Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Playing with guns

Another young man with what are now generally called “issues”, another slaying of the innocents. When will America grasp the fact – obvious to nearly all other nations – that allowing people to carry guns makes them dangerous?
Identifying the problem is easy. Solving it is trickier.
Even without the constant pressure brought to bear by the wicked – yes, that is the right word – National Rifle Association. The so-called "gun lobby".
The people who think the answer to the shooting of a whole class of primary-school pupils is to arm teachers.
Which must be one of the worst “solutions” to a problem ever proposed.
Not because teachers can't be trusted to carry guns – though whether every teacher, at all times, in all conditions and all mental states should be armed, I’m not at all sure. But because no teacher – no ordinary human being – should be expected to bear that responsibility.
Also because one breach of security – and such breaches would be inevitable in any school – could potentially put lethal weaponry in the hands of unruly or disgruntled pupils.
It should be clear to anyone not brainwashed by the gun lobby that such measures could only make a bad situation worse. But how to make it better?
Scrapping the USA’s insane “right” of citizens to carry guns would be an obvious and necessary first step. But it would only be a first step. The second step, the third and the fourth, would not be so easy.
Once the genie is out of the bottle, you cannot put it back. Certainly not by will, and law-making, alone.
There are an awful lot of guns out there on the mean streets of America. An awful lot of people (including a lot of awful people) who like carrying them.
An unintended effect of the Volstead Act of 1919, which made alcohol illegal, was that 1920s America became awash with booze.
Decades of draconian law against drugs have not removed drugs from society. Arguably, by leaving their distribution in criminal hands, they have made them a good deal more dangerous.
I have long believed that other drugs should, like alcohol (which is one of the hardest drugs in use), be legal but strictly regulated.
That regulation would be difficult, but necessary.
The same goes for the regulation of guns.
How, I wonder, would the NRA and their like react to a new “right” of citizens to carry marijuana, heroin and cocaine?


The US facts in figures
US citizens are 5pc of the world’s population
They own 50pc of the world’s guns
That’s 300million guns – almost exactly one per person

People shot dead in one year:
Australia 35
England & Wales 39
Germany 194
USA 9,484


What a truly fabulous sporting year it’s been for Britain. In any normal year, any one of the 12 nominees would have been a shoo-in for the BBC's Sports Personality award.
Between them, the glittering dozen won 20 gold medals at London 2012, golf’s Ryder Cup and a Major, a tennis Grand Slam and the Tour de France. Several achievements there unprecedented for a Brit. And not a footballer or cricketer among them – or, indeed, anyone from any team sport, which must be a first.
But at risk of seeming a party-pooper, and being accused of political incorrectness, I’m going to admit to a smidgeon of doubt. Not about Wiggo, whose victory in the popularity poll was right, proper and seemed inevitable, but about the whole sporty love-in.
Yes, the Olympic and Paralympic Games were great – unexpectedly so, especially for Britain – but were the Paralympics really quite all they’ve been cracked up to be?
Sure, there were lots of splendid triumphs against adversity and lots of terrific “human interest stories”. Many competitors achieved amazing things and deserved their share of glory.
One of the most deserving was swimmer-turned-cyclist and personality award nominee Sarah Storey, who equalled Tanni Grey-Thompson’s GB record of 11 Paralympic golds. And who has called – rightly, in my opinion – for more respect and equality to be shown towards paralympic athletes.
“The press have a part to play,” she said. “We should start to see a little bit more critical coverage of the Paralympics; in para sport people still shy away from being critical.
“It would be great to see people looking at both sides.”
So here goes, Sarah.
Jonnie Peacock, another of Britain's golden performers at the Paralympics, got a rapturous reception as he won the T44 100 metres, leaving the great Oscar Pistorius trailing in fourth. He is the world record-holder in the event for single-leg amputees. Fabulous.
But – like a high proportion of Britain’s Paralympic team – he only took up his sport four years ago after turning up at a talent-spotting meeting.
Good for him. And, as he says, “wicked” for the perception of disabled people by others – and, more crucially, themselves.
But if someone can go from beginner to world’s best in so short a time, what does that say about the standard of competition?
Elite sport? Comparable in any way with the lifelong devotion and hard work that has put Brad Wiggins, Jess Ennis, Andy Murray or Mo Farah where they are?
Sorry, no.


Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Untruths best left unExpressed

From where I sit, there is no huge snow drift to be seen outside the window. And unless the thermometer has shown a sudden extreme dip unpredicted by the Meteorological Office, between my writing this page and you reading it, we are not shivering just now in the grip of “a beast from the East”.
We do not seem, at this moment, to be suffering “the coldest week for 20 years”. Yet that, if you were to believe the big banner headlines on the front page of one national newspaper just four days ago, is what we should be enduring.
Readers of the Daily Express are perhaps disappointed not to be experiencing temperatures “colder than the North Pole”, along with the little thrill that always comes with broken records.
Perhaps they are so used to their paper making sensational claims that they don’t notice when they turn out to be untrue.
Perhaps their memories are too short for them to be wondering now why the weather doesn’t seem to have turned Siberian after all.
In the wake of the Leveson Inquiry I spoke up in these pages for the freedom of the press to remain unrestricted – or at least as relatively unrestricted as it has been up to now. But with rights goes responsibility. And the press – especially one classified as “free” – really does have a responsibility to tell the truth as nearly as it can.
That responsibility is far more important, I would suggest, than whether or not a few phone messages are illegally hacked into. Yet it is a responsibility too often ignored by some sections of what I still want to call Fleet Street.
In one genuine cold snap, a couple of winters ago, the Express ran a front page suggesting a few inches of snow on this little island was evidence that global warming was nonsense.
Anyone with half a brain, and a half-decent education, should have known that it was the Express story that was really nonsense.
It was at least consistent, though, with the campaign the paper has kept up ever since to deny the honest and reputable science on arguably the most vital topic of our times.
Last Friday’s “big freeze” story was presumably part of that campaign, though it wasn’t spelled out as such.
But I was surprised the paper’s headline-writers missed their chance to contribute to its other long-running inaccurate and immoral campaign of bone-headed disinformation.
The opportunity was hinted at in that facile “beast from the East” line.
Yet for some reason they failed to come up with what would surely have been the perfect Express heading: “Migrants Bring Their Evil Weather Here”.


