Friday, 30 December 2011

Quiz of the year - will it all get worse from here?

NEW Year’s Eve 2010, you sit down to a pub quiz. Among the questions are these:
1 What major industrial plant is located on the Japanese coast at Fukushima?
2 Of what country is Benghazi the second largest city?
3 In which capital city is Tahrir Square?
Be honest, now – would you have answered any of those questions confidently, or correctly, a year ago? And are they all fairly easy now?
Together they hint at what a remarkable, transformative year 2011 has been.
And that’s without mentioning the sudden closure of the world’s biggest-selling English-language newspaper, or the enthralling (and on-going) public inquiry it led to.
Or the sudden changes of government in Greece and Italy and the threat (also on-going) of European economic meltdown.
The even more startling regime changes in Tunisia and Libya (Egypt was hinted at in question three). Or the protests, rioting and governmental shifts in Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco and Syria.
The astonishing, widely under-reported, number of people who took part in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York. Or the long-running, peaceful spin-off protests in other cities, including London.
From Washington to Moscow, Cairo to the Cape, 2011 has been the year of the protester.
Democracy, so much better at absorbing protest without really changing, has in one way shown itself superior to autocracy.
Even without elections, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and George Papandreou in Greece were ousted without having to be hunted down, dragged from a drain and beaten to death.
In that way, Muammar Gaddafi became as iconic in the bloody manner of his death as he was grimly comic in the manner of his 42-year misrule of Libya.
Whether democracy’s greater flexibility will ultimately prove more durable, or less grim, remains an open question. One to be answered only by the history of the future.
As does the question whether 2011 will be looked back on as one freakish year of upheavals – or just the beginning of a deluge of greater upheavals to come.


THE television highlight of 2011 was undoubtedly the BBC’s brilliantly filmed Frozen Planet series.
That a series set purely in the apparent wastelands of the Arctic and Antarctic should be so beautiful, so gripping, and so much talked-about was a wonder in itself.
The contrived ‘controversy’ over the filming of new-born polar bears in captivity was a red herring.
Series producer Vanessa Berlowitz dismissed it summarily, and quite rightly, on Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour last Friday. To try to shoot the scene in the wild would have been life-threatening – not just to the crew but, even more crucially, to the bears themselves.
Far more importantly, travel writer Sara Wheeler was asked in the same programme about the melting ice-caps: “When you’re there, how much does it worry you?”
Her measured reply concluded: “I don’t know what the right-wing agenda is, to pretend that global warming isn’t going to cause serious problems for all of us.
“Because the scientists who are there, bringing the data back, don’t know the answers, but they know that something bad is going to happen.
“And they also know that it’s not the earth that’s going to suffer.
“The planet will be OK, it will restore itself, as it always has. It’s us that are at risk.”
Indeed so. But I think I can offer Ms Wheeler some insight into that right-wing agenda.
It’s not just that they’re in what psychologists call a state of denial – though millions of people seem to be. It’s also partly the typical right-winger’s blinkered selfishness.
The 19th-century pit-owner didn’t want to know too much about the grinding poverty of the workers whose toil kept him in luxury.
The man in the 21st-century street doesn’t want to know too much about how his comfort depends on the desperation of generations not yet born.
At the end of 2011 his quietly nagging fear must be that the reaping of the whirlwind may not be so far off after all...

2011: the environmental harvest

  • In the year the world’s population topped seven billion, greenhouse gases rose to record levels, the melting of the Arctic ice almost topped the 2007 record, there were record extremes of both heat and cold in the US, droughts and heatwaves in Europe and Africa and record numbers of weather-related natural disasters.

  • 2011 began with floods in Australia which covered an area the size of France and Germany combined, and ended with a tropical storm that killed 1,000 people and made 300,000 homeless in the Philippines.

  • Thailand had its worst floods in 50 years, while both China and the Horn of Africa suffered their worst droughts in 60.

  • In one seven-week spell early in the year, Argentina, Chile, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tonga, Burma, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Sulawesi, Fiji and New Zealand were all hit by major earthquakes.

  • And that was before the quake off Japan on March 11 that unleashed a tsunami which killed 15,500 people, caused the meltdowns of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima and led to 160,000 people fleeing the area or being moved away.

  • The big wave is now reckoned to have cost around £134billion in lost production and physical damage. Decommissioning the station is expected to cost a further £10bn.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Have we lost the true meaning of Saturnalia?

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


MY first reaction to news of the death of North Korea’s Great Leader Kim Jong-il was: “How could they tell?”
I wish this was original but it was in fact how Dorothy Parker, wit among wits, greeted the demise of former US President Calvin Coolidge in 1933.
My second reaction was to wonder what change – if any – it will bring about in that most benighted, most cut-off of countries.
By all accounts, change isn’t something they’ve had much of in North Korea since it was severed from the South (where change has been extreme and rapid) in the 1940s. Apart from the change between years of desperate famine and those of relative plenty.
Were those pictures of anguished wailing really typical of North Koreans’ reaction to the demise of their dictator?
Were they carefully selected for their propaganda value? Or do they reveal just how thoroughly people will accept and believe what they are told to believe?
Is it true that the North Koreans were shown film of their team celebrating the one goal they scored at South Africa 2010 – actually in a 2-1 defeat by Brazil – and told they had won the World Cup? Or is that just what WE were told?
How many impossible things can a people be made to believe before breakfast?
Including us?

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Taking the long nuclear view

Picture of Lorna Arnold from TalkWorks
MY Aunt Lorna turned 96 this week.
I’m not in the habit of marking family birthdays – even within the family, never mind in print – but this one seems worth mentioning.
Not just because there aren’t many people left who were born before the Battle of the Somme, but because Lorna Arnold remains a passionate, powerful intellect. A woman of unsurpassed knowledge in her field who is still well worth listening to.
Not least here in Suffolk, where the Sizewell power stations generate as much controversy as electricity.
You may have seen Lorna on television. She turns up quite frequently in documentaries about the Cold War, the nuclear industry or the atom-bomb. She featured in last year’s fascinating BBC4 series The Secret Life of the National Grid.
You are perhaps more likely to have seen her, fleetingly, last March when The One Show discussed the catastrophe at Fukushima.
It’s fair to say that after leading a long, fairly secret life of her own, Dr Lorna Arnold OBE has become in her 80s and 90s a talking head, one of TV’s go-to experts.
After early experience in the War Office – she was the first British woman to enter Berlin with the Allied Control Commission after the German surrender in 1945 – and the Diplomatic Corps in Washington, in 1959 she joined the UK Atomic Energy Authority. She was appointed to the authority’s historical department in 1967 and went on to become the official historian of British atomic power.
She has written books on British atomic policy, on nuclear testing in Australia, on the H-Bomb and on the 1957 Windscale fire. Recently she has been engaged in writing her memoirs.
It’s doubtful whether anyone knows more about the history of the nuclear industry, and its production of both power and weapons.
And like many of the scientists she has worked alongside over more than 50 years, she has changed her views as her knowledge has increased. And those views deserve and demand respect.
More than respect, indeed. Her experience is valuable – vital – never more important than now, with the whole future of energy production once again in the melting-pot.
And with enough nuclear weaponry still out there to make the world uninhabitable for a long time to come if anyone should start throwing it around.
Here, from a short series of new films made by Oxford production company TalkWorks, are a few of the things she has to say:


“I think nuclear weapons are a somewhat overlooked danger today.
“We went through a period of great public anxiety, almost panic, about the dangers of nuclear weapons during the Cold War but … you can’t maintain that level of anxiety and fear.
“You get used to it, it just becomes part of everyday life. I’m very much afraid that is when things become dangerous.
“It also becomes dangerous when you have decision-makers who are not experienced, who don’t understand what they are dealing with.
“I felt much safer when we had ministers like Heath and Healey in the government because they knew about war from first-hand experience and behaved accordingly. But [today’s politicians] do not know what they are dealing with, and that is a very dangerous situation.”


“At the time I joined the UKAEA, civil nuclear power seemed to be a great new future for mankind, a wonderful source of clean, efficient power which would be – as Churchill said – a perennial fountain of world prosperity.
“It was an exciting and most hopeful time. An enormous amount of skill, hard work, enthusiasm and money contributed to this great project.
“Unfortunately, as time has gone on it has been shown that though nuclear energy has been in many ways efficient and has provided up to 25 per cent of Britain’s electricity, it has been a very expensive method of generation.
“It has a great many unforeseen problems and dangers.
“The problems of nuclear waste are still not solved.
“Nuclear accidents, though rare, if they occur can be devastating.
“The rich sources of the raw material, uranium, are pretty well worked out. It is becoming a scarce and very expensive resource because of the difficulty of mining and refining it.
“It is quite possible that if many countries wanted to develop nuclear programmes, there is only about enough economic uranium in the world to fuel one more generation of power stations.
“So there is not much future, as far as I can see, in civil nuclear power.
“One sad effect of the concentration on civil nuclear power has been the neglect of research and development in renewables.
“I think on the whole civil nuclear power was a very interesting, very valuable but very limited option.
“I think it is drawing to its end and something new has got to be found in its place.”

