Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Has Christmas left you poor? Really?

So it’s that time again. That time of peace, goodwill, tradition. Of over-eating, over-drinking. Of shopping.
Of buying too much stuff for people (especially, but not only, the kids) who already have more stuff than they know what to do with.
And soon it’ll be Boxing Day, that traditional time of worrying about your waistline. About where to put all the stuff you (and the kids) have just received. About the recycling (and the landfill). And the bills you’ve just run up.
Especially, perhaps, the bills.
But hey, it’s Christmas. It’s only once a year. You can afford it. Can’t you?
Do you feel well off? Or do you worry about your financial future? I’d have to own up to a “yes” answer to both those questions.
Of course, I’m not remotely well off compared with many people in business, government or “celebrity” circles. I’m not as comfortable as some in my line of work, and positively poverty-stricken by comparison with some – maybe most – of the people I was at college with.
But in world terms, or in historic terms in Britain, I’m fabulously wealthy. As you are too.
The brilliant Swedish statistician Hans Rosling put it rather well on telly a few weeks ago in his talk “Don’t Panic: The Truth About Population”. (Originally shown on BBC2 last month, it was repeated last Friday at a silly time, but you should be able to catch it for a few days on iPlayer. If you can, do.)
Dividing up the world’s seven billion people along a yardstick of wealth, he showed that the richest billion (which includes nearly everyone in the UK), lives on an average $100 a day. The middle billion lives on just $10 a day. The poorest billion has just $1 a day.
“The problem for us, living on $100 a day,” he says, “is that when we look down on those who have $10 or $1 they look equally poor.
“I can assure you, because I have met and talked with people who live down here [at the bottom end of the scale], that the people down here know very well how much better life would be if they would move from $1 to $10. Ten times as much income is a huge difference.”
Apart from considering the truth of what Rosling says, it’s also worth noting whose problem he says it is.
The bigger problem is for those who can’t rely on being able to feed themselves (or the kids) each day. Who aspire to owning shoes. Who have no reliable access to safe water.
Still think Christmas has left you poor?
A  prominent news story last week said Britain’s current thirty-or-fortysomethings would be the first generation to be poorer in retirement than their parents. I’m sure I will be.
But why should we expect to go on getting richer generation after generation? It can’t go on indefinitely.
It’s often said – I said it here myself a few weeks ago – that the planet can’t sustain such a large human population. It should be obvious that it could sustain a lot more at, say, the average Indian living standard than the American. 
But there’s a perspective problem even there. From here all Americans look rich – and it’s true that on average they are 26.3 per cent better off than us. But that average figure hides some huge variations.
In fact, of all the countries in the world only Russia, Ukraine and Lebanon have a greater gap between their richest and their poorest citizens than the USA.
That is according to Credit Suisse, the Swiss bank whose research department is the source of most of the global financial statistics relied on by markets, governments (and journalists) around the world.
Also according to Credit Suisse, the poorer half of the world’s population owns just 1pc of global wealth. The richest 10pc of people own 86pc of the wealth, with the top 1pc alone accounting for 46pc of all the world’s assets.
It’s an unfair world. And it’s getting more unfair fast.
Food banks in Britain, handing out free parcels to people in desperate need? A few years ago it would have seemed a gloomy fantasy, or perhaps history. Today it’s reality.
Meanwhile in America, employees of Walmart are encouraged to hold “food drives”, buying items from the store and giving them to the poor so they can enjoy a good Christmas. Very Dickensian.
The poor, in this instance, are other Walmart employees. The in-store posters call them “Associates in need”.
If Walmart paid them a living wage they wouldn’t be in need.
And the store wouldn’t get the profit from every tin or packet bought for them by colleagues who may be little better off themselves.
Walmart, which trades here as Asda, is the largest retailer in the world and the biggest private employer in the America. It is 50pc owned by the Walton family, whose combined wealth this year topped $150 billion, making them the richest family the world.
Six of them – Christy, Jim, Alice, Robson, Ann and Nancy Walton – have the same net wealth between them as the bottom 41pc of the entire US population.
They earned it the easy way. By being born to it.
They keep it through the efforts of the workers – sorry, “associates” – who subsist at the other end of the American wealthometer.
Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