Journalists are all told, at the start of their careers, to avoid clichés “like the plague”. Ho ho. How we all chuckle – and how we all spend the rest of our careers glibly ignoring the advice.
Hence the phrase “national treasure” has been applied so loosely so often to so many tedious half-entities of stage, screen and sporting arena that it has lost nearly all meaning.
There are very few occasions when its use does seem appropriate. One of those few is to describe that genuine treasure, that true moulder of the national consciousness, Patrick Moore, who has died aged 89.
If Sir Patrick, as he became in 2001, often seemed like a throwback to an earlier, quainter, form of Englishness, that seems to have been the way he liked it.
His enormous roaming eyebrows, his monocle, his machine-gun way of speaking, everything about his larger-than-life physical presence resembled a cartoon gentleman from a fantasy 1940s.
Which, in a way, having lied about his age and deceived a medical board in order to join the RAF, is pretty much what he was.
Everything about him smacked of the Biggles adventure. And if his attitudes to life on Earth were sometimes excruciating, his enthusiasm for everything beyond the planet infected us all – from Queen guitarist and astrophysicist Brian May to me.
The enthusing of a young Brian Cox must count among the many “services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting” for which he received that rare thing, a deserved knighthood.
The equally engaging Cox brings the subject of space into our living rooms at a much more informative level. But he could not have done so without the earlier example of Moore, the giant on whose shoulders he stands. 


I could go on at length about the tragic and troubling news story that has dominated the airwaves these past few days. But since just about everyone else has been doing so, I won’t.
Except to make two simple points, which ought to be obvious.
1.      The death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha was very sad.
2.      It was no one’s fault.
Now can we just move on, please?



Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Of swollen fingers and blurred vision

IT’S my age, you know, dear. Not a mid-life crisis – I’m highly unlikely to reach 110, and anyway I had my crisis nearly two decades ago. But things are happening to me that wouldn’t have seemed plausible back then.
For instance, the constant discomfort and inconvenience of an arthritic finger. Only one finger, but you’d be surprised how awkward it can be.
Carrying a mug of tea, wielding a fork, tying my shoelaces – all these things have become occasions of difficulty and pain.
And the doctor says I just have to live with it. Either that or go on taking anti-inflammatory drugs for the rest of my natural, which, frankly, I’m not prepared to do.
Any genuine suggestions of a third alternative will be gratefully received and seriously considered.
And then there’s my eyesight.
As I sit typing this I’m aware that I keep moving my head unnaturally up and down and from side to side in a mostly vain bid to keep the words in something like focus as they appear. And I’m beginning already to feel something very like motion sickness.
I know new glasses always take a little while to get used to, and this is my first morning with this pair, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like this.
My family and friends are going to have get used to a new me as well – one who wears glasses all the time, not just for reading and writing.
I’ve had specs for close work since I was ten. And pretty much all that time I’ve been used to slipping them down my nose to look over them at anything much more than arm’s length away.
But now I’ve had to concede that my distance vision is no longer better than nearly everyone’s.
In fact, these new glasses make me suddenly aware how much fuzziness has been gradually creeping in. Looking through them, instead of over them, at things in the middle distance is like switching from an old telly to a new HD screen.
For the first time in my life I’m going to be wearing prescription glasses for driving. I may find some benefit at extreme close range too – I might even be able to thread a needle easily, for the first time in years (if the arthritis lets me).
But it’s in the stuff I do most – reading, writing, using the computer, all the things I’ve always worn specs for – that these new varifocals are already threatening to drive me mad.
Have patience, you and the optician will say. But my brother has a pair of varifocals in a drawer while a nice old-fashioned pair of bifocals sits on his nose.
And if this seasickness doesn’t abate soon, I can see myself going the same way.

IT’S my age, you know, dear, Part Two

That outstanding broadcaster Nicky Campbell was talking on Radio 5 Breakfast the other day about all the things he had resigned himself, at 51, to never doing.
On my own list might be:
·         Never climb Everest
·         Never play professional football (actually I gave that one up at about age ten, around the time I got my first pair of specs)
·         Never appear on University Challenge (though my old college did win last year’s “former students” mini-series, so maybe there’s still just an outside hope).
I don’t recall most of Campbell’s list, but one item leapt out at me. He has resigned himself to never reading Tolstoy’s War And Peace.
Big mistake, Nicky. And there’s no reason whatever why you shouldn’t go back on it, either.
I know, because it just so happens that on the morning you said that, I was about three quarters of the way through the book. I’ve now finished reading it – for the first time, but very likely not the last. And I’m four years older than you.
Two things had always put me off reading War And Peace – probably the same two things that put off Nicky Campbell.
One: it’s very long. At well over half a million words, it’s the length of six or seven “normal” novels.
Two: it’s routinely described as one of the best books ever written – often enough as “the” best. And that’s enough to put anyone off.
What no one tells you is what a fabulously good read it is. Apart from an unnecessary rambling essay at the end on the nature of history (chop that off and you’ve got a better book, 40 pages shorter), it’s as close to unputdownable as anything I’ve read.
Once you’re over the early confusion of who’s who in a vast cast of characters, many of them with similar names, you find yourself absorbed in a world that takes you from city to country, ballroom to battlefield, with equal conviction and realism.
My sister, who studied Russian at university, claims to have read it from cover to cover, in the original Russian, on a train journey to Moscow. Must have been a long journey. But what an absorbing and compelling one.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The rot goes deep in coastal cities