Friday, 2 December 2011

The public versus the privatisers

NIGEL Lawson, the man who towered over the British economy in the 1980s, is a shadow of his former self. He has become small and wizened, a walnut where he used to be a pumpkin. Still talks rot, though.
As George Osborne prepared to stand and deliver his autumn statement, BBC News propped up Lawson outside Parliament to give his view.
Which boiled down to supporting the chancellor in his squeeze on working people because it was “needed” to keep interest rates low. As if low interest rates were somehow more important than people’s lives and futures.
As chancellor himself from 1983 to 1989, Lawson presided over much higher interest rates than we have now. As well as reducing taxes on companies and the higher-paid while increasing Vat, thereby putting more of the burden on the less well-off. Well, he is a Tory.
He was also a key figure in the first wave of mass privatisations. Or, as another former Tory chancellor, Harold Macmillan, put it, “flogging off the family silver”.
It is partly because of what Lawson did then that we are up the creek now.
Lacking a manufacturing base for our struggling economy, while gas, electricity, telecoms and British Airways continue to make profits for private companies not the public good.
Lawson also played a central role in preparing for Maggie Thatcher’s carefully prepared, sustained and vicious attack on the coal industry.
Thatcher’s enthusiasm for nuclear power stemmed from her eagerness for the assault on coal.
She was not going to be brought down, as previous Tory PM Ted Heath had been, by a stoppage of the coal supply to power stations. She was going to make sure the electricity continued to flow into the nation’s homes and businesses no matter who she picked a fight with.
The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was a turning-point in industrial relations in Britain.
It so happened that for three months of that period I was on strike myself, over a matter not obviously related (the loss of newspaper jobs through the imposition of new technology).
Striking miners occasionally visited our picket line, and we visited some of theirs. To use a phrase recently hijacked by our ruling toffs, we were all in it together.
And of course, as history knows, we lost together.
The eventual defeat of the miners, and the devastation of their industry, was a shattering blow to the whole of trade unionism. Which was exactly what Thatcher intended all along.
What Lawson, particularly in his earlier role as energy secretary, helped her plan and prepare for.
This week’s strike by public-sector workers was billed as the biggest walk-out since 1926. In terms purely of the number taking part, it was. One day of protest, however, hardly equates to the bitter, protracted disputes we lived through in the 1970s and 80s.
It does have this in common, though, with the miners’ strike. That it was a fight picked by a Tory government. And that no one will have been more pleased by it than those who provoked it.
Just like in the 1980s, it gives them a chance to split the populace into an “us” and a “them”. To divide and conquer.
Which is not to say that the unions and their members were wrong to take action. Frankly, they had little choice.
And this, surely, is merely the beginning, the marking-out of the battleground between the government and the people they supposedly represent.
Osborne’s statement, though conveniently hidden from full media attention behind the strike, drew more of those lines.
The pre-publicity was mostly for what you might call the good news. Extra spending on schools, youth unemployment, the building of houses, railways and roads – including a possible new toll road from Felixstowe to the Midlands. New (though piffling) investment in the space industry, green technology and research into animal disease.
The detail showed that the bill will be picked up by public-sector workers and the low-paid.
The independent Office of Budget Responsibility estimates that Osborne’s new policies will cost 710,000 jobs in the public sector, compared with the 400,000 it had previously expected as a result of the government’s spending cuts.
Welfare campaigners say his decision to scrap an increase in child tax credits will result in an additional 100,000 children dropping below the official poverty line.
He signalled the end of national pay bargaining within two years and set a two-year one per cent ceiling on public-sector pay rises – measures surely designed to provoke the unions into further action.
Osborne, of course, is banking on the majority public mood supporting him as he casts the public sector and their union leaders in the role Thatcher cast the miners and Arthur Scargill.
I wonder.
I wonder if Len McCluskey, general secretary of the union Unite, isn’t perhaps nearer the reality.
People, he says, “have seen their living standards get squeezed while the rich get richer.
“They look at the teachers, lollipop ladies and civil servants marching and then they look at the millionaires in cabinet, and they know which side to support.
“Trade union members aren’t some inconvenient troublemakers making life hard for the public: they are the public.”


THE Bhopal disaster of 1984 was and remains a massive example of man’s inhumanity to man. Of the shocking disregard of rich people in one country for the lives of poor people in another.
At a conservative estimate, the leak of poison gas from the American-owned Union Carbide factory killed 15,000 inhabitants of the Indian city.
To say that the company’s admission of responsibility came grudgingly and late, and that the compensation event-ually paid was insufficient, is to put it mildly.
Anything further from the “Olympic values” of “Respect, Excellence, Friendship” would be hard to imagine.
Dow Chemical, the company which now owns Union Carbide and the fatal Bhopal plant, is a major sponsor of London 2012 and is scheduled to have a massive advert in the form of “an artistic wrap” around the main Olympic Stadium.
But Lord Coe (right), chairman of the organising committee, airily brushed aside the protests of outraged Indian athletes at a Parliamentary hearing last week.
He said: “I am satisfied that the ownership, operation and the involvement either at the time of the disaster or at the final settlement was not the responsibility of Dow.”
Which sounds to me – as it does to the Indians – like a slippery avoidance of responsibility.
Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001 and insists the legal claims surrounding the incident were resolved long before it acquired the company.
That is still being contested in the Indian courts.
Meanwhile there are many people in Bhopal still suffering from the crippling effects of the disaster – in their own health and in the loss of family members.
Local experts say pollution from the disaster is still causing deformities and cancers among families using contaminated groundwater.
Respect, Seb? Friendship? Or is it all just about money?
In this case a measly £7million – money which would go a lot further if it were put to alleviating the misery suffered by the people of Bhopal.
If the Indian Olympic Association votes next week to boycott the Games, don’t blame them. Blame Coe.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The thought that counts? Not when you're dead

A PICTURE, so it’s said, is worth 1,000 words – though it rather depends, surely, on what picture and what words.
Personally, I’d take any single line of Shakespeare over the entire photographic output to date of every “celebrity” magazine you could think of.
On the other hand, if this column is really worth four-fifths of the picture I have in mind, then I’ll surely have produced my masterpiece. And it’s not an old master, a Da Vinci, a Picasso or even a Tracey Emin, but a black-and-white news photo taken in 1968.
Of course, this piece would be a lot easier to write (as well as being “worth” a lot more) if I was able to show you the particular photo I mean. Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, I can’t. But it’s a good bet that if we were to print it, you’d recognise it instantly as something you’d seen before.
It really is one of those once-seen-never-forgotten images.
It shows one man casually shooting another in the head at point-blank range.
The victim, who has his hands behind his back and his face to the camera, has his eyes shut and appears to be wincing while his head is jerked sideways by the impact of a bullet that has just hit him from a distance of at most six inches.
The man pulling the trigger is Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, then the police chief of South Vietnam. The man he is seen summarily “executing” was later identified as Nguyen Van Lam, a low-ranked officer of the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong, the Americans’ Communist enemies.
And the picture fulfilled photographer Eddie Adams’s ambition to take “the perfect photograph” summing up the bravery, frustration and suffering of war.
As he brought his film into the news office in Saigon to be processed, he is said to have remarked: “I got what I came to Vietnam for.”
Which obviously could not be said for the unfortunate Van Lam.
It seems to be stretching a point rather too far to say – though it often has been said – that Adams’s photo helped hasten the end of the war. But it is certainly a remarkable photo, one that rapidly and lastingly entered the national and international consciousness.
It surfaced once again this week, alongside another, up-to-date, news photo showing another police officer shooting unarmed victims at close range.
The juxtaposition of the two pictures was certainly interesting. It said a lot – not least about the person who chose to put them together, and all those moved to “Like” it on Facebook.
The new pic showed a cop in riot gear firing rather nonchalantly at a row of seated anti-capitalist demonstrators at a Californian university.
His weapon, however, was not a pistol but a can of pepper spray. His notably well-dressed victims mostly had hoods with which to protect their faces. And another picture of the same incident tellingly shows not one lone, brave photographer but a mass gathering of camera-wielding onlookers being carefully organised by more police.
It was, in other words – like last year’s shots of “rioters” attacking banks in London – a staged media event. About as much like Eddie Adams’s “Vietcong execution” as reality TV is to reality.
Nevertheless, the two pictures appeared side-by-side with the single caption: “The ammo may be different but it’s the thought that counts.”
Try telling that to Van Lam’s still-grieving widow.
My sympathies in the recent event are, of course, mostly with the protesting students.
The casual use of violence by the forces of order against unresisting opponents of an unfair status quo is, as a senior officer involved remarked equally casually, “fairly standard police procedure”. Which is shocking enough in itself.
To suggest an equivalence, however, between two such different events does justice to neither and serves only to muddy the water.
It is, sadly, typical of the woolly thinking by too many American “liberals” – in this case Californian poet and blogger Ron Silliman – that lets that country’s powerful and authoritarian right wing off the hook.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Bureaucrats 2 Democrats 0

