Thursday, 28 August 2014

The law won't stop abuse - but it's good to try

The bullying is mostly verbal, backed by the occasional veiled threat of violence.
For years he has humiliated, intimidated and belittled her. He does it to the children too – and he is raising them to behave the same way towards her.
He’s very skilled at persuading people that she is the one who mistreats them. Sometimes he almost has her believing it herself.
Now here’s another family.
He goes out to work, does the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning and most of the childcare.
He stays purely for the sake of her child, whose real father abandoned them.
The child is seldom allowed into “Mummy’s room”, where she spends most of her time watching TV or playing computer games.
She earns as much as he does, but all her money goes on paying the bills and putting food on the table. His goes straight into his personal savings account.
And another.
He’s happily married, a loving dad to his stepchildren. He can’t have children of his own because of the vasectomy he was pressured into during a previous relationship.
She’d love to feed herself and the kids more healthily. But he insists on a diet of pizza, bacon and sausages (see separate story below). If she brings fresh fruit and veg into the house, he throws it away.
And finally.
He earns the money, she drinks it.
When, after putting up with years of abuse, he talks of leaving, she cuts herself and threatens to say he did it.
All these people are real. They are all people I know or have known. And I could go on.
Which is why I welcome the Government’s proposal for a specific law against domestic abuse.
And why I’m glad to hear it will apply to emotional and psychological as well as physical bullying.
Home Secretary Theresa May was for once spot on when she announced the planned legislation, now entering its eight-week consultation period.
“Abuse is not just physical,” she said.
“I want perpetrators to be in no doubt that their cruel and controlling behaviour is criminal.”
Amen to that.
She also said: “Victims who are subjected to a living hell by their partners must have the confidence to come forward.”
And therein lies the problem. Worthy though the goal is, I’m not sure any new law is going to give those victims that confidence.
Some of the abuse cases I’ve known of have involved alcohol. Several involved money. Some involved violence or the threat of it.
Most included an element of deceit – and not just by the perpetrators.
In every case the confidence and self-esteem of the victim was steadily, inexorably sapped.
Often they end up blaming themselves for their seemingly inescapable situation.
And more often than not they conceal what’s happening, deceiving themselves and others.
Every domestic abuse case, whatever its nature and circumstances, is really about power. One person exerting control over another.
And it is never easy for a controlled person to turn publicly against their controller. Whatever the law says.


Michael Mosley is the most interesting person on television.
In 2012, after an investigation that involved some pretty extreme experimenting on his own body, he concluded that a 5:2 diet – two days a week of near-fasting – was a healthy way to live.
He was persuasive enough for me to try it. Two years later I’m still following it, happy with it as a lifestyle that works.
Almost incidentally (the point is health and longevity, not weight), I’m a steady two stone lighter than when I embarked on it.
Now Dr Mosley’s giving me serious thought of adapting my regimen again.
It follows his absorbing two-part BBC series last week, “Should I Eat Meat?”
As before, he interviewed various experts, who didn’t all agree. And as before he put his own body to the test, this time taking on a high-meat diet, with some shocking results.
One of his conclusions confirmed what I already believed.
That humans evolved to eat some meat – but nowhere near as much as most of us now do.
Which, incidentally, is bad for animals, bad for the world’s ecology and bad for the rest of humanity as well as being bad for us.
Some of the shots of intensive farming might be enough to put a sensitive person off meat for good.
I lived for eight years as a vegetarian, so I know I can do it.
I don’t intend to return to an entirely meat-free diet, but I could do with eating less of it. As could nearly all of us.
In particular, I’m now considering cutting out the bacon and sausages which have become our family staples.
Because it’s those processed meats that are now fingered as high risk factors for both heart disease and cancer. Neither of which I’m particularly keen on inviting in.
If it’s true that on average every bacon sarnie cuts an hour off your life expectancy, I can do without it, thanks.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The real legacy of Gove

One national headline last weekend claimed the A-level results as a triumph for departed Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Well, we can guess which end of the political spectrum that particular paper occupies, can’t we?
The exams were a triumph for all those hard-working students who passed them.
For all those who got into the universities of their choice despite falling slightly short of the target grades set.
And for all the teachers whose professional expertise and dedication got them there.
That all the years of grade inflation have at last been halted is perhaps good news. Especially, maybe, for all of us whose long-ago grades don’t look quite as good now as they were back then.
But the idea (that paper again) that Gove has a “legacy” to be protected will have caused the entire teaching profession to splutter into its cornflakes.
Apart from his obsessive, staggeringly ignorant and nostalgia-imbued tinkering with the curriculum, his most radical “reform” amounted to a rampant privatisation of education.
Or, in the euphemistic terms he employed, “freeing” almost 4,000 secondary schools from local authority control.
And allowing 174 so-called “free schools” to be set up, with no regard for where new schools were actually needed.
The truly devastating thing – and what does indeed make this a legacy of sorts – is that the next government is unlikely to be either able or willing to take back what Gove has given away.
So that – just like what once really was a National Health Service – much of the education system may be lost to the profit motive for a generation or more.
It remains to be seen whether all those teachers who celebrated Gove’s sacking will come to love his successor more. Frankly, I doubt it.
Nicky Morgan’s only apparent qualification for the job is her gender at a time when David Cameron was being pressed to bring more women into the Government.
A qualified solicitor and expert on corporate law, her previous Government roles (only since last October) were in the Treasury and as Minister for Women.
She still has that latter job (who is the Minister for Men?) as well as the education brief, which doesn’t suggest her full attention will be on either.
That may be a blessing in disguise. But don’t expect her to stray far from the lines laid down by Gove.
Like all five of the ministers under her, she went to a private, fee-paying school.
That team line-up hardly bodes well for the care of the state school system.