That selfie

I know the constant hunt for “photo opportunities” has been part of prime ministerial life ever since Winston Churchill perfected his V-sign. But still, it was quite a few days for David Cameron.
First the chance to pose with EDP editor Nigel Pickover at one of Norfolk’s flood sites. Then, with the Wells salt barely dry on his shoes, he’s getting snapped in Johannesburg with Barack Obama.
This time even the photographer was a head of state, Denmark’s prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Like many people, my first thought on seeing the images of her snapping a “selfie”, with a grinning Cameron and Obama leaning in, was that they were showing a dismal lack of respect to Nelson Mandela.
The occasion that brought them together was, after all, supposed to be a memorial service to the great man. A man in whose historical shadow they will appear as pipsqueaks, barely footnotes in his chapter.
But then it occurred to me they were doing no more than embodying the spirit of the age. Demonstrating how acute the editors of the Oxford Dictionary were in naming “selfie” as the word of the year.
And, in its way, the action of Thorning-Schmidt in seeking to capture her moment with Obama on her smartphone was actually quite endearing. The naively self-obsessed action of a typical 21st-century teenager.
Though at 46, Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-law and the mother of his granddaughters, she should perhaps have known better.
It seems more than slightly curious, though, that the photo of a photo being taken should have made global news. After all, we should by now be thoroughly used to everyone but everyone wielding cameras, or photo-enabled phones.
A decade or so ago, when I was still lugging a film camera around everywhere, I remarked to my brother that there had probably been more digital photos taken than all those ever shot on film. His response was the sort of look you’d give someone who hit on the idea that leaves might grow on trees.
Now there are undoubtedly more photos shot every day than have been committed to film in all the 190 years or so of that technology.
It’s becoming wearying. Overwhelming.
Think back a few centuries, to the heyday of East Anglia’s wonderful medieval churches. The paintings that adorned their walls and screens, the stained glass in their windows (if they could afford it), the statues in their niches and carvings on their bench-ends were the only images of any kind that most people saw.
Many – perhaps most – Norfolk villagers would go through their entire lives seeing fewer pictures of people than a modern schoolkid will snap on their phone in an ordinary day.
 No wonder today’s youngsters seem so obsessed with how they look. We live in an image-obsessed age. In that way, as in many others, an age unique in human history so far.
You can’t walk through London, as I regularly do, or even travel on the Tube, without becoming part of the background of countless holiday snaps.
Right now my profile is probably being looked at (or pointedly ignored) somewhere in China, or India, or Russia, or heaven knows where, an unwitting Cameron to some tourist’s Thorning-Schmidt.
You just have to ignore it. Hope there’s no truth in the old belief (or alleged belief) that the camera could steal souls.
If it does, it’s no wonder if we’ve become a soulless society.


Owning a camera – even an 18-megapixel digital SLR with multiple zoom lenses – doesn’t make a person a photographer. Any more than having Microsoft Word on your laptop makes you a writer.
But the world is so full of cameras, and camera magazines, that the market must be saturated with people who think they’re photographers.
Back in 1917, my grandmother was commissioned to act as interpreter to an American journalist, Albert Rhys Williams, who was writing a book about the Russian revolution. When his book appeared, it included two photos she had taken along the way.
Carrying a camera around, as she did, wasn’t so common in those days. She and my grandfather started something of a family tradition.
For some reason, the images I take seem to appeal to the publishers of geography textbooks. Between those, shots of historical detail in churches and a small handful of East Anglian landscape prints, I’ve sold enough over the years to just about cover the cost of the equipment I took them with.
It doesn’t exactly add up to an alternative career. But that’s the thing about photography today. Everyone with a camera thinks they can do it.
And that – when you consider that an ordinary phone is now also a fairly capable camera – is just about everyone.
Thank goodness I’ve got my laptop to fall back on.