SOME people are so unlovely it goes against the grain to agree with anything they say. Nigel Farage, the chinless wonder who fronts the UK Independence Party, is one such for me.
Yet there I was nodding in agreement with him the other day as he was sympathising with the poor Greeks.
The Socialist George Papandreou had the misfortune to lead a chronically corrupt country at a time of severe economic pressure from within and without.
But the sin – in the eyes of Europe’s leaders it was a sin – that drove him from office in Athens was that of trying to call a referendum. Applying a democratic filter to a distinctly non-democratic order – sorry, offer – from Brussels.
So a democratically elected prime minister is hounded out for trying to act democratically.
To be replaced by a banker, Lucas Papademos, who despite his name (roughly translated, it means “father of the people”) has never been elected to anything.
A man who has taught economics in the USA and Germany, been governor of the Bank of Greece and more recently vice-president of the European Central Bank.
The very bank, coincidentally, whose offer poor Papandreou wanted to put to the people for a decision. The bank which wouldn’t take “maybe” for an answer.
Farage thinks pulling the rug from under a democratically elected PM and replacing him with a banker is a pretty poor trick for Europe to play on Greece. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
And then there’s Italy. Where – guess what? – the democratically elected Silvio Berlusconi is kicked out, effectively by the powers-that-be-Europe. To be replaced by an economist who has been European commissioner for things such as internal markets, taxation and competition.
So again an elected PM is unceremoniously dumped in favour of a Brussels apparatchik with a background in banking.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That it was bankers that got us all – Europe and the rest – into this mess…
Mario Monti, the man who has just become Italian PM by invitation, is described as “economist and politician”. Yet, like Papademos, his political career, such as it is, has been unmarked by anything so messy as an election.
His career in the corridors of European power began in 1995 when he was appointed – ironically by Berlusconi.
So are these unelected “technocrats” (sounds so much nicer than “bankers”, doesn’t it?) likely to do better than their elected predecessors? Only time will tell – and it will undoubtedly depend then on how you look at it.
All in all it’s been a rotten couple of weeks for democracy. And depressing evidence that Farage might have been at least part-right all along in his contempt for European bureaucracy.
Then again, democracy isn’t necessarily the great thing it’s usually cracked up to be.
After all, it gave Italy nine years of Berlusconi. Which in British terms is like repeatedly giving the PM’s job to a monster composed of equal parts of Rupert Murdoch, Roman Abramovich and porn and sleaze merchant Paul Raymond.
Which, on second thoughts, might not be so much worse than what it’s lumbered us with.


THE headline was stark and shocking: Cameron seeks to push a million workers out of the public sector.
That’s terrible, right?
But read on and it explained: Staff in the NHS and other services are being shifted into mutual-style programmes based on the John Lewis model.
So that’s not so bad, then. In fact it’s good, right?
After all, despite bearing one man’s name, John Lewis stores are a partnership. Its workers aren’t just employees, but co-owners of the business, with a full say in how it’s run.
A remarkably good model, in fact, for how to run a business.
Well yes, a business. A shop, even a chain of shops. As long as some bigger business predator doesn’t come along and snap it up.
But hospitals? Schools? Job centres? Prisons? How exactly can they be improved by putting the profit motive before the duty of care?
Even if it is the workers that profit.
And one can’t help fearing that any benefit the workers might feel will be temporary.
How many of the ordinary Joes who fell for that “Tell Sid” campaign in the 1980s still profit from British Gas?
Remember what happened to those original mutuals of the high street, the building societies? The Britannia’s about the only one that remains truly mutual, and even it’s had to merge with the Co-op Bank to fend off those cash-hungry predators.
What was once the Abbey National is now a Spanish national by the name of Santander. Our local water company and major electricity generator are French-owned.
How long, I wonder, before the first British hospital or prison is owned by a Russian oil tycoon or a Chinese mining company?
The sorry truth behind Cameron’s cavalier break-up of national services is that it’s simply more back-door privatisation.
Putting more public money and public services in private hands.
So yes, your first thought was right. It’s terrible.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Cracks showing in the temple of Capitalism

MY favourite story in the chronicles of Christ has always been the bit where he furiously overturns the tables of the money-lenders in the Temple.
I suspect it goes closer to the heart of the real man than almost anything in the religion St Paul built around him after his death.
If nothing else, it clearly answers the popular question “What would Jesus do?” in relation to the anti-capitalist protesters camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral. He’d be right there with them.
As for the protesters themselves – if nothing else, they’ve focused minds on what is arguably the crucial question of our times.
Almost ever since the fall of Communism, now more than 20 years ago, there seems to have been a near-worldwide acceptance that Capitalism has won. That it is the right – in most people’s minds, apparently the only – way to run a society.
There have always, of course, been a few rowdy dissenters from this view. And an imponderable number of less rowdy folk who kept their doubts private.
Now the doubters are growing in number and openness. To the extent that “anti-capitalist” protesters can both seem and be normal, sane people with a rational view.
The temple that has been built around the money-lenders – actually, the Stock Exchange and the big banks – is seen for the grubby, rapacious, anti-social edifice it is.
The rhetoric of the Cold War was that there were only two ways of doing things. Which was the Right Way and which the Wrong Way depended almost entirely on which side of the Iron Curtain you happened to have been born.
The rhetoric, always preposterous, has survived long after the opening of the Curtain and the closure of the War.
But in one sense it is only now that the final effects of the Cold War are really starting to be felt.
And it is being felt right in the heart of the political and economic system of the side that thought it had won. The side which for a while even bought into one of the daftest ideas ever sold – Francis Fukuyama’s assertion that the victory of the Capitalist West was “The End of History”.
What a curious end. And what a curious victory it has turned out to be.
What really brought about Communism’s collapse wasn’t the supposed superiority of Capitalism’s ideas, or even of its jeans, its motorcars and its rock music (though they may have helped).
It was the fact that the Soviet Union went on spending more and more of its resources on military might until its economy and its people could simply support it no longer.
Which – not by coincidence – is exactly what is happening in the supposedly victorious United States today.
And the US, as we all know, is the central pillar of the Capitalist world. In just the same way that the USSR was the pillar that held up Communism.
Seen from within, there were cracks appearing in the Communist superstructure before the whole thing came crashing down. But the crash when it came still felt extraordinarily sudden.
Now look what’s happening today, not just on the steps of St Paul’s but more significantly on Wall Street. Those looks like cracks to me.


NOT much could bring greater shudders of horror to any driver than what happened on the M5 at Taunton last weekend.
In such a scenario no one can be safe, however carefully and well they drive. There is no such thing as a perfectly safe driver, or a perfectly safe vehicle, when your life is dependent also on those around you.
I’m not pointing any finger of blame. But whether the fatal pile-up was caused by smoke from a bonfire party, driver error, mechanical fault or a combination of those things, there was certainly another factor.
A factor common to the way nearly all of us drive on today’s crowded roads.
One which at any time could simply and rapidly turn a small event – a blown tyre, say, or a stray animal – into a tragedy.
And it’s not just about speed, though that comes into it.
It’s how close so many drive to the vehicle in front. It gives you too little time to react to the unexpected.
Some years ago a good friend of mine was caught up in a mass collision on the A1, right under the impassive gaze of the Angel of the North.
Possibly the most skilful and aware driver I know, he managed to stop without running into the crashed vehicles ahead of him.
Then, almost inevitably, the car behind ran into his, knocking him into the wreckage. As he watched, horrified, in his mirror, car after car went on ramming into the tail of the smash.
Seeing his petrol tank erupt and fuel start spraying, he scrambled out of his car while he still could. And so lived to tell a tale with a slightly happier end than at Taunton.
There but for fortune. As he, I or any of us could say.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Bring back National Service...

IT seems hard to believe now, but when I went to university in the 1970s I was the first pupil from my comprehensive school to do so.
I was an erratic in more ways than one.
According to research published last week, August babies are less likely to go on to top universities than kids born earlier in the year. Which is not as surprising as it might seem if you give it a little thought.
The way the school year is arranged, August babies are generally the youngest in their class. That can be a huge disadvantage when you’re comparing the just-fives with the nearly-sixes. And those early strugglers can spend the rest of their school lives playing catch-up.
What applies academically applies in sport too.
The kids with autumn and winter birthdays go through all their young lives being bigger and stronger than their younger team-mates and rivals. It makes them stand out and gives them confidence.
It also means they’re more likely to be picked for school teams, get extra training and attention.
A typical August flop at sport, I somehow managed to bag a place at a “top university” – where I saw for myself the blatant truth of another of last week’s research findings.
It actually came out as something of an admission (of the other kind) by UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
The headline was the news that the process “favours the rich at private schools”.
To which one might add the relevations that Queen Victoria is dead, the Pope’s a Catholic and bears perform their ablutions in the woods.
Things may have improved a little since my student days, when I found myself the only boy from a state school among the 18 studying my subject in my college in my year.
But according to UCAS the system still strongly and unfairly favours the private-school privileged, in practice even if no longer in principle.
To its credit, the service has a proposal to address this inequality. And in the process clear up the mayhem and uncertainty that currently surrounds the final weeks of school and the ensuing frantic summer.
The suggestion is that A-levels should be brought forward, the results published before the end of the school term in July – and only then should students apply to university.
It would end the current heartbreak of university places being offered on the basis of predicted grades and then snatched away when actual exam results don’t match up to expectation.
It would end the clearing system, which sends students at short notice to universities and colleges they hadn’t previously considered.
It would end… No, actually I can’t see any way in which it would change the in-built advantage of the rich and socially privileged.
In a country now again governed – as it was 50 years ago – by a cabal of old Etonians and their stinking-rich buddies, it would take a lot more than a shake-up of university entrance to make any impact on that.
The proposals are undoubtedly well intentioned. But I suspect they would merely exchange one set of problems for another.
They would squeeze the already tight schedule of A-level teaching. And they would put enormous pressure on students and their teachers making university choices and applications in July and August.
My own suggestion would be more radical, and therefore stands even less chance of being acted upon. But it would good for almost everybody.
Prevent students from starting at university in the same year that they leave school.
I would have benefited enormously from a gap year. A year’s extra maturity and experience – a look beyond the walls of education – would have enabled me to get so much more out of university. Both academically and socially.
The same truth would apply, I’m sure, to 99 per cent of fresh-from-school teenagers.
Perhaps they couldn’t, and maybe shouldn’t, all go backpacking round the world, as I would have loved to do.
We certainly don’t want them spending a year hanging around in their bedrooms, in clubs and on street corners.
Not much point in them merely swelling the ranks of the youth unemployed.
So how about bringing back National Service?
Not of the military kind, which would be the most pointless thing of all. At best.
But there must be an awful lot of ways in which all that youthful brain and brawn could be put to good use.
I’m sure Oxfam, Action Against Hunger, the International Rescue Committee and other such organisations would be very happy to provide a list.
It would do every young person good to meet some of the world’s poor and desperate, and to get their hands dirty helping them. And that certainly includes the Etonians.

