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.