THERE’S something rotten in the state of New York. And it isn’t just Wall Street.
The insidious way the culture of high finance rots society from within is one thing, of course.
It’s why the world is in an economic mess that threatens to get a lot messier (at least it’s one of the more obvious reasons). It’s why we have an Occupy movement – even if the battle between high finance and Occupy is even more one-sided than the one between Israel and Hamas.
But the rot I’m really talking about is both more literal and more hidden than that.
And it could, potentially, be at least as grave a threat to humanity on a global scale.
It’s not often spoken about, and almost never seen, because it’s an underground movement. Literally.
The obvious effects of the recent Superstorm Sandy were, of course, greatly exaggerated. Anything that affects New York is always played for its fullest dramatic effect.
Death and destruction on a major scale in, say, central Africa is worth a few paragraphs written 1,000 miles away. Wet streets in New York City – major news everywhere.
But it was more than wet streets. And the real story didn’t make dramatic pictures or headlines.
According to Masoud Ghandehari, a New York University engineer quoted in New Scientist magazine, the city is “degrading from underneath”.
Just as what you see above ground is only the upper part of a tree, so tall buildings require deep foundations. Then there is the vast and complex network of sewers, waterpipes, cables and subways that constitutes much of the living organism of a modern city.
A lot of it, in New York as elsewhere, is made of steel. And steel, as we all know, goes rusty when it gets wet.
Most of the time, the buried steel is kept dry by concrete and earth. But if those protective layers get saturated with salt water, corrosion becomes inevitable.
If you’ve ever left your car for long at the seaside – at Felixstowe, for example – you’ll be familiar with the effect.
If your windowframes go rotten or your walls crack above ground, you can see it and get something done about it. If your skyscraper’s foundations rust away, you may not realise it until it’s too late.
As Gandehari puts it: “The ultimate risk is that we do not see what’s happening, so we cannot take action at the right place at the right time.”
The danger is not just the after-effects of Superstorm Sandy. In fact, that was probably a very minor event in this story – except perhaps in helping draw attention to the matter.
The real problem is rising sea-level. And again it is the unseen effect as the coastal water-table rises and salty damp seeps into the land.
This, even more than Sandy and the other superstorms to come, is the real impact that global warming may already be having on New York.
And – along with the very real increased risk of catastrophic flooding – on every high-rise city on any coastline in the world.

Phone-hacking can't get any more illegal

A YEAR after the Leveson Inquiry began probing the ethics (or otherwise) of the British press, it’s a fair bet the public at large are less agog than those in the trade to hear the long-awaited report on Thursday.
There are good reasons, though, why anyone who cares about our society, and our democracy, should care about what happens next.
The inquiry went much deeper than phone-hacking (which was illegal anyway) and there are predictable calls for press freedoms to be hacked back by new laws.
Press freedom, though, is already a fiction. Supposed free speech is already curtailed by the laws of libel, contempt of court and official secrets, not to mention the growing impact of injunctions.
Most of these restraints exist to protect the establishment and the rich from the prying eyes of the plebs.
The ideal would be less restraint, not more – though of course there is a responsibility on the press to act responsibly. As the local and regional press nearly always does.
Some elements of the national press have been a national disgrace for many years but the answer to that doesn’t lie in legislation.
The experience of certain other countries – Soviet Russia, China, Egypt and Iran are only among the more obvious examples – shows that there is one thing worse than an unfettered press.
And that’s a press fettered by government.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

What's so good about police democracy?

ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO doesn’t get a very good press in the West – when he gets any press here at all.
But I was struck by the headline over a recent interview with the Belarussian president: “What’s so good about democracy anyway?”
Whatever you think of Lukashenko (if you ever think of him at all), it’s a question well worth asking yourself from time to time.
The best answer may lie with Winston Churchill, who called democracy “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.
Generations of American experience have shown that it is definitely not the best way of running a police service, even among those that have been tried.
Our police service, for all its many faults, probably really is (as is so often claimed) one of the world’s best. It has generally been at its worst when political interference has been at its strongest – as when Margaret Thatcher effectively made it her army against the miners.
We have yet to discover how much difference, if any, the newly elected police and crime commissioners will make to actual policing. It’s hard to see how they can fulfill the brief of increasing “public accountability”.
What they may be able to do is deflect flak from the government when decisions about the police prove unpopular. Which may, in fact, be what they are really there for.
Since they are mostly supposed to leave the professionals to get on with the job, one wonders what they will do to earn their up-to-£100,000-a-year salaries. Sounds a decent sum for hiring and firing chief constables and setting the police budget, which is what one candidate said the role boiled down to.
The election itself was budgeted at £75million, which adds up to about £12 for each vote actually cast.
At a time when the police, like nearly every other public service, is groaning under cuts, does any of this sound like money well spent?
I did consider last week doing something I’ve never done before – abstain in a public election. I kept reminding myself of the old slogan: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them”.
When I bothered to check out the Suffolk candidates, however (how many people even did that?), it became obvious that I had to vote, and who for.
Just one of the four pledged to stand up against cuts and privatisation. She also promised, among other mostly good things, to “prioritise action on violence against women and girls, domestic violence” and “hate crime”.
She got my vote.
And if the election had been run on the normal first-past-the-post system generally favoured by the prime minister, she would have won.
It was pretty obvious, though, once the count went down to second-preference votes, that Jane Basham would lose out to Tim Passmore. Those who had picked the Independent or UKIP candidates as first choice were always more likely to favour Tory over Labour for second best.
Which is a pity for Jane Basham and for Suffolk, if the PCC turns out to have any real power.
It’s hard to see, though, what sense of a “mandate” Mr Passmore can possibly take into his new job.
He can only claim to have been the first choice of 5.4 per cent of people eligible to vote.
Suffolk’s 16pc turnout was actually above the national average of 15pc – which would presumably have been lower still if some voters had not been brought out by three parliamentary by-elections and one mayoral election on the same day.
Were the 85pc who didn’t vote motivated – if that’s the word – by apathy, ignorance, or a positive desire to snub the whole business? It was undoubtedly a combination of all those factors.
But they call into serious question the validity of the election itself.
After all, it was only in July that Essex Tory MP Priti Patel declared: “Any ballot in which fewer than half of those eligible to vote do so should be ruled invalid.”
True, she was talking about strike ballots, not jobs for the boys – but what’s sauce for the goose…