Monday, 31 October 2011

All power to the company that knows everything

IN the past, the world was split up into countries and run by kings, presidents and governments.
That’s the way most of us think it still is – well, without many remaining kings.
The division into countries still causes a fair amount of trouble. And so do governments, who continue to labour under the same delusion as most of us, that they are still in charge.
In the future, the world will be run by a small handful of very big companies.
One of them, maybe the most powerful of all, has learned a big lesson about power.
It knows what most kings, presidents and governments have not known. That power doesn’t have to lie in weapons, or in having a big police force.
It doesn’t necessarily lie in oil (that’s the past, and the present, but not the future).
It doesn’t even lie in money – or not directly.
Power lies in information.
This company has more information than any organisation has ever had before. And it goes on collecting it, faster and faster.
It already knows more about you, me, almost everyone, than the spy-crazy Nazis knew about the ordinary German. More than the KGB knew about the citizenry of Soviet Russia.
More even than today’s surveillance-mad British state knows about us.
It makes George Smiley, James Bond and the late lamented News of the World look like toddlers in the playground of information-gathering.
It knows about everything you’ve bought, searched for or even looked at on the internet. It knows how long you looked, what page on what site you came to it from and where you went to look next.
It knows who your friends are. Where your house is and what the street outside it looks like.
If you use all its products – and more and more people do – it knows the identity of everyone you communicate with by email, instant messaging or phone. And the content of all your messages, including voicemail.
If you carry a mobile device around with you – a laptop, a tablet computer or a smartphone – it knows where you spent last night. And every other night.
It knows everywhere you’ve been, how often and how long you spend there.
Like the sat-nav companies, it can track where you go by car. Unlike them, it can also tell where you travel by train, plane or on foot.
It probably knows your bank-card numbers, as well as your date of birth, your reading, watching and listening habits and your mother’s maiden name. You must just hope they keep these things to themselves.
Do you find all this scary, or comforting? There are, I suppose, elements of both. Depending on how far you trust the company to stick to its slogan: “Don’t be evil”.
And also how you think they might define “evil”.
Did I say this was the future? It isn’t. All this is true now.
So what about the future?
If its lawyers get its way the company will soon know the entire contents of every book ever printed, and most of the newspapers, magazines and pamphlets too.
But even that is really just part of the start.
What the company is especially good at learning is how to learn.
Every time its clever machines make a mistake – whether over your taste in music or the correct translation of a word from Lithuanian into Chinese – somebody somewhere soon corrects it for them. Probably simply by rephrasing a question or search term.
The company has machines that know how to recognise most words by sound in most languages and most accents.
Imagine how much mind-bogglingly more it could learn if it applied that know-how to every video clip uploaded to the net.
Nearly an hour of video content is added to YouTube every second. That’s a lot of video, a lot of information (of a sort).
And the company doesn’t just know about it. It owns it.
The company, as you’ve probably guessed, is Google.
It’s pretty much mapped, photographed and catalogued the world. And most of the people in it.
So what next?
Google’s research centre on the moon listens in to “the vast web of electromagnetic pulses that may contain signals from intelligent life forms in other galaxies, as well as a complete record of every radio or television signal broadcast from our own planet”.
OK, that was a joke. But it came from Google itself in the form of a job advertisement placed on April Fool’s Day.
And you know what they say about true words being spoken in jest.
Of course the moon base is science-fiction. But then doesn’t most of what I’ve described above sound like sci-fi?
It certainly would have back in 1999, when Google was merely the latest and trendiest internet search engine, with an index updated every few months. These days the update time can’t even be measured in seconds.
But about that “Don’t be evil” thing.
This morning I looked up care for the elderly, clicked on a link that should have been for the charity Age UK – and was sent by Google to an ad for a funeral service.
That’s some way short of evil in the Hitler or Stalin sense. But it’s not a good step.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Sometimes it is best just to look

A BRIGHT, blustery day of warm sun and biting wind. A day of white clouds scudding fast across the blue, of autumn leaves whisked through the air and beechnut shells crunching underfoot.
Of boats wrestling with their anchors in mid-river, tugged one way by the falling tide and the other by the wind.
Another day to wish I’d brought my camera with me, though I’ve photographed this stretch of the Deben 100 – probably 1,000 – times before. Though always lovely, it’s never exactly the same twice.
Today, among the swans jostling for the children’s bread by the boat club, a single tufted duck turns its head to fix me with its bright yellow eye. Though I’ve seen them on the fishing pond a mile or so upriver, I’ve never seen one just here before, or quite so close.
I watch him dive, and can track his course as he ploughs an underwater furrow, throwing up a smoky trail of mud in the water.
Soon afterwards a familiar squeaky whistle, like a child’s Christmas-cracker toy, tells me the wigeons are back for the winter.
And there they are, a few small families of dapper little brown ducks, the males wearing their yellow facial stripes proudly.
Where the wigeon go there are likely to be teal too, though I can’t see any today.
What I do see, though – and hear, most distinctively – are curlews. There are usually one or two hereabouts, wading in the shallows, probing the mud with their long scimitar-curved bills.
Today there are at least half a dozen within a short distance. I watch one in flight held up in the wind so it seems to hang for a long moment just in front of me.
This is when I miss my camera most, though experience tells me I may just be missing the chance of yet another badly focused blur.
And I tell myself too that sometimes it is best simply to look.
A gathering of black-tailed godwits are examining the mud along the frothy line of the water’s edge, heads done, busy beaks like hypodermic syringes. Nearby are a few redshanks, and the turnstones are back for a stopover too.
On the other side of the river wall, over the riverside meadow, a pair of kestrels are hunting. Normally so skilled at hanging still, today they are being blown about by the teasing wind.
And as I watch, a crow flies between them, making straight for the kestrel nearer me with obvious aggressive intent. At once the kestrel darts off over the river, the crow in rapid pursuit.
I’ve often watched aerial battles between corvids and raptors, and this is another, the crow clearly the attacker in a swooping, swerving contention. Once again, I reflect that watching these wild birds is like watching fighter planes in the Battle of Britain.
And once again it ends with the raptor escaping by flying away higher than the crow cares to follow.
So my eye returns to ground level – or, rather, water level – and immediately catches the humpbacked dive of a cormorant. Which surfaces again a few moments later – and in fact it’s two cormorants, coming up only briefly for air and a look around before returning to the underwater hunt.
Now, you might think I’m over-egging this description, but I can assure you it’s an entirely accurate account of things I’ve seen just before sitting down to write.
Nothing, in fact, I haven’t seen often reasonably often. But the catalogue of birds tells me as surely as the state of the trees that the season is truly changing.
I went out to walk the dog, not to go birdwatching. But in a place like this, at a time like this, how can you not take note of the birds?
And note again how the turn of the seasons and the lives of the wild things put human cares and concerns somewhere nearer their proper perspective.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Dystopia on the trading floor

