem is that there are just too many darned laws for any one person to know what they all are. Which can make it hard to avoid stepping over the lines inadvertently.
And there are a lot of bad laws out there, which can have the effect of lessening respect for the whole system.
Which brings me to Nick Clegg’s Big Idea.
The deputy PM is front-man for the Your Freedom website, which leads off with the words: “The Coalition Government is committed to restoring and defending your freedom – and we’re asking you to participate.”
Which could be seen, depending on viewpoint, as democracy in action, window-dressing, or just funking it.
I have my suspicions, but we’ll only know for sure, I suppose, when we see which of the public’s ideas actually make it onto (or off) the statute book.
The last government was obsessed with law-making. Most of it was nonsense, and scrapping much of it might not be a bad thing.
While we’re at it, it would be a good thing to roll back most of the blights imposed on us before that by the Thatcher and Major administrations too.
In fact, if Mr Clegg really wants our ideas on which laws to scrap, I’d put the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act top of the list.
Buried in the sludge of that ill-conceived hodge-podge were one or two provisions I’d agree with. But mostly it was a badly-written rag-bag of oppression.
The enshrining in statute of the then-current obsessions and prejudices of the Tory press and the Tory right wing, as personified in the home secretary, Michael Howard.
It might have been deliberately designed to undermine respect for the law and its officers among large sections of the populace.
The increasing of police powers of unsupervised “stop and search” can only have damaged the relationship between cops and citizens.
And that’s before you consider the extended right to take and retain “intimate body samples”.
The silliest, and most controversial, aspect of the Act, though, was its broad-brush attack on youth culture.
The criminalising of trespass, squatting and “unauthorised camping”. The restrictions on organised protest.
Most particularly the idiotic section banning “raves”, along with its definition of music “characterised by repetive beats”.
I don’t think that section was ever used to prevent a military band from parading, but it surely could have been. It was used last year to close down a barbecue held by 15 people on their own land.
Ironically, the same Act also ended the old tradition of a suspected person’s non-prejudicial right to silence.
The Labour government that came in three years later could have ditched all that. Instead they set about making matters worse with their own Crime And Disorder Act of 1998.
On the plus side, it formally ended capital punishment. And, a theoretical plus if not a practical one, it brought in a new category of racially or religiously aggravated offences.
In the totally-daft-let’s-scrap-it-now category, it brought in the ASBO.
Time, surely, for that insane invention, the scallywags’ badge of honour, to be consigned to history’s dustbin.
With it, please, Mr Clegg, you could ditch all those regulations that use the phantoms of “terror” and “paedophilia” to restrict every honest citizen’s rights to travel and take photos.
If I’m taking pics at my child’s school play or sports day, or on a public beach, it has nothing to do with porn. If I raise my camera in the street, it doesn’t make me a terrorist.
The demonising of such normal behaviour has done a lot to create the damaging “us and them” tone of our society.
So, over a longer time span, has the criminalising of drugs.
Prohibition of alcohol in the USA in 1920 didn’t just not work – it was catastrophic in creating a whole society of organised crime.
The same is true, on a vastly bigger scale, of the near-worldwide ban on many other drugs.
It’s not just ineffective, not just counter-productive – it’s worse than that.
You don’t have to support drug-use to see that the law against it makes things a whole lot worse.
Whether there would be any future in Britain going it alone in making drugs legal is debatable. If it could be done internationally, it would be a very good thing.
The same argument applies just as forcefully to prostitution.
Interestingly, the call to legalise cannabis is the most-backed call so far on the Your Freedom website.
Is there any chance of the government actually listening? What do you think?


I HAVE been engaged in an exchange of poems with the Californian poet Valerie Witte through the auspices of the excellent poetry site Likestarlings. She writes one, I reply with one of my own, she responds, etc. Like any conversation, one person's ideas spark tangential ideas in the other and the whole thing goes in directions neither of you might have predicted. Quite challenging and very enjoyable - and I'm delighted to see that my second response to Val, in the unlikely form of a completely regular sestina, titled re:action / in formation now appears on the home page of the site as the editor's 'featured poem'. Check it out here.
Anyone interested in reading any of my poetry can find links to all that's online here - or see the link at left.

