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.