PICTURE a trading floor at a major financial centre – the City of London, say, or New York’s Wall Street.
Chances are your mental image will be filled with testosterone-charged men in striped shirts and braces all talking fast and loudly into several phones at once. Somewhere there will be a giant screen with revolving numbers, on which all gazes are more-or-less fixed most of the time.
It’s an image derived mostly from the movies, and is as 1980s as big hair, shoulder pads and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Today’s reality – or so I’m led to believe – is just as male-dominated, but a great deal quieter. Phones hardly figure and though screens do, they’re all individual monitors like the PC I’m writing this on, not one big departures board.
The new calm in the financial office is only outward, however. It’s no sign of greater maturity or stability.
The real activity is not merely as frantic as it was before – it’s more, a great deal more, frenetic.
But it’s all going on electronically, computers talking to computers, with humans merely there to supervise and very occasionally intervene.
Though how one supervises, or intervenes effectively, in deals that take place in fractions of seconds and over global distances, I’m really not sure.
Of course human brains devised the computers and the programs that run on them. But most of the activity is out of human hands now.
In the words of Robert Harris: “The digitised financial machine doesn’t work for us: we work for the machine.”
It sounds like a science-fiction dystopia, and in a way it is. Except that it’s the real world we live in now.
A world which politicians can only pretend to have any control over.
Which might in itself be no bad thing if the machine was programmed with morals. With a social and environmental conscience. But of course it isn’t.
Robert Harris has an arresting metaphor for all this.
He describes the global debts the financial markets have created as a suicide bomber’s vest strapped to the Western economies.
But then Harris, a bestselling writer of highly polished thrillers, is naturally good at arresting metaphors.
I enjoyed one or two of his early novels. And his closeness to New Labour, followed by his falling-out with most of its central characters, makes his political commentary occasionally interesting.
So I was interested to read his analysis of the financial world, its changes and dangers.
His article in The Daily Mail was essentially publicity for his new novel, The Fear Index. But he’d done the research for the book, so should presumably know what he’s talking about.
Well, up to a point.
Specifically, it was at the point where he mentioned “algorithms” that I started having doubts.
“Algorithms,” he explains, “are sophisticated programmes designed to predict the behaviour of the markets.”
You what?
In my dictionary, an algorithm is “a rule for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps”. Or, in its specifically computer-related sense, “a set of instructions designed to provide a method of solving a problem or achieving a result”.
Plenty of algorithms involved in the writing of those sophisticated programs he talks about.
But I wouldn’t trust someone who didn’t know the difference between a sparkplug and an engine to fix my car. Or to tell me how it worked.
It’s a pity really. Because in many ways I find Harris’s vision of a world tipped towards approaching calamity by “a collision of brilliant but unworldly scientists and aggressive financial traders” quite persuasive.
But then he does want us to buy his book along with his theory.
And the irony is that those aggressive traders want us to buy into the Fear Index too.
Because if Harris is right – and in this I’m sure he is – they make their biggest fortunes by predicting accurately what people do when they panic.


WITHIN minutes of Liam Fox bowing out of his government position, one of his former ministerial colleagues was on the radio defending him.
Junior minister Andrew Robathan was firstly keen to repeat what we’d been hearing for days, that Fox was “an excellent defence secretary”.
That is a matter of opinion, and a highly debatable one. Even if you accept that he was no worse than recent predecessors, that’s hardly praise.
Robathan then went on to insist that now he was gone, there was no further need to investigate Fox’s relationship with Adam Werritty.
No need to question any more who paid for Werritty’s many trips with his friend and why; the nature and status of his “advisory” capacity; what advantage, if any, might have been taken of his unofficial closeness to the wheels of power.
This is an interesting argument, which solicitors throughout the land might be tempted to try in court.
“Since Mr X was caught he has stopped doing it, so the case against him should be dropped. Oh, and by the way, he was very good at his job.”
How would that sound as a defence of someone accused of, say, burglary? Or fraud.


IT’S been a poor day for spam so far. Only one bad speller has asked me to correct (i.e. give away) my bank details.
Not much else but an offer of a “diploma” from an un-named American university.
Nobody has asked for my help in freeing their family fortune from red tape in West Africa. There hasn’t even been a Russian bride on offer.
Maybe my spam filter is getting more efficient. Or maybe the purveyors of soft drugs, hard porn, willy extensions and boob enlargements have finally given up on me. Which would be a relief.
Bit ironic, though, just as I was toying with the idea of making Spamwatch a regular feature of this column.
And here’s a question.
My internet provider’s filter isn’t great at keeping filth out of my in-tray, so why should I trust its offer to make my browser safe for kids?
What’s more, it dumps so many genuine messages in the spam folder that I always have to check it before I delete. So who’s to say what good stuff might be censored?

Friday, 23 September 2011

Politics, career path for the vacuous

NOTHING said or done at the Liberal Democrats’ conference this week told as much about the business of government as one young delegate interviewed on his way into the hall.
It wasn’t anything interesting or inspiring he said about policy, political philosophy, or even the economy. In fact, I don’t recall him saying anything about such matters.
I don’t even know who he was – if his name was given it passed me by. But that, in a way, is part of the point.
He was just another shiny young face in a shiny new suit. Another vacuous item off the production line.
Another bright young graduate eager to take his seat at conference, his desk in the office, perhaps ultimately his seat in the House.
Another well-spoken middle-class boy following a career path. One mapped out for him by a well-oiled education machine that seemed to require no input of thought on his part.
“How did you get into politics?” he was asked. “Are your parents party members?”
No, they weren’t particularly interested. Neither was he until told by a teacher that his choice of A-levels might gain him a university place to study politics.
Now here, newly graduated, he was. Maybe with a thought or two in his head. Maybe not.
But certainly with no experience of life. No firsthand knowledge of anything beyond being on the receiving end of the education system.
And there, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem with the political system today.
It has become a career in itself. No longer something people go into out of conviction after learning the hard way about life in the real world beyond the party chamber and the committee room.
No wonder the decisions taken in those rooms so often seem inappropriate to the needs of ordinary people. No wonder the people who take them are so often out of touch with the realities of most people’s lives.
Of course you may expect Liberals to have little grounding in reality.
Just as you expect Tory politicians to serve the interests of the land-owners, business people and private-school types from whose class they come.
Sadly, you can no longer expect Labour to represent directly the working class from which the party takes its name.
Its leader, Ed Miliband, is a typical example of today’s politician. He is not and never has been a labouring man.
Outstanding on political theory, and undoubtedly deeply caring, he nevertheless lacks experience of anything but politics. Just like so many on all sides of the House.
No wonder there seems to be no real passion, no real division, no real argument about the big things.
No wonder the LibDems, supposedly bitter opponents of the Tories, found it so easy to get into bed with them and so cosy once there. Because they are all essentially the same.
Politics has become merely a form of management.
And management – as every working person knows – has become a class in itself. A class of people trained to “manage” in the abstract without necessarily knowing the first real thing about the job they are supposed to be managing.
It is true that being a good engineer, for example, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be a good manager. But to manage a team of engineers it would be helpful to have some firsthand experience of engineering.
The best teachers are most often those who have some experience of life beyond the classroom. Those who haven’t just gone from school to university then straight back into school. Who know something of the world their pupils will have to go out into.
Likewise, politics would be so much better if our politicians had lived a bit, struggled a bit, in the real world before getting up on the platform.


AT midnight on Wednesday, our time, a murder was committed.
The long-planned murder of an unarmed man. A murder conspired at and committed by persons whose identities are all known.
Yet not one of them will be punished for the act, except possibly – I hope – by their own consciences.
The one punished was the victim himself.
Punished finally, fatally, irreversibly, for a crime he may not have committed.
A crime, in fact, which much of the evidence now available strongly suggests he did not commit.
A great many people, including Amnesty International, former US president Jimmy Carter and the pope, believe Troy Davis was innocent of the murder he was sentenced for in 1991.
And that even if he was guilty, to execute him is merely to pile crime upon crime, sin upon sin.
The Georgia parole board, however, was not prepared to listen. Not prepared, one suspects, to let anyone else tell them what to do.
Not prepared to consider what was, at the very least – to use the American legal terminology – reasonable doubt.
For their stubbornness, Troy Davis had to die.
And this is the country that likes to lecture the world on human rights. On justice for all.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Belgium's way out of the economists' mess

CALL me sad, or strange, but I’ve just been reading a learned article about the state of the world’s economies.
Well, I do have an A-level in economics. Which is a bit like saying I have an A-level in astrology, palm-reading or the spirit world.
But with this difference. That while economics may be a phony science, based mostly on faith and guesswork, the things its practitioners say do have effects in the real world. Sometimes very profound effects.
The world economic crisis, for example. Economists may have no good idea of how to get us out of it. But they certainly played a part in getting us into it.
John Lanchester isn’t exactly an economist. He’s a commentator on the things economists – and bankers, governments and other general messers with the world – get up to.
His book Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, for example, attempted to make clear to a general reader what the 2007-2010 financial crisis was all about.
Which is fine, except that suggests everything’s got better since last year. Which it hasn’t.
His latest article examines things like tax, spending cuts and international (mostly American) politics in a way that probably isn’t for the general reader.
But in it he makes a point that’s worth thinking about.
It’s about economic growth – you know, that will-o-the-wisp thing that’s supposed to be the aim and measure of everything good in the capitalist world.
Growth may not really be such a good thing in a world rapidly running short of key resources.
But the developed economies, such as ours and America’s, need it in order to pay off the colossal debts they’ve spent the last few years racking up.
To the general gloom of economists, however, growth figures are looking a trifle stagnant (to use their term).
In the last quarter, the US economy has grown by a disappointing 0.3 per cent. The UK figure is an even shabbier 0.2pc – which happens also to be the average for the Euro zone.
Within that zone, German growth stands at precisely zero, while in France the figure is just 0.1pc.
All of which makes Belgium’s 0.7pc growth rate look positively buoyant.
So what’s different about Belgium? How come this little land, stuck as it is between the two stagnant superpowers of Europe, has been outperforming other Western economies?
The domestic political scene in Brussels is in such turmoil that for the past 15 months Belgium has had no government.
No tax policy. No agenda of “austerity”. No cuts in public service. To all intents and purposes, no one in control.
Is this, perhaps, the answer?


