Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Annie finds herself - along with some heartache and some hope - in India

Since the days of the Empire – and, in another way, since the days of The Beatles – India has been a glamorous attraction to many in Britain. A place, in that awful cliché, to “find yourself”.
Fired with eagerness to do some good in the world, one young Ipswich woman now finds herself in New Delhi.
And for Annie Perez, the experience is a heady mixture of the glorious and the ghastly.
The former Kesgrave High School student and University Campus Suffolk graduate is two months into a year of working for Operation Asha, a worldwide charity fighting the killer disease tuberculosis (TB). In Annie’s case, in the slums of Delhi and elsewhere in northern India.
It’s quite a change from presenting a late-night hard rock show on Ipswich Community Radio, which she did right up to her departure in February.
As she told me last week: "Since we last spoke I have moved into my own flat and had a ride on an elephant. I have been introduced to some inspirational ambassadors and social entrepreneurs.
This weekend I am going to Rishakesh, considered to be a haven for yoga and meditation – but I am going to camp out under the stars with some friends and do some trekking and water rafting during the day.”
So it’s not all work, then. But even away from the office, or the makeshift clinics, there are hardships to endure too. Mostly other people’s hardships, but for a caring person those can be hard to deal with too.
“I am not going to lie,” Annie said, “there are some aspects that make me want to cry. Especially the children on the streets during schooling hours.
“You even see some high and begging, some with disabilities, and all I do is walk on by like everyone else and feel sad inside.”
I remember from 30 years ago the culture shock of being confronted by begging on a massive scale, by young children, by people with grim deformities.
If those 30 years have seen a boom in some parts of India’s economy, life for those people doesn’t seem much changed.
“Sometimes it is hard to concentrate on something specific when what is around you pulls your heart in multiple directions,” says Annie.
“Keeping a focus on what you can do is imperative. It is only in the time that I’m not working that I feel I should be spending more time benefitting others.
“It tears me up inside. How can I help these people?
“A mother and baby suckling on her nipple and another child she holds by the arm. Both the children barely clothed and all of them dirty and the mother and child scarred in various places.
“The mother holds her hand out to me and motions the gesture for food. She needs money. And I walk on by.
“A hard gulp washes away my sadness and self-forgiveness for doing such an inhumane thing: walk away – everyone else does…”
And at work with young TB sufferers, whose lives might be blighted even without the disease.
“A young child touching my arm and I look into her eyes. They are sad and I can only imagine what her eyes have seen.
“Who stands up for her right to know a life different to the one she has? How can I even make a difference in this way?”
The sad fact is that no individual can make any great difference to the overall picture.
But someone like Annie, working for Asha – the name is Hindi for “hope” – may make a huge impact on a few individual lives. And for that you can only applaud her efforts and her care.

India is,we keep being told – along with China – one of the world’s booming economies.
If the 20th was the American century, the 21st is to be the Chinese and Indian century.
Could be. India has some of the richest individuals in the world and a burgeoning middle class – booming both in numbers and comfort.
But what it also has is a still vast population of people living at a level of poverty very few in Britain could even imagine.
It is by treating those people as “a resource”, rather than as individuals, that the wider economy is able to grow.
It was the same in 19th-century Britain, in early 20th-century USA, the same in fact the world over.
Last week’s ghastly tragedy in Bangladesh, where an unsound factory building collapsed, killing at least 380 clothing workers, was a direct consequence of the West’s demand – our demand – for cheap clothes.
Just as it was in 1911, when 146 Jewish and Italian immigrants died in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, locked into the blazing building.
Our clothes are cheap because the lives of the people who make them are cheap.


Thursday, 25 April 2013

Figures show a divide-and-rule policy

Facts and figures. The two words go together so smoothly that they almost seem to be the same thing.
Newspapers, TV – all forms of news media – seem to have become addicted to figures.
When I was preparing to write this article I picked up a random news magazine with the intention of picking out a few statistics to illustrate that point (see panel below for a small selection). I soon realised that I could quickly fill the page with numbers without making any point at all except that there are a lot of numbers out there.
It is as if journalists believe that numbers contain a higher form of truth. Which might be so if the journalists themselves – let alone readers – always understood what the numbers mean.
The piece below, about how many Romanians and Bulgarians might be coming to Britain next year, is just one example of how the same statistics can be presented in different ways to “prove” opposite points of view.
Statistics are incredibly useful. But they can also be incredibly misleading in the hands of people who don’t understand them – or who are banking on the probable fact that you don’t.
The government, and its supporters in the national press, are adept at using statistics to divide and rule. To set ordinary people against each other.
To exploit the tendency that is at the heart of democratic politics everywhere. The tendency of people to distrust their own class more than they distrust the people above them.
Take the welfare state, that great British achievement which the Tories are now intent on destroying.
In order to destroy it and still have a hope of staying in power, they need popular support. And that means convincing enough people that what is good for them is actually bad for them.
And you know what? It works.
You can see that in figures that compare a large Yougov opinion survey with actual government statistics.
The differences between what people think about the welfare state and its reality are staggering:

How much of the welfare budget is spent on the unemployed?
  • The common belief: 41 per cent
  • The reality: 3pc

How much of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently?
  • The belief: 27pc
  • The reality: 0.7pc

And those pesky Eastern Europeans...

Is Britain set to be overrun next year by a wave of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants?
It’s an interesting question, even if it’s a little difficult to give an accurate answer from here. And it does rather depend, too, on what you mean by “overrun”.
Monday night’s BBC Newsnight programme attempted to inject a little reality into the already overheated debate about what will happen in 2014 when migration controls on those recent EU joiners come down.
Are feckless Romanians and Bulgarians preparing to flood here? If the Newsnight polls are to be believed, the answer would seem to be ‘no’.
They found that just one per cent of Romanians surveyed and 4.2pc of Bulgarians would be looking for work in the UK. Not a lot.
It would, however, equate to a total of about 200,000 people from each country. That is a lot.
Or, to put it another way, an increase of 0.3pc in the British working population. Not a lot at all. Hardly a flood by any count.
Oh, and did I say ‘feckless’? According to Newsnight, most of those Romanians and Bulgarians hoping to head this way will only do so if they actually have jobs to come to. And most of them are university-educated professionals.
The Newsnight report came with a welter of other figures, which all, broadly speaking, supported the view that only a very small number of new EU citizens will be heading this way next year.
Far fewer, no doubt, than the number of Mail and Express readers fired up to despise them before they ever arrive.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Why I'm not celebrating Thatcher's death

It was the American news channel CNN which – no doubt in all ignorance – broadcast one of the most telling items. Maggie was barely cold before her picture appeared on screen, trading smiles with Jimmy Savile.
Both were wearing big NSPCC badges – and we know now just where Savile really stood on preventing cruelty to children.
About the same place Mrs T stood on British industry, social housing, the railways, vital services such as power, water and telecoms, Scotland, Wales, the north of England, football fans and the working class in general.
Unlike many people I know, however, I couldn’t celebrate her demise.
I wish she had merely slipped away quietly, unnoticed. Without pomp, ceremony or sickening eulogies of a life that did so much harm to so many others.
Her death is nothing to celebrate while the pernicious, divisive and destructive principles she instilled live on in government. While her successors work on doing to health and welfare what she did to mining, shipbuilding and steel.
The death of the woman should be a private affair. The death of her ideas – now that would be something to celebrate.


There is a popular belief in Britain that our (unwritten) constitution gives us a right to something called “free speech”.
This belief could be variously described as quaint, wishful, or just plain wrong.
In a world where public servants can be forced from their jobs for making politically inexpedient remarks on Twitter, “free speech” isn’t worth the mobile device it’s written on.
In fact, certain currents at work in government – and, ironically, in some parts of the press – would make social media a tool of social control that Hitler and Stalin might envy.
Along with the fiction of “free speech” there is an associated belief that we have a “free press”. This too is a delusion.
Like any journalist worth their salt, I’ve sometimes been prevented for legal reasons from saying something I believed to be true. Usually the censorship is self-imposed.
Which is, in fact, how censorship nearly always works. Fearing the law, you bend over backwards not to risk even appearing to break it.
In the case of newspapers, the law concerned is usually the one of libel.
It’s the only British law that lays the burden of proof on the accused. It exists only to protect the powerful and rich.
And it’s not only journalists who have to watch what they say or print.
A new book, “Waiting To Be Heard”, is due for publication at the end of this month in the USA, Canada and Australia.
It’s the story, in her own words, of Amanda Knox, the American woman who was jailed in 2009 in Italy for the murder of English student Meredith Kercher. Acquitted on appeal in 2011, she is now awaiting a retrial after the acquittal was also overturned.
The Italian legal system, you may conclude, is even more bizarrely knotty than our own.
But Knox will have to go on waiting to be heard here because m’learned friend has advised publisher Harper Collins that a book which is fit to be sold everywhere else in the English-speaking world may not be safe against UK law.
You may not think it too dreadful to be denied what will no doubt be a pretty juicy read. But there is a much more serious recent case of a book freely available in the US and Europe being denied a British readership by its publisher’s fear of legal action.
“Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief” is a history and investigation of the controversial American church by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and lawyer Lawrence Wright. It’s considered legally safe in the homeland of its subjects Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but not here.
Archaic and restrictive as they are, our defamation laws are long overdue the reform which is being debated in Parliament today. It remains to be seen how much better the new will be than the old. I’m not holding my breath.