RECENTLY, my work has made me familiar with the corner of west London where the Israeli embassy stands. It is commonplace to see British police officers outside it clutching semi-automatic rifles, which is not something I want to get used to seeing.
Last Friday night, while TV screens filled with images of Gaza under fire and Jerusalem in fear, the armed presence outside the embassy was considerably increased. More alarmingly, I saw gun-toting police rushing about among the crowds of shoppers in Kensington High Street.
It was the clearest reminder I ever hope to see of the globalised nature of modern conflict.
It’s hard – no, it’s impossible – to understand or condone the actions of Israel in waging its vicious war of aggression against the Palestinians of Gaza. Once again, the latest upsurge of hostilities seems to be entirely of their doing.
On the other hand, nothing is as clear-cut as so many commentators (and some of my friends) seem to think.
The state of Israel is neither all good nor all bad. And neither is Hamas.
The situation is complex, historically tangled and hard to see a decent or humane way out of. Missile attacks on civilians – of either side – are not decent, humane, or a way out.


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

On the old Berlin Wall, where buzzards dare

THIS is the age of the buzzard.
When I was a child, just to spot one in the distance was a rare, exciting event, possible only on holidays abroad. Only a very few years ago, the only way to see one in Suffolk would have been to visit the bird sanctuary at Stonham Barns.
Now if, like me, you’re a watcher of the skies, it’s not that unusual to see that great broad-winged shape drifting gently over the landscape like a feathered bomber or troop-carrier.
A more apt comparison might be with its closest relative, the eagle. But you still won’t see an eagle over Suffolk – or in a big city.
And though the buzzard is now – amazingly – one of our commonest birds of prey, it’s still a thrill to get to watch a wild one at close quarters.
This one, which I photographed last week, knew perfectly well that I was watching it. It knew too it was in no danger and had no need to stir from its own perfect viewing platform. Even when I rummaged in my bag to change lenses, fitted a telephoto, then walked as close as I could to its perch, it merely cast a disdainful eye my way.
The high place from which it surveyed its hunting ground (and me) might have been purpose-built for it. In fact, it was built with other watchers – and other prey – in mind.
It was one of the grim concrete watchtowers built by the East Germans to scan the dead zone between the inner and outer skins of the Berlin Wall. Not to stop westerners invading, but to prevent inhabitants of the Communist bloc from escaping in pursuit of pop music and jeans.
Travelling around Berlin 23 years after the Wall came down, it’s seldom easy to tell which ‘sector’ you’re in.
The buzzard on its lookout tower
The downtown centre is just as high-rise, shiny, architecturally self-important – and soulless – on one side as the other. Further out, the pavements are as cracked and rubbish-strewn, the walls as thoroughly graffitied, in one neighbourhood as another.
For those in the know, the superb public transport system provides a clue. If you’re riding a bus, you’re probably in the old west; if you’re on a tram, you’re in the east. Mostly, though, the best remaining evidence of the Wall is the space it has left – that old ‘dead zone’.
What was once more than just a symbol of division and terror has become a marked trail, 100 miles long, much of it a public space 50 metres or more wide for the enjoyment of all Berliners (and their visitors); in places an oasis of grass, trees, birds and dog-walkers zigzagging its way across the sprawling city. In its autumn colours, a beautiful place to stroll. And a perfect site for a buzzard to live, watch and feed.
Berlin, in fact, is not short of trees or open spaces. No doubt this is partly a legacy of the Allied bombing campaign that reduced so much of the city to rubble in 1943-44.
The only significant hills in the city, now pleasantly wooded, are in fact mounds of rubble from the pre-war capital.
The highest point, the Teufelsberg (which I shall have to visit another time), on the western fringe of the city, is an 80-metre-high heap piled atop the ruins of a never-completed Nazi military academy.
Its summit became a Cold War listening post. More recently, it was earmarked by the Maharishi Foundation as a possible site for a “Vedic university of peace”. A plan which came to the same nothing as the same organisation’s similar scheme a decade earlier for the Bentwaters airfield.
More surreal still is the modern fate of Checkpoint Charlie, slap in the centre of Berlin.
Once famous as one of the few official crossing-points in the Wall, mostly deserted except by its permanent staff of grim-faced border-guards, it has become a honeypot of tourist activity.
Here you can have your photo taken alongside grinning stooges in facsimile 1940s US Army rig. With the golden arches of McDonald’s, inevitably, filling the background.
Behind you, the gable end of a tall building proclaims: “You are now entering the not-for-profit sector”. If this were still true, it would be bad news for the hotdog stands clustering below and the Turks and north Africans competing to sell “Soviet army” hats and insignia.
In Prague in 1992 I assumed the Soviet headgear was genuine. Now I suspect it comes from sweatshops in China.
In so many ways, Berlin has a weird relationship with its often tortured history. Some of its memorials seem curiously misjudged, notably the grandiose modernity of the vast Jewish Museum, which sadly badly misses its mark.
Despite this, and what I said above about grime and graffiti, I like Berlin. In fact, a lot of the graffiti is colourful and artistically creative and brightens the place up. It seems emblematic of a lively and friendly city.
Among all the sights and contradictions, what I find the most curious historical irony goes entirely unremarked by the locals.
It is the presence of two stores – a vast Toys R Us and a still-thriving Woolworth’s – on Karl-Marx Strasse.
Check your souvenirs here