I SAW a heartwarming story and an inspiring bit of video footage the other day.
A story that struck a particular chord in the week after tickets for next years Paralympics went on sale.
Though this one wasn’t about a disabled person overcoming the odds. Not, at least, if you assume the word “person” to mean a human. This is more of a shaggy dog story.
A decade ago, when I was internet editor of the Evening Star, I had an excellent deputy called Isobel.
At the same time I had a good friend and colleague called Kahn. When he left to head north, he took Izzy with him. They are now married.
As well as being a journalist in Yorkshire, Kahn is now an aspiring – and very funny – stand-up comedian, while Izzy is a website manager.
But the real star of this tale isn’t either of them. It’s their 18-month-old border collie Teddy.
With the help of specialist trainers, Izzy has taught Teddy to do those clever things collies do which always so impress the crowds at Crufts.
And that despite the fact that he came from a rescue centre, having been blind from birth.
“When we first brought him home we deliberately moved our furniture around to try and improve his other senses,” explained Izzy. “We taught him words such as ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘jump’ and ‘over’, which he learned quickly.”
As he now demonstrates in agility classes, which he has progressed through with skill and alacrity.
Izzy added: “Teddy’s handicap doesn’t affect his quality of life. The fact he’s now confidently jumping over fences and running through tunnels proves how strong-minded he is and how well he uses his other senses.
“He loves the tunnels. The longer they are the better for Teddy.
“I think there would be a limit to the height of the jumps Teddy will be able to do because of his eyes so I’m not sure he will ever get to Crufts. But I would take him as far as he is happy to go.
“I’m so proud of him and of what he’s achieved so far.”
There. Told you it was heartwarming.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Get more from a copper without paying a penny

IT’S been a common middle-class complaint as long as I can remember that there aren’t enough police officers.
More particularly, that the police aren’t visible enough. That we need more bobbies on the beat.
Now this, I’d say, is arguable.
Those who shout it loudest are often the same people who complain most strongly when they’re nicked for speeding.
“Why,” they will wail, “aren’t the police out doing their real job – looking for criminals?”
Conveniently overlooking the fact that driving above the speed limit is a crime.
A more dangerous one, indeed, than breaking into someone’s house, nicking their credit card – or looting from a damaged shopfront.
But all those are events that occur in the real world. The not-enough-bobbies plea owes more to nostalgia for a world that never really was.
An England of cream teas, roses round the cottage door and cheery village plods on bone-shaker bicycles. (Though if I lived in those murder capitals Midsomer or St Mary Mead, I’d want more than a jovial bobby on a bike to protect me.)
Or, to put it in an urban environment, a world in which genial Sergeant Dixon could sum up every criminal incident with a cheery “Evening, all!”
Nevertheless, the common cry for police visibility is one that carries real political weight. All the major parties have been swayed by it for decades.
Now a right-wing “think-tank” has come up with a brilliant solution.
An ingenious way of making the police more visible even at a time when the Tories are gleefully ravaging the public purse.
All police officers, they declare, should be made to wear uniform while travelling to and from work.
Hey presto – suddenly there are cops to be seen everywhere. On the bus. On the tube. On the school run. In the local after clocking-off time.
Great. That’ll keep us all on the straight and narrow.
Now let’s look at it again from the police officer’s viewpoint.
In the village where I grew up, everyone knew the local copper. He lived in the police house. It seemed to work.
In a town or city it’s different.
There are plenty of places where you might not want your neighbours to know what you did for a living.
Places you might not feel safe if they did – or if people you met in the course of your duties might be able to track you down.
It might not be good for your kids to be dropped off at school by a parent in uniform.
And if you should happen to get involved in an official capacity while doing the shopping, say, are your family supposed to get involved too? As unpaid civilian deputies?
Like so many outpourings of “think-tanks”, this idea has more tank about it than think.
It reveals the true right-wing attitude to working people – in this case, the police, but it could be any working people.
That they are merely a resource to be used, a factor to be deployed. Not real people with real lives.
The think-tankers think it’s a great way of saving money on police wages. Effectively getting each officer to put in hours more work each week for no extra pay.
Or, to put it another way, robbing them.


BIG builders and developers are delighted with the government’s proposed changes to national planning laws. Which should tell us all we need to know about them.
Other organisations – those which exist to protect things, not to make money out of them – are not so keen.
The key idea is that getting planning permission will become easier – “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
Among those worried are the Campaign to Protect Rural England, whose chief executive Shaun Spiers says: “The new framework will make the countryside and local character much less safe from damaging and unnecessary development.”
Martin Harper of the RSPB says: “The planning system is there to represent the interests of the public in the face of complex decisions, and it will fail us all if one factor – economic growth – is set higher than any other.”
Even the National Trust, with its in-built leaning towards conservatism with both a small and a large ‘C’, is upset.
Dame Fiona Reynolds, the director general, says: “With these changes comes a huge risk to our countryside, historic environment and the precious local places that are so important for us all. The planning reforms could lead to unchecked and damaging development on a scale not seen since the 1930s.”
“Reform” as a euphemism for “wrecking” – it’s a common theme of this government.
Replacing a complex 1,000 pages of rules with a succinct 52-page cover-all might sound like a good idea to anyone except a lawyer.
But it could mean catastrophe for huge swathes of the British countryside.
Which in a county like Suffolk – beautiful, rural, but within dangerous distance of London – could be very bad news indeed.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mystery and magic of the ancient stones

The menhir de St Jean near Scaer, Brittany
FROM a side-road on the edge of town another turning leads to a twisting country lane. The kind of high-banked lane that suggests many centuries of use – and has you praying you don’t meet anything coming the other way.
Keeping your eyes alert for signs, you eventually spot one, half hidden in the undergrowth at the entrance to an even narrower track. It says simply: “Menhir”.
A few slow turns later you’re walking through long grass between overhanging trees. And then, on the edge of a field grown high with maize, there it is.
A single stone standing a little over seven metres tall – about four times my height – deep in the heart of what is now nowhere in particular. Quietly gathering lichen and moss, as it has for more than 6,000 years.
Legend has it that the stone was flung here in anger by a giant trying to stop his daughter fleeing with her lover.
The giant’s house, from which the stone supposedly came, stands on a hilltop about ten miles to the north. And the story, though probably already old when first written down, is of course nothing like as old as the true story of how the stones came to be where they are.
The “house” is now believed to have been an ancient tomb – “covered alley” or “passage grave” in archaeologists’ terms.
There is little mystery in how the stones it is built of got where they are, for there is a massive quarry nearby. But not much else can really be told about the people who built it, except a rough date of 4000 to 4500BC.
How did they move such huge blocks of stone across the countryside? How did they erect them, or construct tombs that would stand so long?
Perhaps most intriguingly, why did they do it at all?
The dolmen at Crucuno, near Carnac, is thousands of years older than the surrounding housesWhat function were the great menhirs supposed to serve? And were the covered alleys, or the dolmens, really tombs, or did they have some other purpose?
Radio-carbon dating can give us a good idea of roughly when they were erected, but everything else is pretty much speculation.
I remember visiting my first dolmen – essentially a large flat stone supported on uprights – in my early teens. The Bagneux dolmen, near Saumur on the Loire, is tall enough to stand up and walk around inside. The largest of its four cap-stones is about twice the weight of the heaviest stone at Stonehenge.
More recently, it has become something of an obsession wherever we go on holiday to seek out whatever prehistoric monuments may be found.
It has taken us to some magnificent stone circles, stone-age villages and burial sites in the Orkney isles, western Ireland, south Wales and northern England.
And this summer it took us to Brittany, that western outcrop of France where the whole ancient culture of stone monuments may have originated.
The alignments of standing stones at Carnac are well known and well visited. Much too well visited now in August, when only a privileged few of the thronging thousands are allowed inside the fence.
They are undeniably impressive. More than 2,500 stones, the tallest around three metres high, stand in several straight rows stretching literally for miles.
But they are neither the oldest, nor the most engaging, of Brittany’s ancient stones.
A map of Europe’s Neolithic monuments shows a dense scattering all across the continent’s western fringe – what are now thought of as the Celtic nations. In Brittany the dots merge into one solid block of colour.
Ancient sites, some of them individually awe-inspiring, are equally breathtaking in their profusion. What would be an attraction elsewhere is commonplace.
You can get away from the crowds to sit alone by a hilltop stone with a panoramic view and contemplate how the landscape, and the population, has changed and changed again in the millennia it has stood here.
And consider that while the people who erected it have long disappeared, along with their society, their culture, their building methods and intentions, they were basically the same as you and me.
A little shorter and stockier, perhaps. Maybe not so long-lived. But essentially people much like us.
About as intelligent, and surely at least as well organised. How otherwise could they have left the monuments they have, without even the technology of the wheel?
Pondering the hows and whys quickly leads to the realisation that our ways of doing things are not the only ones possible.
Capitalism and democracy are not the only ways to run a society – and Communism or Fascism are not the only alternatives.
Once it was assumed great Stone Age sites such as Stonehenge or Carnac were built with slave labour.
There now seems to be a near consensus among archaeologists that dolmens and stone circles were a co-operative enterprise.
I like that idea better, but both may say more about modern attitudes than ancient realities.
Like the still-prevalent assumption that ancient works had religious causes. Which may be true, or merely a fantasy based on lack of imagination.
Because so little can be known for sure, ancient sites are fertile grounds for imaginings. It’s part of why we like them.
So consider this.
The only place in the world with more dolmens than Brittany is Korea – 6,000 miles away at the other extreme edge of the world’s biggest land-mass.
Make what you will of that.