Uruguay may not seem the most obvious country to be a world leader in political decision-making, but I wonder if it’s ahead of the game in legalising cannabis.
I also wonder whether this unusually wise decision makes England’s progress in next year’s World Cup more or less unlikely.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A sorry touch of 'glamour' in the blokeocracy

FROM FA Super League to England cricket and rugby teams, 400-metre queen Christine Ohuruogu to cyclists Laura Trott and Katie Archibald, the profile of women in British sport has never been higher. There's still room for improvement, though.
Sky Sports may have done some good, almost incidentally, through its unrelenting trawl for action to fill an ever-increasing schedule of broadcast hours.
On the other hand, there's Sky Sports News (which, I admit, is my default channel) with its set policy of twin presenters - if a middle-aged chap and a glamorous young woman can be twins.
We have some way to go before any women's event gets anything like the attention and razzmatazz of a men's football World Cup. Even, heaven help us, a World Cup draw.
The latest instalment of this almost entirely pointless four-yearly event, for which assorted officials and hangers-on from all over the globe were flown to Brazil, and presumably given generous hospitality there, was as tacky as an early-evening Saturday ITV show.
Never mind England's draw in the inevitably dubbed "group of death" (isn't every World Cup game meant to be hard?) or their prospects of losing their way before they get out of the Amazon jungle. The really eye-catching thing about the draw was the "lovely assistant" to the right of Jérôme Valcke, Fifa’s general secretary.
This was the middle-aged-chap-and-friend routine writ large, with cameras carefully aimed and focused. I didn’t hear every bit of commentary on every channel, but if none of the assembled blokeocracy made a joke about "showing lots of promise up front" on air, you can bet they did off it, even in the careful world of post-Keys-and-Gray broadcasting.
Football can be a powerful force for good in the world. At least that's the idea I cling to as justification for my lifelong fascination with what is really after all just an over-hyped, over-moneyed entertainment.
World Cups - at least in theory - have more potential than most things for building bridges and improving lives.
In practice, it's not easy to see how much benefit the impoverished millions in Brazil will get from hosting the world's two biggest parties - the World Cup and the Olympics - in succession.
Or how one can take seriously any show that treats its one participating woman as decoration in a room full of smug, wealthy men.
That woman may have a PhD in astrophysics, take a mean free-kick and deliver an unplayable bouncer for all I know, but none of that is what she was there for. The fact that I don’t even know her name, though I could identify a fair number of the suits in the room, says something too.
Maybe this display of unreconstructed “glamour” should not have surprised me. This is, after all, a world where ultra-sexist “lads’ mags” are openly on sale in every corner shop. Where the pop video has become difficult to distinguish from soft porn. Where such shiny non-entities as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and countless others I couldn’t name are famous for no reason at all.
But I still find it all drearily depressing.


I’M sorry that my inability to be in two places at once kiboshed hopes of my appearance at the North Norfolk Labour Party Christmas dinner at the weekend.
Mid-50s seems a reasonable age at which to make ones bow as both a political and an after-dinner speaker.
Not that I’m a party member. My answer to the “are you now, or have you ever been” question would be “no” and “yes”.
The party and I parted company shortly after Tony Blair became its leader. I always felt it was not so much that I left the party as that it left me.
Now, under Ed Miliband, there are encouraging signs that it may be coming back.
The most important attributes in politics are intelligence, integrity, compassion and caring – all qualities the present government is notably deficient in.
In those terms Miliband is the best Labour leader since Neil Kinnock. Like Kinnock he is a far better man than too much of the media allow him to seem. As Kinnock would have been, he is potentially the best prime minister since Clement Attlee.
That, in a nutshell, is what I wanted to tell them in Sheringham on Saturday.


IT’S hard to imagine which other former president of a foreign country would have been afforded the tribute of a minute’s applause at every English football match of the weekend.
Which other 95-year-old’s entirely expected death would have caused the BBC to place “breaking news” flashes across all its channels.
Or which other former prisoner’s greatness and goodness could have been so entirely agreed upon by everyone with an opinion to express.
Was Nelson Mandela really the greatest man of our times? You know, I think he may have been.
It’s unlikely, as a human being, that he had no flaws, though I don’t know of any.
But even if not a perfect man, he certainly was – and remains – a perfect symbol of humane resistance to injustice.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Prophet and loss

