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.”