Friday, 2 July 2010

When the mascots play a secret role in the game

WHAT is the point of royalty?
Since we are no longer governed by a hereditary dictatorship, why on earth do we continue to surround their descendants with so much pomp and ceremony?
Why should we care about our posh little princes or what they get up to? And why, for heaven’s sake, do we have to fund their pampered lifestyles when there are doubts over funding hospitals and schools?
The late Merlyn Rees once explained to me a kind of road-to-Damascus vision he’d had on the subject.
Merlyn, home secretary in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, had been brought up a socialist and anti-monarchist. It was on a trip to the USA that he changed his mind about the second part.
Standing before the John F Kennedy Memorial in Dallas, he was overwhelmed by emotion. Not his own emotion, but the outpourings of the Americans around him.
That all that fervour and adulation should be expended on, as he put it, “a mere politician” filled him with dismay.
“If you’re going to put people on a pedestal,” he subsequently explained, “far better that they should be people who wield no real power.
“Just imagine if people revered Margaret Thatcher the way they do the Queen.”
That conversation took place shortly after Thatcher came to power – and Rees, of course, left it.
For 30 years since, I have generally shared his view.
But it only works if the Royals really wield no power. If they stick to their allotted role of national mascots and don’t try to take part in the game.
Which is why we should take very seriously the attempts of Prince Charles to wield power behind the scenes.
Of course Charles has a right to his opinions.
If he doesn’t like Lord Rogers’s plans for the redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks, he is entitled to say so.
Like any neighbour of a proposed new building, he can voice his objections, ask for a public inquiry, give his evidence.
What he should not have is the right to pull strings. To invite his fellow princes in the Qatari royal family, who were partly funding the scheme, to tea at Clarence House and get them to scrap the plans.
And then, crucially, to claim a royal privilege of secrecy over ever having got involved.
He likes to get involved, does Charles.
Some of his views – on farming methods, for example, or “American-style compensation culture” – I broadly share.
On architecture, I find his preference for Quality Street-tin “tradition” not merely bizarre, but offensive.
But whether I (or anyone else) agree with him is not the point.
The point is his 40-year habit of wielding influence by letter, email and tea-party – and expecting everyone to pretend he didn’t.
So I welcome the ruling by a High Court judge that Charles brought “unexpected and unwelcome” pressure to bear, causing the £3billion Chelsea housing project to be “effectively derailed”.
Charles, of course, doesn’t welcome it at all. He considers that the public ruling breaches his privacy.
As if princes had a right to more privacy than the rest of us. Especially when he wants to get things done. Or stopped.
We now know that ministers in successive governments, back to Merlyn Rees’s time and beyond, have been familiar with the “black spiders” of Charles’s handwriting as he attempted to sway decisions on everything from hunting to foreign relations.
They weren’t supposed to tell us about it because of a curious British “convention” that the Royal Family should not be seen to interfere in politics.
A convention that is as stupid as it is typically British.
If they shouldn’t be SEEN to do it, they shouldn’t do it.
If they can’t play by the rules, why should we keep them in the game at all?


GOOD job we had a fancy foreign coach to show our lads how to play, then, eh?
When I wrote, just before the World Cup kicked off, about our national over-optimism, I didn’t know just how far over the top our optimism was.
Now Fabio wants to keep his job. Well, at £6million a year, wouldn’t you?
It seems reasonable compensation for the damage done to his previously high reputation.
What of the damage to the reputations of John Terry, Steven Gerrard and the rest of the supposed “golden generation”?
I’m sure I’m not the only fan who’d be happy never to see any of them in an England shirt again.
Wayne Rooney was supposed to have been one of the stars of the tournament, up there with Messi and Kaka. In the event he was outshone by… well, nearly everyone, really.
Of course the players were tired after a long Premier League season.
So how come Carlos Tevez and Dirk Kuyt look as fresh and lively for Argentina and Holland as they did all season for Man City and Liverpool?
And how come England’s finest seemed to forget all they ever knew about the basics of defending? Or attacking, come to that.
I could go on. But you’ve probably already read more than you want about the worst England performance ever at a major tournament (and yes, I do remember Graham Taylor).
Now at least we can sit back and enjoy the festival of football without the anxiety that always goes with England’s involvement.