So can I still play my Lostprophets albums? Is it OK to go on listening to songs such as ‘A Town Called Hypocrisy’ and ‘Everybody’s Screaming’, whose very titles have now acquired an unpleasant creepiness?
I don’t intend to dwell on what Ian Watkins may or may not have done with a one-year-old infant. Suffice to say his last-minute guilty plea spared a jury the ordeal of having to view video footage after which it was deemed they might need counselling.
The claim, apparently offered in mitigation, that he was on a “drug-fuelled binge” at the time of the offences takes away none of his responsibility for his actions. It is no longer a defence, even in Japanese law – as apparently it once was – to blame bad driving on being drunk.
But the question does arise how far it’s possible to separate the man from the work, the singer from the song, the artist from his art.
Until last week the Lostprophets’ Liberation Transmission was among my four or five favourite albums of the past 10 years. Every one of its dozen tracks has been a family sing-along-in-the-car favourite for years.
The critics who on its release in 2006 acclaimed its hard rock sound but dubbed it “lyrically absurd” missed the point of a sequence of intelligent pop songs woven together into an unusually satisfying whole. All the words of which were penned by Watkins. About whom we now know more than we might wish to.
The long-awaited follow-up album, The Betrayed, was a disappointment. Some of its song titles now have a bitterly ironic ring: ‘Dirty Little Heart’; ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Felon’; ‘Where We Belong’ (jail, Ian?); ‘Next Stop Atro City’. Perhaps most personally resonant of all, ‘It’s Not The End Of The World, But I Can See It From Here’.
A short while back legal considerations prevented me from writing about Watkins’s case. It seemed to me a pity that what might have been false accusations had interrupted – and probably permanently besmirched – a fine career.
Any sympathy for Watkins is now forfeited, his career history – while one can feel sorry for his former band-mates in their efforts to resurrect their own. They, it seems – along with the band’s many fans – were the eponymous betrayed.
The songs remain, in themselves as good as they ever were. But will one ever be able to hear them in the same way again?
It is, in essence, a variation on the old Wagner question: is it possible to enjoy Richard Wagner’s music, knowing he was a pompous, arrogant bully whose anti-Semitism inspired Hitler?
Daniel Barenboim is among those who believe it is. With reservations.
The great Israeli conductor is a sensitive and progressive man. The West-Eastern Divan, which he co-founded and directs, is a youth orchestra that brings together Israeli and Palestinian musicians with the aim of helping break down the barriers between the two communities.
A similar sensitivity appears in his approach to Wagner, whose music was for many years unofficially banned in Israel.
“Although Wagner died in 1883, he is not played [in Israel] because his music is too inextricably linked with Nazism, and so is too painful for those who suffered,” said Barenboim in 1989. “Why play what hurts people?”
He has since, however, performed the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Jerusalem, after asking the audience if they wished to stay.
“There are people sitting in the audience for whom Wagner does not spark Nazi associations,” he told them. “It will be democratic to play a Wagner encore for those who wish to hear it.”
They say it should be the work alone that matters, not the artist. But is that realistic? In Wagner’s case, the work itself can be troubling.
Had I been in Jerusalem in 2001, I might have been among those who left the concert hall early.
How much my response to Wagner’s music is coloured by what I know of the man is impossible to untangle. I rather agree with his rival Giuseppe Verdi’s verdict that “Wagner has some wonderful moments – and some awful quarter-hours”.
His harping on one musical theme until he has hammered it into the ground, then go on hammering, is what some critics admire and I detest.
That some people over-rate him to the point of idolatry – a habit he started himself – is off-putting too, though not as much as the bombastic nationalism of his interminable operas.
His words elsewhere, in person and in a series of pamphlets, were a constant stream of anti-Semitic poison.
He is credited – if that’s the right term – with coining the deadly phrase “the Jewish problem”. And neither the name nor the meaning of “the final solution” was original when Hitler used them. He took the idea, like a lot of his evil claptrap, from Wagner.
No doubt there are some lovely people whose music I can’t abide – and some other less-than-lovely ones whose works I enjoy.
Carl Orff, composer of the glorious Carmina Burana, was an allegedly enthusiastic Nazi and a favourite of Hitler. Productions of his work too have been banned in Israel.
Unlike Wagner’s, though, Orff’s music is not imbued with a racial superiority complex. It is politically neutral. It seems acceptable to enjoy it.
Just at present I’m not so sure about the Lostprophets.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A Pope on the side of the meek? Now that takes some believing