Sunday, 11 November 2012

My weight loss is a side-effect of fast living

TODAY I weigh several pounds less fully clothed, including shoes, than I did a month ago fully naked.
I wasn’t what you’d call fat before, but middle age was spreading about me in ways I didn’t care for.
The gain had been slow and insidious over years, a common experience. The sort of incremental increase you don’t notice day by day, even month by month, until you find yourself buying clothes a size or two bigger than before.
No one looking at me a few weeks ago would have thought – as I sometimes think of strangers in the street – “Gosh, he needs to diet”.
But, I can tell you, I already feel better not having to carry those extra few pounds of fatty tissue about with me everywhere I go.
Another month or so at this rate and I’ll be down to what I’ve long considered my “proper” weight. And I might have to buy some new clothes again.
After that, it’ll be interesting to see where on the scales my weight stabilises. And, indeed, whether it will do so without some sort of positive action on my part. I don’t want to shrink away entirely.
What I don’t think I’ll do is just stop dieting. Because my new regime was never primarily about weight loss anyway.
The difference on the bathroom scales is merely a by-product. A welcome by-product, certainly, but no part of the main goal – which is less easily measurable but potentially much more rewarding.
The prime aim is nothing less than lengthening my life. And, along the way, improving the quality of my living.
Sounds faddy, I know, and perhaps it is. But if it works, those seem to me like pretty worthwhile goals to achieve.
And I’m struggling, so far at least, to see any down side.
Now I’m not someone who normally goes for fads. If someone tries to sell me something I usually assume it’s for their benefit, not mine (this may be why I’m lousy at selling things, including myself).
I don’t do diets. Companies that sell you diet products do so in the confident expectation that the effects will be temporary and you will come back for more later.
It was grim poetic justice that Robert Atkins, promoter of the protein-rich Atkins Diet, weighed over 18 stone when he died.
I’m not going mad on proteins – the sensible advice is to cut down on them.
And I’m not buying anything from anyone. In fact I’m saving money slightly because I’m buying less food.
You may have guessed by now that I’m talking about the 5:2 diet proposed by telly scientist Michael Mosley in his recent Horizon programme Eat, Fast and Live Longer.
It’s a gloriously simple plan. For five days in every week you eat just as you always did. For the other two (non-consecutive) days you fast.
And that doesn’t mean going without food altogether, either – though if you wanted to do it that way I’m sure you could.
For me, the “fast” days mean having a slice of toast for breakfast as usual then nothing more until the evening. Then it’s something very light such as a piece of fruit, a crispbread “sandwich”, a cup of soup or a small portion of sushi.
What’s suggested is a total intake on those days of 600 calories for men or 500 for women – a quarter of what the NHS recommends daily to “maintain weight”.
Dr Mosley’s scientific approach to the possible benefits, and drawbacks, of various forms of fasting, and his ultimate endorsement of the 5:2 diet persuaded me as I watched.
I was struck by the idea that short spells of hunger seem to trigger regeneration of brain cells and may actually ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
Add to that the lowering of cholesterol and blood glucose – and yes, reduction in fat and body-weight – and you add a significant lowering in the risk of heart trouble and strokes. All things well worth avoiding if you can.
It seems pretty obvious to me that our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved to eat well on some days and not at all on others.
But are the “fast” days difficult? And do I feel the urge to gorge myself on the other days?
Well, no and no, actually. Though I do really enjoy my food the next day.
I’ve found, as Mosley did, that hunger comes in waves rather than steadily building. And that it’s easily quelled by black coffee. The knowledge (perhaps that should be “belief”) that it’s doing me good also helps.
I feel much better than I expected to at the end of my fast days, and more full of energy than I used to on days of takeaway pasties and chips.
Medical opinion, I should say, is of course divided on the 5:2 score, and it’s definitely not recommended for children, teenagers or pregnant women.
But for me, after an initial six-week trial, it might just be the new lifestyle. And if it lasts till I’m 100 – bingo!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Why our children need lessons in pornography