It’s a distressing fact that each time Israel embarks on the kind of murderous campaign seen lately in Gaza, anti-Semitic attacks in Britain and Europe increase.
Too many people, it seems – particularly the thick and nasty kind – can’t tell the difference between Israel and Jews.
It really shouldn’t need pointing out, but here it is.
Israel is a small country in the Middle East with a right-wing racist government.
Jews are people, most of whom are not Israelis.  Some are right-wing and some are racist, but most aren’t. Pretty much like other people.
A great many of them find the policies of Israel’s government as repugnant as most of the rest of us.
And that – despite some of what you may have seen or heard – applies to many Israelis too.
A minority, possibly, but a substantial minority. And that despite decades of apartheid-style immigration policy.
I can illustrate that policy by my own case.
My Jewish grandmother means I would have been a candidate for Hitler’s death camps.
But I wouldn’t be eligible for Israeli citizenship even if I wanted it. Wrong grandmother.
For Benjamin Netanyahu’s government – and for all those who mistake Israel for the Jewish people – the current grisly conflict contains a huge irony.
So many Jews around the world – particularly in America – are so horrified by what they see in Gaza that their support for Israel is wearing thin.
One slogan from a massive recent Jewish demonstration in New York states it clearly: “Israel is a Zionist state, not a Jewish state”.
If Israel loses the support of America’s Jews enough to lose the support of America, it really is in trouble.
I wouldn’t bet anyone’s life against it.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

East is east and west is west, and when it comes to travelogues Twain is best

Shopping as a leisure activity seems to me one of the most idiotic aspects of our deranged society. Unless it’s shopping in bookshops.
A good secondhand bookshop offers probably the greatest time-erasing pleasure to be had in any high street.
And all with the prospect of a jolly good read, and maybe something really eye-opening, to come later.
The lately under-fire Oxfam may not be perfect. Heck, of course it isn’t, it’s a large and necessarily bureaucratic organisation operating in a capitalist world.
But it does a lot of good in its crusade against poverty, whatever Tory twit Conor Burns may say. (He’s the numpty who complained that the message was “too political”, instantly casting his party as the ones who want other people to stay poor.)
And for those of us not in poverty, but with leisure to read, Oxfam provides some terrific bookshops.
Places where you can browse and pick up the very volume you didn’t know existed until you discover you need it.
E-readers that you can slip in a pocket are all very well and may signal the end of the “airport novel” sooner than you’d think.
But no electronic gizmo could replace the pleasure of holding in your hands (you need both) the Portfolio of Photographs of Famous Cities, Scenes & Paintings that I have in mine. (Or did have. I had to put it down to type this paragraph.)
Promising “a rare and elaborate collection of photographic views of the entire world of nature and art”, it contains 256 full-page images of the world as it then was.
Or nearly full-page, for each one leaves room for a generous paragraph of description in John L Stoddard’s purple prose. But they are still good-sized pictures.
And utterly absorbing – as are Stoddard’s words – in their depiction of a world now mostly vanished.
It admits to being published by The Werner Company of Chicago, but not when. Careful scrutiny of the text, and reference to known history, dates it to 1897 or ’98.
Which means, of course, that pictures of Germany, Russia, the Middle East  – everywhere, really – are presented in happy ignorance of what the 20th century was to bring.
It was a world much of which was still dominated by the British Empire, not the undeclared American one we now subsist under (or the Chinese one we appear to be entering).
In fact, it’s a slightly strange “entire world”, containing 12 pictures of London, 26 of France (including 17 of Paris), 37 of Italy, and one of China. The only actual Chinese people to be seen are a man and boy in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The selection is just one of the ways in which Stoddard reveals the attitudes of his time, class and nation.
Take this well-meaning but toe-curling description of the native Australians (pictured below):
“These Aborigines are a wretched race. Like most savages, they are fond of liquor, and were it not for strict laws prohibiting the sale to them of intoxicating drinks, they would doubtless soon become exterminated through their own excesses.
“Like the North American Indians, they are disappearing rapidly before a new and sturdier race.”
He doesn’t mention the sturdier people’s sturdier weaponry, or the sturdiness of their acquisitive aggression.
Just at the time Stoddard’s dismal early epitaph for a people was being written, another American traveller was on the Australian leg of his round-the-world tour. A better writer, a keener observer, and a much sharper commentator on human nature.
Probably the finest newspaper columnist ever: Mark Twain.
In his riveting ragbag of a read, Following the Equator, Twain has much to say about the Aborigines, their inventive brilliance, their amazing physical abilities and powers of observation –  and their treatment by the white settlers.
Of the last, he concludes: “It is robbery, humiliation, and slow, slow murder, through poverty and the white man’s whisky.”
He remarks acutely and poignantly, too, on one way in which he considers the Aborigines superior to the invading Europeans. “The tribes,” he says, “had no comprehension of the idea of transferable ownership of land.”
Which, of course – as with the native Americans – made it all that much easier for the settlers to take possession and evict the former dwellers.
It’s not exactly the most rib-tickling section of a book that is often laugh-out-loud funny. But Twain does end the chapter on a characteristic wry note.
“There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”
Some things have changed since Twain and Stoddard’s day. Sadly, that isn’t one of them.

Traffic on London Bridge, with a London skyline very different from today’s
Pics from John L Stoddard’s Portfolio of Photographs of Famous Cities, Scenes & Paintings