Friday, 25 June 2010

The beauty of South Africa

SOUTH Africa – from all one hears, and every picture you see, it’s an astonishingly beautiful country.
I’ve been invited there a few times over the years and I can’t say I’m not tempted.
Even 16 years after apartheid’s official end I’m not sure it’s the happiest, or most secure, country to visit, though. A murder rate roughly 35 times Britain's must mean something.
And, fascinated though I am by wildlife of all kinds, I’m not sure I really fancy going “on safari”, a pampered tourist in a four-wheel-drive bubble of privilege.
The invitations have been of two kinds, neither terribly specific.
There was the time, 23 years ago, when I stood among a crowd of enthusiastic anti-apartheid campaigners in a very English marketplace to hail a speech by Desmond Tutu.
Thanking us all for supporting the struggle, the good archbishop ended by declaring: "You must all come and visit our wonderful country… in a few years when all its people are free."
Rousing. Heartwarming. And in a curious way I still feel a little as I felt then, that he meant it.
As, no doubt, do those South African friends I have made online who have suggested visits since.
Friends whose sumptuous photographs have on the whole revealed more of South Africa’s natural beauty than of the reality of life for its people.
And for all the enormous strides taken since apartheid’s end, that reality is still hugely divided between those who have a lot and those who have very little.
Which, of course, means a climate of constant fear and insecurity for those on both sides of the divide.
Too many of the photos have shown the splendour of Table Mountain – that same proud aspect which has formed the backdrop to Gary Lineker’s cosy chats with his footy pals this past couple of weeks.
Not that Table Mountain isn’t a wonderful sight to behold. But I would welcome a little more insight into the life of the city, Cape Town, which sprawls at its foot.
The BBC have been trying. I can’t recall any previous World Cup at which telly coverage included nightly excursions to meet the ordinary folk living in the shadows of the sparkling new stadiums they can’t afford to enter.
What some of those folk have made of Alan Shearer standing on their doorsteps repeatedly muttering "uh-huh" in response to their tales of hardship, only they will know.
I hope they’ve been pleased that the rich world has noticed them and listened – even if only for a moment – to hints of their life stories.
I hope – though I doubt – that they feel this festival in the world’s spotlight has been worth the billions spent on those stadiums while nothing has been spent to alleviate their own poverty.
Whether this World Cup turns out to have been a success for South Africa will depend on far more than the progress (or, rather, lack of progress) of their wholehearted but limited football team. Or, indeed, any other football team.
What use is made of those stadiums once the circus has left town is one thing.
What effect, if any, the money spent, the visitors hosted, the month in the world’s spotlight have in the long run is another.
It will be hard, if not impossible, to judge. Opinions on it will vary wildly.
But one can already see that there is at least one positive.
When I stood and applauded Archbishop Tutu in 1987, South Africa was still officially segregated. Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Black people and white were still kept apart, not just by economics, but by law.
Law savagely enacted and often savagely enforced.
The country was an international pariah, cut out of official participation in international sport.
The staging of sport’s biggest jamboree there is a colossal symbol of how things have moved on.
Much remains to be done before it becomes a country one can visit, or live in, without reservations.
But that such a huge change has been accomplished without a bloodbath, or the grinding terror and dysfunctionality of neighbouring Zimbabwe, is in itself a South African triumph. A victory far, far beyond anything attainable in sport.
And, incidentally, a beacon of possible hope for another troubled country.
Another where racial divisions, enforced by economics, law and armed might, have created unsustainable tensions and inequalities.
As someone wiser than I once put it, the best way out of Israel’s impasse would be for the Palestinians to turn their struggle into an anti-apartheid-style civil rights campaign.
Well, it worked once. Twice, if you include America’s South.


QUESTION put this week on a popular Facebook page: "Do you think solar and wind energy can sustain the current demand on the power grid?"
Bearing in mind that the questioner lives in the United States, that’s a pretty big demand he’s talking about.
And the answer – well, my answer anyway: "Reducing waste and lowering preposterous expectations is probably a necessary start. But yes, harnessing solar energy in the Arizona and Nevada deserts could power even America."
Converting all the Las Vegas casinos into one massive solar panel would be pretty much a win-win scenario.