NOW, children, let’s take a look at pornography.
What? Are you serious?
Yes, I am. But now I have your attention I’m going to ask you to consider a couple of other things first before we come to the porn.
Consider the case of my friend who, though happy with his job, was tempted by the prospect of a better one abroad.
Before you take a step such as emigrating – or even just applying for a job in a foreign land – you of course have to consult your family. Which in his case includes teenage children.
Would they be happy to emigrate? To leave their friends and start a new life in a new school somewhere completely different?
Oh yes, they’d love to, it’d be awesome. Great.
Next thing, before my friend has even had a chance to put together his application for the exciting opportunity, his kids are bubbling with enthusiasm to their mates.
And not just their close mates either.
Everyone they share BBM with. (For those, like me, who have only the dimmest idea, that’s something called BlackBerry Messaging – something to do with a mobile phone network.)
And everyone who reads their Facebook status – and, crucially, passes the gossip on.
Which in total means pretty well everyone at school. Including, of course, the children of my friend’s colleagues. And boss.
So next morning at work he’s greeted with: “I hear you’re emigrating. When are you moving?”
Now consider Argos, famous as a catalogue firm with more than 700 shops across the UK. Preparing to “reposition itself in the market” as an internet-led business.
Or The Guardian, one of Britain’s most respected newspapers, having to deny strong rumours that it’s going to stop printing and become an internet-only media outlet. Ouch again.
Or the Kindle, which an industry analyst described the other day as “a device for enforcing an Amazon monopoly” in the book trade. It’s not quite a monopoly, of course, but the internet giant already has such a huge share of the market it can dictate to publishers in much the way the big supermarkets control their suppliers.
Consider especially those sad and sorry children who give way to pressure and allow themselves to be filmed in “intimate situations”.
Those, too, who use their own mobile phones to take over-revealing pictures of themselves.
All these things, which may start out merely cheekily, almost innocently, risqué, can appear a lot worse once they’re uploaded to the internet.
Irretrievable. Passed round. Not just at school (which may be more than bad enough) but round a whole worldwide web of dirty old men.
Including, perhaps, that future potential employer.
So there you are, I promised you some porn. Or, rather, to talk about porn.
Which is what teachers are being encouraged to do in sex education lessons.
Not – as I mischievously hinted above, or as Outraged Of Tunbridge Wells has inevitably imagined – actually show pornographic material in class. But to talk about it and the issues it raises.
Porn is out there, all around us, on every newsagent’s shelves, on every laptop computer or internet-enabled hand-held device.
It’s certainly around every secondary school – as it was, in a milder, less all-pervading form in mine. And, no doubt, yours.
From the time they change schools at 11, children cannot avoid it. So it makes sense for them to discuss it, to be encouraged to consider what it really means.
In fact, it doesn’t just make sense to talk about it, it’s essential.
I heard porn described this week as “poor quality sex education”, which is certainly one thing it is.
So it’s right it should be augmented, or countered, by education of better quality.
But it’s also absolutely vital that our children shouldn’t grow up believing in the fantasies that porn routinely peddles.
Those fantasies nearly all boil down to one. That people’s bodies (mostly women’s) are just playthings for other people (mostly men).
Which, when you think about it, is a form of violence.
Saying that makes me sound like an anti-porn puritan of the Mary Whitehouse variety, which I’m not. Enjoying looking at other people’s bodies is as old as art – probably millennia older.
But youngsters need guidance to approach the subject in a mature way.
Pornography is there. You can’t avoid it. So best consider it intelligently and critically.
Which is pretty much the argument I’d make in favour of religious education too, but that’s a different matter. Though not, perhaps, as different as all that.
Some have their porn, some have their god(s). Many have both. And nearly everyone has the internet these days.
If you can’t beat ’em, you don’t have to join ’em; but you can acknowledge they are there and approach them sensibly.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Jobs for the kids on Her Majesty's Secret Service

WHEN considered closely, it was not the worst idea the present government has ever had, but on first hearing it seemed possibly the most surreal.
Apprenticeships in spying?
One immediately pictures spotty school-leavers tagging along behind James Bond to look after his X-ray specs, hand him the explosive toothpaste or lug around a suitcase full of various technologically-enhanced wristwatches.
Or maybe typing up tedious reports on Russian grain shipments for George Smiley.  Perhaps, on the more exciting days, popping out to pick up a brown-paper packet of secret statistics from a dead-letter drop in a rubbish-bin in Hyde Park.
Then again, the JobCentre might dispatch a young employment-seeker off to a diplomatic post in Beirut. Which would of course be cover for a role snooping on Middle-East public opinion.
Back in my day, recruitment to MI5 or 6 wasn’t like this at all.
For starters, you had to go to the right university, and preferably the right college – which I did.
Then you had to get the discreet tap on the shoulder – which I didn’t.
And that despite the fact that the man widely assumed to be the recruiting agent in my era was one of my most frequent companions at the time.
A good 20-odd years older than most of his fellow students, he had fought in the Korean War, was apparently expert in un-armed combat and had a sophisticated, knowing air that extended to encyclopaedic knowledge of foreign countries. His day-to-day vocabulary was liberally sprinkled with words I had to look up discreetly later.
Come to think of it, he was probably too much the archetypal spy to be the real thing – or was that double-bluff?
And why, if he was indeed a recruiter, would he waste time on someone so obviously not spy material as me? Cover, perhaps? Or just light relief?
Or had he, in fact, been instructed to keep an eye on me?
Russian background, obscure family connection with various middle-ranking Soviet officials, parents who had been Labour councillors. And then an unexpected place at the very college where Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt had all studied – though nearly 50 years too late to meet any of those famous defectors.
It could be made to sound almost plausibly suspicious in the hands of an imaginative novelist.
In the real world, the tap on the shoulder never came. I suppose I wouldn’t tell you if it had – but then, would I be writing this at all?
Would I be sitting at my desk in Suffolk reminiscing about things that never happened?
Or would I be enjoying a more exciting journalistic career? Reporting from exotic places to the readers of some national broadsheet (and more privately to my handlers in Her Majesty’s Secret Service).
It’s what Philby did in Beirut after being kicked out of the diplomatic corps in Washington.
Strange cove, Philby. Born in very-British India, same old school as Nick Clegg (Westminster – infinitely posher than my Durham comprehensive) and ended up on a Soviet postage stamp.
Not, I think, a very nice man. Deception and treachery were the stock-in-trade of his private life as well as his career.
In Beirut in the late 1950s as correspondent for The Economist, he became involved with the wife of his journalistic mentor. After securing her divorce from his friend, he married her, lived with her for four years – then walked out on her when fleeing to Russia in 1963 to escape arrest by the British as a spy.
After some time of not knowing which side had him – or indeed if he was still alive – she succumbed to his repeated pleas to leave her children and join him in Moscow. Where she soon discovered he was having an affair with the wife of Donald Maclean, another of the Cambridge spy ring.
Charming. As spies no doubt tend to be.
Hardly the kind of career you expect to have apprenticeships in, though.
And, as it turns out, not at all the kind of spying William Hague had in mind when announcing his intention to recruit teenagers to the undercover cause.
His idea is rather to employ the skills gained on the X-Box and PlayStation at GCHQ, the not-so-secret “listening station” in Cheltenham. An establishment best known for snooping, not on dodgy foreigners with funny accents and false moustaches, but on ordinary British citizens.
People, for example, like comprehensive schoolkids who somehow wind up at Trinity College.