Among all the differences you might expect between a devout Anglican and an equally devout atheist, one thing my grandmothers were agreed about was Catholicism.
Neither, probably, would have used the word, but to both the Pope was something like what a Catholic might call the Antichrist. And when you consider some of the unpleasant old men who held that office during their lifetimes, you might think they had a point.
There have been concerted attempts in recent years to airbrush his record, but it would take a truly creative rewriting of history to remove all the stains from the record of Pius XII. But then, in his anti-semitism, the man they called Hitler’s Pope was only maintaining a long papal tradition.
You might wonder at the thinking behind his successors John Paul II and Benedict XVI moving him in steps along the pathway towards sainthood. But then, more than 200 years after the rational Enlightenment, and a century after Thomas Hardy optimistically proclaimed “God’s Funeral”, the whole business of making saints might seem a trifle old-fashioned. Anachronistic. Superstitious. At best, quaint.
Unless you’re a Catholic. In which case – and this goes for most, if not all, religions – believing six impossible things before breakfast is a normal part of life.
Now I know I have to tread carefully here. My sister is a Catholic, as is my aunt and about a sixth of the world’s entire population.
But how many of those believers really believe in the whole package?
Like the bit about “papal infallibility”, for example. Or the bits that say abortion, contraception, divorce and gay sex are sinful. That priests must be men – and celibate ones at that.
Turns out now, as it happens, that the new Pope himself isn’t totally committed to all that stuff.
Which brings me to what I really wanted to say. Which is that, from all the evidence of his eight months so far in one of the most powerful jobs in the world (arguably the most powerful), Pope Francis is a Good Thing.
 You might dismiss the recent kissing of a badly disfigured man as a Princess Diana-style publicity stunt.
You might say the same of his being photographed with a group of anti-fracking protesters – though for a Pope to take any stand on such an issue is a welcome departure.
And you can see a certain canniness in a 76-year-old who chooses to convey his messages to the faithful via the medium of Twitter.
But you have to warm to a man who prefers to have his old shoes repaired rather than pull on the bright red Pradas sported by his predecessor in imitation of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. And who eschews the Popemobile motorcade in favour of an old blue Focus.
Those may be symbolic choices, but – like his choice of papal name – they are good symbols.
He echoes Francis of Assisi in his championing of the poor as well as his concern for the environment.
And there is something reminiscent of Christ’s overturning of the moneylenders’ tables in his disgust at a global economic order that worships “an idol called money”.
He has tweeted his unhappiness at “unbridled capitalism” and its “throwaway attitude” to everything from unwanted food to unwanted old people.
His attacks on corruption have included moves to reform a self-serving bureaucracy at the heart of his own church.
He made waves in the summer when he asked: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Questioning his own right to judge anything seems an unlikely papal position. Not very infallible.
As also the decision to seek the opinion of ordinary Catholics, via the internet, on issues of family, marriage and sexuality.
For the autocrat of the world’s largest totalitarian organisation to be giving such a lead in democracy is frankly astonishing.
For the best part of 2,000 years the Catholic church has had a pretty poor record in the matter of helping the meek to inherit the earth. For once it now seems to have a leader intent on doing just that.
Whether his popularity leads to a lasting rise in Catholic fervour is a question for the future.
Whether it’s a good thing if so may depend on your view of religion – and on what kind of man the next Pope, and the next, will be.
But it may be that he is better placed than anyone else to take on the dangerous might of capitalist big business.


The RSPB is the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe and must be one of the biggest voluntary-membership organisations of any kind in Britain. Its glossy mag, formerly known as “Birds”, must also be one of the most widely read magazines in the country – and not only in dentists’ waiting rooms, where its stunning photography is usually the best thing on show.
 The rebranding of the magazine as “Nature’s Home” is just one way the RSPB has chosen to flag up a gradual widening of interest away from its original birdwatching brief.
As a long-time member, I’ve just had my opinion on this change of emphasis sought in an online survey.
A statement on the survey pages says: “Much of what the RSPB does benefits all wildlife... Birds will remain the most visible and tangible focus of much of what we do, but we believe our proven conservation model can help save other habitats and species too. We can – and we should.”
That’s a “Strongly Agree” then.
Among the things the survey asks is whether I’d recommend RSPB membership to someone else. If you’re not among the million-plus members already, consider yourself recommended.