Thursday, 11 April 2013

Just don't ask me to make an exhibition of myself

I’M sure it’s nothing like real fame, but one of the strange side-effects of having your name and picture printed every week at the top of a page like this one is that total strangers occasionally address you as if they know you.
The nicest instances of this, sadly rare, are those times when people stop you to tell you how much they agree with something you’ve written. Or even (rarer) that they disagreed.
It was a pleasant surprise the other day to be addressed by name by an Ipswich Town legend I’d often seen play but never met.

The strangest occasion of this kind happened many years ago when I was working as a football writer in the North.
A woman I didn’t know from Eve stopped me in the street while I was out shopping. Calling me by name, she proceeded to start grilling me, not about football – which I was reasonably used to – but about Judaism.

I wonder if this is a familiar experience among those who, presumably like me, look vaguely Jewish.
Now it so happens that I’m not actually Jewish. Or, to bend the words of an old joke, I’m not a Jew, just a little Jew-ish.

I’m Jewish enough that if I’d been unlucky enough to be born under the racist laws of Hitler’s Germany I almost certainly wouldn’t have survived.
On the other hand I’m not Jewish enough for the racist law of modern Israel to accept me as a citizen. I couldn’t set up home in Tel Aviv even if I wanted to (though my father could have done).

Part of the confusion – and it’s an old, complicated one – is between Jewishness as race (whatever that really means) and Judaism as religion.
As far as I can discover, the last religious Jew among my ancestors was five generations back, and probably died about 150 years ago. For all I know (and I don’t) I may be as closely related to Buddhists, Baptists, Quakers, spiritualists and worshippers of the sun god Ra.

Nevertheless, either because of my appearance or my (actually Cornish) surname, this unknown woman expected me to answer her queries about the detail of various arcane rituals. I’d have had more chance if she’d asked me about sub-atomic physics.
I was reminded of this curious encounter by news of the exhibition currently being staged at Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

I visited the museum a few months ago and found it oddly, deeply, disturbingly disappointing.
Of course the roomfuls of Holocaust memorabilia, letters, photos, film clips were moving. How could a human being fail to be moved, to the verge of physical sickness, by the details of genocide?

But the attempt to build a picture of German Jewish life and history before the catastrophe were oddly distancing and shallow.
It was as if the whole museum was dedicated not to a lost culture but to the glory of its architect, the American Daniel Libeskind.

That, and to a justification of the founding and policies of the state of Israel.
The founding I have some sympathy with, and find historically fascinating, though I think it was a mistake. The policies – towards the Palestinians and towards the Yiddish language, both which Israel has tried to expunge – are grotesque. Unjustifiable.

But what of the new exhibition?
Titled  “The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews” it seems designed to objectify Jewish people in what you might assume was an anti-Semitic way.

Of the “difficult questions” it apparently sets out to answer, the first is “How do you recognise a Jew?”
If the museum website is anything to go by, the answer would seem to be “By his hat”. Which isn’t too much more sophisticated than “By his yellow star”.

But if that’s shallow and ill thought-out, how about the central area of the show?
“Jews in a Showcase” is, if nothing else, accurately titled – though “Making an exhibition of ourselves” might have conveyed it even better.

Here a succession of “ordinary Jews” take turns to sit in a glass case, looking just like the ordinary people they are, and wait to answer whatever questions the curious visitor may fire at them.
What rituals mark the Feast of the Passover? – Pass.

Can you eat anything you like on the Sabbath, as long as it isn’t pork? – I believe, for a believer, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
What makes a Jew a Jew? – It’s really complicated.

