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 clich├ęs “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.