I’M not sure I have ever agreed with anything Norman Tebbit has said, and I’m not about to change that now.
Tebbit was the attack dog of the Thatcher government and at 81 he is still displaying a full set of gnashers.
Now, though, instead of baring them in the service of a Conservative administration he is sinking them into one.
“This dog of a coalition government has let itself be given a bad name and now anybody can beat it,” he said at the weekend.
With friends like that…
But: Dog of a government?
As a great lover and admirer of dogs, I take severe exception to that offensive metaphor.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Armstrong leaves a nasty stain

ONE week Jimmy Savile, the next Lance Armstrong. Which popular icon, I wonder, will be next to be revealed as a mere human, and a nasty, sordid human at that?
The two cases are, of course, different in many ways.
Armstrong’s headstone is unlikely ever to be crushed and sent to landfill as it hasn’t been erected yet – though his reputation has suffered something similar.
While Savile isn’t around to defend himself, Armstrong has simply given up doing so. Which, as the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency has pointed out, is pretty much an admission that the 1,000-page dossier published by the US agency contains at least some damning truths.
Both may have been liars and bullies with egos the size of small planets but no one, as far as I know, has ever accused Armstrong of sexual impropriety.
And if Savile did drugs, well, frankly, who cares? As long as he didn’t administer them to anyone else.
Which is, effectively, what several of Armstrong’s former US Postal cycling team-mates have accused him of.
The man who dominated the peloton for a record seven straight years of victories in the Tour de France is said to have dominated his colleagues by sheer force of personality. And then some.
As the USADA report puts it: “His goal led him to depend on EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions but also, more ruthlessly, to expect and to require that his team-mates would likewise use drugs to support his goals if not their own.”
The way team masseuse Emma O’Reilly has described being used as the team’s drug mule, carrying packages across borders, is sickening. As is her claim that Armstrong borrowed her make-up to disguise needle marks.
The testimony of Tyler Hamilton – who might himself have been team leader if Armstrong hadn’t been around – about keeping bottles of blood and drugs in hotel fridges “with the milk” is jaw-dropping.
But not exactly eye-opening, as so many people knew all the time – or at least very strongly suspected – that such things were going on.
It’s an interesting fact that Armstrong’s first Tour triumph came in 1999 – the year after the infamous Festina Affair supposedly cleared all the drug-users out of the big race.
Or, as we might see it now, took away the other main users, leaving the field free for the team that did it most effectively.
In some ways the most interesting person in this whole sorry story – certainly the one to have most sympathy with – is Christophe Bassons.
Roll back to a couple of years before Armstrong’s long reign began and put yourself in Bassons’s cycling shoes.
Here is a young man with a string of amateur titles to his name, recently crowned time-trial champion of France.
Turning pro with the Festina team, he is offered two alternative contracts. One is worth 4,500 euros a month, the other ten times as much.
The difference is never spelled out, but he knows what it means. He signs the 4,500-euro deal.
In such a situation, how many of us would be that strong?
In 1998, when Festina became the first team to be thrown out of the Tour for organised drug-use, Bassons was the only team-member not to be arrested or charged.
He went on to ride three more Tours for other teams but found himself shunned by most of the other riders.
His 1999 team, Francaise des Jeux, pooled their winnings but excluded him from the share-out.
Armstrong confronted him, telling him he should “go home” after he mentioned drugs in a newspaper column.
Even without such antagonism, it must have been hard to go on, knowing you had no chance ever of winning, and why.
Today all the indications are that top-class cycling is as clean as it’s been for several decades.
It is just two years since Alberto Contador was stripped of his third Tour title over a doping violation. His technical infringement, though, was not of the same nature or scale as the allegations levelled against Armstrong and co.
And there is a plausible argument that such action over one doubtful test shows how far the sport has come in cleaning up its act.
It was also in 2010 that Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour title. Not because he was caught but because he owned up. A former US Postal team-mate, he also provided some of the crucial evidence now stacked up against Armstrong.
I well remember Landis’s procession to his “victory”, which was stunning – and suspicious – because he seemed to come from nowhere.
Six years on I sincerely believe Bradley Wiggins’s claim that his own brilliant success this summer proves it’s possible to win the Tour riding “clean”.
But cynics will remain, as they are bound to. For what can you do to cleanse a stain like the one left by the Armstrong generation? 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Savile scandal reminded me of my missed scoop