Are Jews any different from other people? – Not really, no.
Can one individual, whoever they are, really speak authoritatively for a whole people? – Er, no.

Now, should you happen to bump into me in the street and feel like talking, how about asking me a football question? I might have a chance of answering that sensibly.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

All in it together, but some get more out of it than others

In a few weeks, the Sunday Times will publish its 25th annual Rich List. That’s nearly a quarter-century of poring over other people’s assets, weighing them up and compiling a pointless pop chart of unearned wealth.
What on earth is it for?
Does it matter whether Gerald Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster is still the richest Brit in Britain?
Whether government adviser Sir Philip Green and his tax-exile wife Tina (who once bought him a gold Monopoly set featuring only properties he owned in real life) have added to the £3.3billion fortune that put them in 17th place in last year’s list?
Or even that in 2012 only three British citizens featured in the top 15 of British-held wealth – and that one of those three (a former Miss UK, Kirsty Bertarelli) got rich by marrying a Swiss pharmaceuticals tycoon?
There may be some passing interest in the fact that last year’s Top Five were three Russians and two Indians.
But what does it say about us as a society that someone goes on compiling this catalogue every year – and that we go on buying it and reading it?
What do we think of these preposterously rich (and therefore powerful) people?
Do we admire Lakshmi Mittal for his £12.7bn?
Do we look up to Major-General Grosvenor, Baronet, Knight of the Garter, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Francis I (and of St Lazarus), Companion of the Order of the Bath, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, Knight of Justice of the Most Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, OBE etc etc for being born filthy rich?
Do we think the Davids Beckham and Bowie, who have at least done some visible work for their fame and fortune, entirely deserve them?
Or is our attitude to all these ridiculously rich people more than a little coloured by envy?
Do we even, perhaps, despise them just a little – bracketing them with that nasty Harry Enfield character from the 1990s who was “considerably richer than you”?
Do the Greens and the Grosvenors, the Abramoviches and the Fredriksens care whether they’ve gone up or down in the latest chart, in or out of the Top Ten? Or do they just enjoy their dosh for its own sake?
Did Richard Branson get as much pleasure from his third billion as he did from his first? Or his first million?
Does all this filthy lucre make these people happy? Or are they all as screwed up as most of the rest of us?
Do they fret about the spare billion the way you or I might worry about paying the milk bill?
Does having enough dosh to buy Marks & Spencer – not a nice salad or a nice dress, but the whole shop, the whole chain of shops – make you a better person than the woman selling Big Issue outside it? In any way at all?
So far nearly every sentence on this page has ended in a question mark, and I don’t have ready answers for any of them.
Especially not for the first question: What’s it all for?
It does hint, of course, at the deep sickness we are all infected with to some degree or other. The delusion that having money is what matters in the world.
And it also tells us something quite significant in this time of “austerity”, when we must tighten our belts, face cuts to jobs and services because “we’re all in this together”.
The veteran Labour MP Michael Meacher perused the 2012 Rich List closely and came to some interesting conclusions.
First that the 1,000 richest individuals in Britain had increased their wealth over the previous three years by £155bn – enough to pay off the entire UK budget deficit and still leave them £30bn to spare.
He then noted that despite the biggest slump for nearly a century, the 1,000 richest were together sitting on even more cash than before the crash, a total of £414bn. They included 77 billionaires and 23 others each possessing more than £750m.
In a letter to the national press, Meacher concluded: “This mega-rich elite, containing many of the bankers and hedge fund and private equity operators who caused the financial crash in the first place, have not been made subject to any tax payback whatever.
“Some 77 per cent of the budget deficit is being recouped by public expenditure cuts and benefit cuts, and only 23pc is being repaid by tax increases. More than half of the tax increases is accounted for by the VAT rise, which hits the poorest hardest. None of the tax increases is specifically aimed at the super-rich.
“The increase in wealth of this richest 1,000 has been £315bn over the last 15 years. If they were charged capital gains tax on this at the current 28pc rate, it would yield £88bn, enough to pay off 70pc of the entire deficit.”
The figures may be a year old, but I don’t suppose they’ve changed much. Probably the next list will show that the fat cats have got a little fatter.
So, back to one of my earlier questions: What do we think of these rich bods?
I think perhaps they should be made to pay up and get us all out of the clarts.
Someone will no doubt object to this suggestion on the grounds that it's not that simple. To which I could only respond with another question: Why not?