Genes reunited

OF the 81 people present, 25 were my cousins. That includes those once, and in a couple of cases twice, removed.
Then there were 11 of my nieces and nephews, seven great nieces and nephews, all three of my siblings, a couple of my aunts, an uncle, various in-laws and out-laws, and just one or two people I’d never heard of before.
There were people born in every decade from the 1920s to the present one. Ages ranged from 90 years to six weeks, with another two not yet born but visibly present.
There were people I recognised only thanks to Facebook. Others, now middle-aged, who last met as children.
They converged on Woodbridge from Durham, Dorset, Stafford and Kent, from northern and southern France, and by the day’s end many were on their way back home.
There were teachers, students, chemists and engineers; environmentalists, language specialists, museum staff and computer wizards; several musicians, a few amateur painters and a professional sculptor. I think I was the only journalist, but not the only one to have a first book published in the past year.
There was undoubtedly a fair spectrum of political opinion present, but mostly I think various shades of red or pink. Which may have made it an unusual gathering for the sedate Elizabethan splendour of Seckford Hall.
There were, as there will be at such gatherings, one or two slightly bitter undercurrents, but only one or two I was aware of.
There were far more meetings of people delighted to see one another after many years.
And there were, inevitably, people I’d have liked to spend much longer talking with.
Many of us agreed that we must meet up again soon, and often – and maybe in a few cases we really will. I hope so.
It was not, as you may have assumed, a wedding. Nor was it a funeral.
It was a joint celebration, between the two actual birthdays, of my mother’s 90th and my aunt’s 85th.
After which my aunt, Ruth Smith, had a tennis match in Essex. Not to watch, but to play.
While my mother, Hilary, was back on Wednesday to working with the old folks’ drama group she runs in Woodbridge, starting preparations for the Felbridge Court Christmas show.
The first of these clan gatherings took place near York ten years ago, and most of us probably assumed it was a one-off.
The second, marking Ru’s 80th and Mum’s 85th, was in Somerset.
Here’s to the next one, in 2016…


IF, like me, you’re a habitual watcher of Sky Sports News you’ll be drearily familiar with the ads. No doubt they pepper other daytime channels too.
There are the ones trying to sell you loans, sometimes to pay off your other loans. As if no one had noticed that the rampant loan culture was what got us – individually, nationally and internationally – into the mess we’re in.
There are the ones that hope you’ve had an accident so they can find someone to blame. And then screw for cash.
And then there are the ones that want to help you claim back the cash you should never have spent on PPI – payment protection insurance.
That came to a head this week with the deadline for claims of mis-selling.
Well yes, the banks and finance companies have been screwing us all over for years. So let’s give the dosh to lawyers instead. That’ll help.
Like most folk, no doubt, I’ve been offered PPI a few times, and I have a standard reply.
The same reply, as it happens, that I always give anyone trying to sell me extended warranties for various kinds of equipment.
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
Overpriced “protection” plans of whatever kind have always seemed to me to follow one of the first rules of capitalism.
A rule most succinctly put in an American form (of course): Never give a sucker an even break.


I WAS out of the country at the time, so I missed this summer’s big entertainment, the riots in Tottenham, Croydon and elsewhere.
My mother, however, watched the news avidly. And like nearly everyone she was shocked at what appeared – if the reporting was at all fair – to be the primary motive among the participants.
Not protest (though heaven knows there is plenty to protest about in the country just now) but looting.
A free-for-all grab, a kind of supermarket sweep without rules.
Which is, when you think about it, a quite natural descent for a society obsessed with materialism and with getting everything cheap.
But did my mother really hear a looter address the camera, as he went by with a plasma TV under his arm?
And did that blatant thief really say: “This is my banker’s bonus”?
Seems too perfect really.
Because the only real difference between street looting and the multi-million pound pay-offs to Sir Fred Goodwin and his ilk is one of scale.
You can get an awful lot of plasma TVs on a £700,000-a-year pension.
The essential logic, the justification, is exactly the same in both cases.
They did it because they believed they could get away with it.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

How Popeye won the war and lost the truth

I WANT to tell you a funny story about Popeye. But first I want to tell you how I came across the story, because that’s quite funny too.
I read it in the Journal of Criminology, which is not a publication I often read, and not a place you might expect to find stories about pipe-chomping cartoon sailors.
To be more precise, I read it on the Internet Journal of Criminology – and the internet, of course, is a place you might find almost anything.
Including, as it happens, a lot of stuff about Popeye. Some of which you may have heard, some of which may be dimly familiar, some of which, as a result, you may believe.
You know Popeye, of course. He may even have convinced you as a child to eat your greens.
As he said in 1931 in a ‘special letter to me children frens’: “Dear kids – the reasin why I yam so tough an’ strong is on account of I has et spinach when I was young.”
Good old Popeye. Quality propaganda, that.
It’s been credited with bringing about a huge rise in America’s consumption of spinach, and indirectly even with influencing the outcome of World War II.
“America was ‘strong to the finish cos they ate their spinach’ and duly defeated the Hun.”
That’s how TJ Hamblin put it in a 1981 British Medical Journal article entitled Fake.
He went on, however: “Unfortunately the propaganda was fraudulent. German chemists reinvestigating the iron content of spinach had shown in the 1930s that the original workers had put the decimal point in the wrong place and made a tenfold overestimate of its value. Spinach is no better for you than cabbage, brussels sprouts, or broccoli.”
So there we have it. A neat object lesson in checking your facts – and, incidentally, in the power of lies, or oft-repeated mistakes.
Except that this lesson comes with a huge footnote. Because Hamblin himself appears to have got his facts wrong, or at least a little muddled.
And he didn’t cite his sources, which is the main reason he’s taken to task in the Journal of Criminology by Dr Mike Sutton (who presumably published his paper there because he’s its editor, not because he was uncovering anything criminal).
As Sutton tells it (and he does provide copious citations):
• Spinach probably is no ‘better for you’ than other greens
• It may contain more iron than beef, but not by as much as is sometimes claimed
• The rise in its popularity in America began before 1928, when Popeye was created
Most crucially, that misplaced decimal point, which has been referred to hundreds of times online and in more-or-less learned articles, was probably made up by Hamblin.
Despite popular assumption, the sailor character wasn’t invented to advertise canned spinach – he only started recommending it in 1931, three years into his career as a newspaper strip.
And – at least as drawn by his creator EC Segar – Popeye never actually claimed spinach as a source of iron.
The first time he’s seen eating spinach (raw leaves from the ground, not out of a can), he explains: “Spinach is full of Vitamin ‘A’ an tha’s what makes hoomans strong an’ helty”.
Which is at least partly true.
As teachers and propagandists have known for centuries, humour is a good way of passing on information and getting it remembered.
Unfortunately, it can help just as much in the planting and nurturing of lies, either deliberate or inadvertent.
As does repetition. Those factoids about Popeye, spinach, iron and that apparently fictitious decimal point are much more widely disseminated than Sutton’s careful research on the subject – and no doubt more widely believed.
It’s all part of what Sutton calls “socially embedded codswallop”.
And there’s more than plenty of that around.
Sutton relates it to racism and hate crime; problem gambling; drug, alcohol and child abuse; online urban myths, hoaxes and scams.
I think he’s right. I also believe most of what he reports in his article.
Even though I only read it online.

THERE can hardly be a better summing-up of what science is all about than the motto of the Royal Society, “Nullius in verba”. Or, roughly translated: “Take no one’s word for it.”
Dr Mike Sutton refers to the Bellman’s Fallacy, so named for the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s great comic poem The Hunting of the Snark, who claims: “What I tell you three times is true.”
Sutton says: “There is no scientific law which says the more frequently a belief is voiced, or the more people that believe it, the more likely it is to be true or become true.”
Those who believe, for example, that what is good for “the market” or the Stock Exchange is good for the rest of us, take note.
Likewise those who believe that the British economy can only be saved by hacking the public sector to bits.
It’s seldom been put better than by Ira Gershwin: “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.”