IT might have been the scoop of my life. Journalists, you know, are supposed to live for scoops.
No doubt some do. Most of us, though, have rather more mundane lives than that. And when the potential exclusive came my way I really didn’t know what to do with it.
It was the proverbial hot potato. A story that would have made national front pages and, along the way, wrecked one or two successful careers.
Careers that – if the story turned out to be true – thoroughly deserved to be wrecked.
But as a sports sub-editor whose most glamorous task was writing headlines, I didn’t have the skills, the contacts or, frankly, the nerve to undertake the necessary investigation.
So I decided the right thing to do was to hand my potential scoop over to an expert.
I didn’t have all the details, but what I had been told was a pretty sordid and unpleasant tale.
It concerned two former sportsmen, one of whom had allegedly “procured” – nasty word, but we know what it means – a 15-year-old girl for the other.
I knew where this was supposed to have taken place, but not when. Neither did I know the identity of the girl. I’d been told, though – a particularly sordid touch – that her father had been involved in “selling” her virginity.
The man whose apparently perverted and illegal tastes were said to have been catered for in this way has been largely forgotten since, but he was well enough known at the time. It should have been a great story for the News of the World, for whom I was working.
I took my tip-off to Clive Goodman, the reporter who later became the first to be sacked and jailed over the phone-hacking scandal.
“Oh yeah,” he told me. “We know all about that. We’ve been trying to stand it up for months but we can’t prove anything.”
So that was that.
Either a sleazeball had got away with his squalid and nasty behaviour or I had been saved from the legal nightmare of making a false accusation. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know for certain which.
Now it seems similar doubts and dilemmas must have for years been afflicting a number of people in possession of allegations, rumours – and vile memories – about Jimmy Savile.
When Savile’s sexual preying on young girls hit the news, my first thought was: “Why now?”
If he couldn’t be prosecuted when he was alive, what was the point in bringing his behaviour to light now he was dead? Why tarnish an icon?
There are several good answers to this question, and the first is the opportunity it gives his victims – of whom it now seems there were many – to get it off their chest.
Having such a secret must have been a serious burden to some, perhaps for much of their lives. Especially in the light of Sir Jimmy’s hitherto almost sainted image as a national treasure.
On a wider scale, bringing the sordid culture Savile was part of it into the light of scrutiny might help to end it. Which can only be a good thing.
It’s so obvious it hardly needs mentioning that fame is a powerful magnet and aphrodisiac. Rock stars and footballers are not the only ones with their groupies.
I’ve known a few girls who were happy to have – and talk about – sexual encounters with passing musicians. And one or two boys too.
But when the age bar is lowered, and when coercion is involved, the whole issue becomes must messier, much nastier.
One of the most unpleasant revelations about Savile since last week’s airing of ITV’s documentary came from his former fellow DJ Paul Gambaccini. And it concerns one of the reasons why Savile’s proclivities were never splashed across the press while he was alive.
Gambaccini told the Daybreak programme: “On one occasion – and this cuts to the chase of the whole matter – he was called and he said, ‘Well you could run that story, but if you do there goes the funds that come in to Stoke Mandeville. Do you want to be responsible for the drying up of the charity donations?’ And they backed down.”
I’m guessing the paper on the other end of the line wasn’t the fearless News of the World. But maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe they had their suspicions and tip-offs all along but – for whatever reason – couldn’t “stand them up”.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

In a ritual landscape

Like so many people in what we might call the Late Time-Team Era, I’ve become over the years something of an armchair archaeologist. So I know a good Ritual Landscape when I see one.
Classic examples are in Orkney, Brittany, County Meath in Ireland and around Stonehenge. I’ve visited them all.
There aren’t any obvious examples in Suffolk, probably because we don’t have big stones capable of standing around in circles for very long.
The definitive thing about a good Ritual Landscape is that several outstanding archaeological sites are all found within a short distance of one another – often in sight of one another.
Another thing (the clue is in that word “ritual”) is that archaeologists confidently ascribe a religious meaning to them. When, for all we really know, their original significance might have been something completely different.
What, some future archaeologist might speculate, was the religious significance of all those very tall buildings that the global culture of the early 21st century erected in all its big cities? They were obviously great temples – to the glory of the great god Mammon, perhaps? Mammon was certainly very highly revered in that period.
And what of all those ribbon-like concrete-and-asphalt structures connecting one temple complex with another?
Surely they had some great ritual importance? (Yes, indeed – worship of the internal combustion engine.)
Back in our own time, I’ve just returned from a highly enjoyable weekend in what I can only describe as a ritual landscape of the early industrial age.
In fact, Ironbridge in Shropshire is proud to call itself “the Birthplace of Industry” (though this does rather beg the question of what went on in the extensive copper mines of the Bronze Age and how the Iron Age got its name).
It may be fair to say that the Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century and had its full flowering in the 19th had its genesis at what became Ironbridge – though parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham and Cornwall also played crucial early roles.
What is certain, though, is that outcroppings of coal, iron ore and limestone along the sides of the same narrow valley made a perfect place for iron-smelting to be developed in industrial quality and quantity. And that the river Severn, whose erosive effect had brought the minerals conveniently to the surface, also proved convenient for shipping out the finished product.

Model of 18th-century industry in the Ironbridge Gorge at the Museum of the Gorge. All pictures are mine
The ritual-landscape quality of the Ironbridge Gorge is now marked by the profusion of brown signs pointing to a multiplicity of museums all within easy walking distance of one another.There are ten of them in all, from the Coalport Tar Tunnel to the horribly named Enginuity, Blists Hill Victorian Town to the rather disappointing Museum of the Gorge.
And that’s not counting the Iron Bridge itself, the famous and picturesque structure thrown across the Severn in 1779 by Abraham Darby III, grandson and namesake of the man generally credited with revolutionising iron.
What must in its heyday have been a very busy, smoky, smelly and rather dangerous valley is now a delight to stroll round. A little over-touristy perhaps – unsurprisingly, given its World Heritage Site status – but clean, charming and slightly other-worldly.
And it’s not too hard to escape the crowds on a walk that takes in the Quaker burial plot of the founding Darbies, a 19th-century railway bridge that curves attractively over the mill-pond of an earlier works, and passes Georgian and Victorian houses from the grand to the humble.
Even the Youth Hostel, where we stayed, is a perfect example of grand Victorian paternalism, having started out as the Literary and Scientific Institute. (If there is any institute I’d rather be a member of, I can’t think of it right now.) It stands splendidly on the valley side on a thoroughfare known, perhaps a trifle optimistically, as Paradise.
Even the distinctly 20th-century power-station cooling towers that loom over the western edge of town are somehow neither inappropriate nor unattractive in this setting.
The Ironbridge Gorge, in fact, was very much a ritual landscape throughout the era when industrial process was the ritual.
And after falling into decay in the middle part of the last century, it’s come back into its own in this era of ritual tourism.
Like Orkney’s stone circles and Brittany’s monolithic alignments, Weardale’s old lead workings and Cornwall’s tin mines, the valley was once full of people hard at work. Now its population is largely transitory – visitors intent on reviving the lives of those long-ago folk in imagination.
The ancestor-worship of our times.