Friday, 15 July 2011

We didn't think it could be all over - it is now

TOMORROW will be a very strange day. Barring holidays and sickness, it will be the first Saturday for 30 years that I haven’t gone to work.
I have at various times been on the payroll of seven different newspapers. Each time I have left one, it has been my choice, to move on to another. Until this time.
Considering the history of the British press, I may be lucky, but this is the first time a paper has folded under me.
The shock is all the greater because no one – except, perhaps, a handful of News International chiefs – could have seen it coming.
As one colleague, a professional tipster, put it: “If you’d wanted to bet a fortnight ago on which Sunday paper would be the first to close down, you could have got 1,000-1 against the News of the World.”
The biggest-selling English-language paper in the world. A paper with a proud 168-year history behind it. A paper still read, until last Sunday, by almost a quarter of the adults in Britain.
When I joined the News of the World in 1995, its weekly sale was well over four million copies. At the last – except for the surge by final-issue souvenir-hunters – that figure had fallen below 3m. Yet in that time, its share of the Sunday market had steadily risen.
Its sudden closure, even in an era of falling newspaper sales, seemed inconceivable. And then it happened.
I don’t wish to speculate here and now on exactly why it happened.
There are plenty of conspiracy theories about that. Theories alleging a conspiracy by the company owners, the Murdochs; others alleging a conspiracy against them.
There are plenty of people out there – too many of them, I’m afraid, among my friends – eager to celebrate the giant’s fall.
But of this I am sure: It shouldn’t have happened. It needn’t have happened. No one, really, will be better off for it.
Of course, there were times when I groaned inwardly at things the paper published. Times I disagreed with what it said, even what it appeared to stand for.
But that’s part of the point of a free press.
If it only published things I agreed with, it wouldn’t be free.
And, despite popular assumptions about control and influence, there is plenty of evidence that over the years all the Murdoch-owned papers have published much with which Murdoch himself disagreed.
The only diktat applying to all Murdoch titles which I’ve been aware of was one in support of ecological responsibility.
News International was the first – as far as I know, so far the only – major media group to declare itself carbon neutral. Which is surely a good thing.
The News of the World may have become, suddenly, a “toxic title”, but the company is not as toxic – literally – as many of those companies which catastrophically withdrew advertising support.
I might feel compelled to retaliate against that action by boycotting Sainsbury’s and Asda, but I can’t.
That’s because I haven’t set foot in either of those stores for many years. For ethical reasons.
Ethics? A News of the World journalist?
If that’s a contradiction, it’s no greater than the one made by any caring, thoughtful person who chooses to shop, to drive, to take foreign holidays or to use a bank – among other things we all do.
Certain assumptions have always been made about the News of the World. Assumptions based largely on snobbery. Assumptions which, before I went to work there, I largely shared.
When I first presented myself at the Wapping plant, I was at a low point in my life. To be blunt, I needed the money.
I expected the office to be populated by the hard-nosed and vulgar, to be bossed by bullies. I thought I’d be able to put up with it for a few months.
I certainly didn’t expect to walk into a sports department full of people I liked.
Dedicated, professional people whose company I enjoyed and whose opinions I very often shared.
Yet that, with only isolated, unimportant exceptions, is what I found, and what has continued to be the case ever since.
The News of the World’s last sports editor, Paul McCarthy, is one of the finest journalists I’ve had the privilege of working with.
The team of writers he assembled really did include the best in the business.
On the night of the rugby World Cup final in 2007, I had the task of sub-editing the match report sent in from Paris by Andy Dunn, the then new chief sportswriter.
What he submitted, seconds after the game ended, was a well-crafted masterpiece. I had nothing to do but fit it into the space.
I remember it only because it was my first close involvement with his work under pressure. I know now that he’s always that good.
His column-writing too, though I generally write on different subjects, has been an influence on mine.
Those are names you might know. Even if you’ve been a regular News of the World reader for years, you won’t have heard of Nick Jones. But he was just as vital a part of the sports operation, and for a lot longer.
Nick was chief of that unseen, unsung team vital to all newspapers, the sub-editors – the team of which I was a member.
The people who make the words fit the pages and the paper’s style, who check names, facts, spellings and grammar.
The people who – most vitally on the News of the World – write the headlines.
Those are the things I’ve been doing for most of my career. And I’ve never done it for a better, or a nicer, boss than Nick.
There are others on the team I shall miss too.
I looked around the sports room last Saturday night and I saw 50 people who had never hacked anybody’s phone, or asked anyone else to do so. Who had no share in whatever guilt there may have been elsewhere, at an earlier date.
Who were still, right up to the end and despite any bitterness and disbelief, working with care, decency and professionalism.
I have been involved in sports journalism for all but two of the last 33 years. For exactly half that time I have put in at least one weekly shift at the News of the World.
I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve been proud of it.
It will take a while really to believe it’s all over.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Which people is democracy for?

WE live, supposedly, in a democratic country. Which means, in Abraham Lincoln’s great phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Not for the rich. Not for those who happen to have been born wealthy. Not for those who move other people’s money around and end up with a lot of it themselves.
For the people. For you, me and all the folk down your street and mine.
For the people who get old and need pensions.
For the people who are young and need educating.
For the people who get sick and need treatment.
For the people who get unlucky and need welfare.
With this in mind, and with thanks to my friend Alan Baker who dug out the figures – all from reliable public sources – I’d like to share with you a few interesting facts.
• In 2010, state pension payments in the UK added up to £117.2billion. That’s a lot of money. Not so much, though, when you divide it out among more than 10million people.
• The personal wealth of the 1,000 richest people in Britain totals £395bn – of which £124bn is owned by just 20 people.
• In 2008 the UK government spent a total of £581bn on pensions, health, education, defence, welfare and transport. Pretty much everything, in fact, that a government is there to provide.
• That same year it shelled out £850bn on rescuing private sector banks from collapse.
• This year the UK National Debt stands at around 80 per cent of GDP (that’s the total market value of all goods and services produced in the country).
• In 1947 the UK National Debt stood at around 238 per cent of GDP. Yet that was the year the Welfare State was formed. For the people.
Now take another, closer look at those figures and remind me who and what democracy is for?

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Stand by while your pocket is picked?

IT’S not an original comment – it’s been around quite a bit lately on the net – but it’s worth repeating:
“Remember when teachers, nurses, doctors and lollipop ladies crashed the stock market, wiped out banks, took billions in bonuses and paid no tax? No, me neither.”
Of course you can add quite a few other important people to that list too. All of them people whose jobs are about providing necessary services to society, not merely selling stuff that may or may not be needed (and in most cases probably isn’t).
All of whom have been told by the government that they must pay more in to their pension funds, take less out, and wait a few years longer to get it.
It is, of course, impossible to put a general figure on how much is being filched off each person. Cases vary from individual to individual.
But I have seen one calculation that put the figure for one teacher at around £350,000.
Not, of course, that that particular teacher has ever seen, or ever will see, such a sum at one time. Unlike, say, a Premier League footballer, a merchant banker or a member of Her Majesty’s government.
But reckoning total losses over an expected lifetime, that is about the size of the hole which current Tory policies will make in her hard-earned finances.
And you were wondering what yesterday’s strike – and all the coming strikes over what is sure to be a summer (and autumn) of strife – was all about?
Politicians on both sides of the House have been saying (as they always will) that the strikes are wrong.
As if the government itself hadn’t quite deliberately picked the fight in the first place.
And as if anyone should be expected to stand aside politely and without protest while their pockets are picked on such a grand scale.


GREECE is in turmoil, Portugal and Ireland could be next, Spain is said to be teetering. The Euro itself, they say, is in peril.
Over the pond, the world’s largest economy is in crisis, brought to its knees by decades of militaristic mania that began with the insanity known as the Cold War.
We’re all in debt to someone, it seems. But who?
The answer, in big, broad-brush terms, seems to be China.
So maybe the Communists didn’t lose the Cold War after all.
Of course China wisely stayed out. America and the Soviet Union were both big losers in the long run.


WHEN I hear scaremongering talk about the imminent collapse of the international banking system, a bit of me thinks “bring it on”.
If only the process wouldn’t mean so much trouble and pain for so many. Mainly the innocent.
The last time international finance collapsed – I mean really collapsed, not just wobbled a bit – it resulted in world war.
A war which slew many millions, and the aftershocks of which are still being painfully felt in several parts of the world.
In the final analysis, that is the loaded gun which the world’s bankers are holding to all our heads.


IT’S a very long time since I enjoyed Wimbledon as much as I’ve been enjoying this year’s tournament.
Especially in the women’s draw, it’s a long time since there were so many good matches right from the early rounds. Since outcomes were so unpredictable and the quality of entertainment so high.
I have heard moans that the quality of the tennis isn’t that great. But I can’t recall a time when people (mostly men) didn’t say that about women’s tennis.
They moaned when the game was dominated by just one or two players – King, Navratilova, Evert, Graf, the Williams sisters. And now they moan that the world no.1 (the admittedly rather dull Caroline Wozniacki) has no Grand Slam title under her belt.
As if that wasn’t evidence that the era of individual domination is over (for now).
It was suggested by some cynics that the Williamses would stroll in after sitting out most of the year’s other action and claim the top prizes as if by right. Well, that theory - like Wozniacki’s participation – barely lasted into week two.
The hyperactive performance of Marion Bartoli in defeating Serena Williams was thrilling and enthralling. As, until a disappointing semi-final, were the achievements of Bartoli’s conqueror, the unseeded Sabine Lisicki.
Between them, those relatively unsung players have provided some of the best sporting entertainment of the year.


AS a footnote to my two recent columns about domestic violence, I’ve been asked to draw attention to the Men’s Advice Line,
It offers advice and support for men in abusive relationships, both those experiencing violence and abuse from partners, and those concerned about their own violence.
And is, I am told, very good and very useful.