Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A chorus of approval for Helen's Hawk

It begins: “Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees…”
That land is the Breckland, that border region of Norfolk and Suffolk which isn’t quite like anywhere else. The very heart of East Anglia, and almost unknown to the rest of the world.
Except to Helen Macdonald, whose book “H is for Hawk” opens with that evocative description.
The book isn’t quite like any other, either.
For a start, it’s rather hard to categorise. It’s a personal memoir, of how Helen struggled to cope with the grief of her father’s death, and of how she managed the difficulties and joys of training a young goshawk. Intercut with that is the story of an earlier writer, TH White, whose 1951 book “The Goshawk” told of his own inept attempts at hawk-training. And it’s the story too of Helen’s own lifelong relationship with that book, from fascination to anger and back.
The advice to booksellers on the back cover is to place “H is for Hawk” on both the Biography and Nature-Writing shelves. It is much more personally revealing, and more painfully honest, than most works you’ll find in either section.
Its runaway success – bestseller status, a book of the month at Waterstones, the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction – surprised its author as much as anyone.
Having read it in August, just after it first came out, I was a little surprised too at just how well it’s done since. Not because it doesn’t deserve every bit of acclaim – it does – but because, frankly, the glittering prizes so seldom go to the works that do deserve them.
I have no hesitation whatever in joining the Times Literary Supplement and a list of other publications and people who have named it as the book of 2014.
In doing so, I ought to declare a kind of interest. Helen Macdonald is an old friend, at least of the Facebook kind. We did meet once in person, though there’s no reason she should remember that. But my place in her friends list seems enough for me to feel a kind of reflected pride in her glory.
She has written a book that will become a classic. Now follow that, Helen.
And what am I looking forward to reading in 2015 – apart from the tempting stack of books Santa just left by my elbow?
Another friend of mine, journalist Jackie Copleton, has her first novel coming out in July. Titled “A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding”, it’s set partly in the present and partly in pre-bomb Hiroshima and it sounds terrific.


Monty Python was great the first time round. Even the second. By the time half the people you knew were able to quote whole rambling sketches verbatim, however – and far too often did just that – the novelty value, and the humour, were wearing thin. That was some time in the 1970s.
So you had to nod in agreement when someone said in 2014: “Who wants to see that again, really? A bunch of wrinkly old men trying to relive their youth and make a load of money.”
So true. And who said it? One Mick Jagger, at 71 still the lead singer of a popular beat combo that spent much of the year playing sell-out concerts in stadiums around the world, a mere half century after they were acclaimed as “England’s Newest Hit-Makers”.
Sir Mick is no fool, so one must assume he spoke with that famous tongue planted firmly in cheek. A pot aware of his relationship with the kettle.
The same is presumably true of that other knight of the realm Elton John, 67, who described Jagger’s co-Rolling Stone Keith Richard as “a monkey with arthritis trying to go on stage and look young”.
Ooh, scratch yer eyes out, as the Pythons once sang.
There was no humour, malice or irony, however, in the finest, most uplifting quote of 2014.
The 85-year-old science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin gave a speech at the American National Book Awards ceremony last month that was a masterpiece of brevity, wisdom and clear thinking.
“Right now,” she said, “we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”
Hear, hear. And not only writers, I might add.
She went on: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
If there was one thing said, in this depressing year, to lift the spirits and rekindle a little hope, that was it. Thank you, Ursula, for a thought worth cherishing.
I don’t expect 2015 to bring the fall of capitalism, or the ending of the terrifying power now wielded by multi-national corporations. But it will bring their end another year closer.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

May your god go with you. If you happen to have one

The music was divine, the children’s voices heavenly, the acoustics in the old church near perfect. The deep baritone in one of the front pews was pitched not to the treble of the choir but the lower notes of the accompanying organ.
For the first “Oh come let us adore him”, the baritone fell silent. At the second he joined in gently. At the third he came in on full boom, contributing his part to a joyous wall of sound that filled the church.
Never mind the Christian setting, the Christian message of the lyric, this was one atheist who was thoroughly enjoying the singalong. I know, because that man was me.
And I know I was not unwelcome in joining in, either. The vicar, bless him, made it quite plain in his delightfully ecumenical speech at the close of the school concert that all were welcome, of whatever religion or none.
He stressed, as he does every year, that tolerance, and caring for others, were the important features we should all share and encourage.
A message and an attitude which – of course – is not confined to the Church of England, but which nevertheless seems to sum up that church at its best.
An old favourite joke of mine came up again the other day. Maybe it isn’t really a joke at all. It’s more a statement of attitude, and one which at heart I share, true unbeliever though I am.
It goes like this: “I’m sick and tired of all these Christians who have forgotten the true meaning of Saturnalia.”
Celebrating the birth of a new year, a new season, at the very dead of winter, is a splendid tradition that goes back a lot further than the birth of Christ.
New religions have always thrived best when they have adopted, and subtly altered, the rites, rituals and holy places of the older religions they have displaced.
Christianity has always been masterful at this, which probably accounts for its very survival in early centuries, as well as its widespread success from medieval times on.
A tradition of drinking, carousing and eating well with gathered family and friends around the winter solstice was well established in Rome – and no doubt a great many other places – long before Christianity was around to lay claim to it.
We know from their often astonishingly precise alignments that stone-age monuments such as stone circles and burial chambers were built by people who placed great importance in the winter solstice.
Santa may have got his red coat from a Coca-Cola promotion (he used to be in green) and be more associated now with consumerism than with Christ. But if you’re looking for “true meaning”, his origins appear to lie in the High German, Old English or Anglo-Saxon god Woden. So perhaps we should celebrate him every Wednesday.
Isn’t there something decidedly pagan in the Yule log, the ceremonial tree and the wreath?
And, come to think of it, don’t some of those old carols we all enjoy singing so much have more than a touch of the older religion about them? The greenwood and the fertility rite. The Holly and the Ivy.
So yes, we can all enjoy the lovely church buildings, the lovely music, the singing and togetherness.
And yes, we can – and should – all remember those less blessed than ourselves, be it through famine, war, pestilence or poverty.
And, as the great Dave Allen used to say, may your god go with you. At this time as at all times. Whichever god that may be. If you happen to have one.
Happy Hanukkah.


We were talking at breakfast the other day, as you do. (Well, maybe you don’t, but we do – it’s a crucial part of what makes us the close family we are.) And, as we do, we had the radio on in the background.
“That’s a good question,” said a voice over the airwaves in response to I know not what. Prompting our daughter, 15 and thoughtful, to ponder: “What IS a good question?”
Which, when you think about it, is a pretty good question itself.
The answer depends, of course, on what you want to get out of it. Some questions just want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘tea’ or ‘coffee’ sort of answer. But in an interview – on the radio, say, or for a newspaper column – you want something that provokes a fuller response. Something, ideally, that makes the other person (and the listeners, or readers) think a bit.
A good question might be one the other person can’t answer – or doesn’t want to. In which case it might be more honest of them if they replied: “That’s a bad question.” Which, strangely, no one ever seems to do.
We’re about to enter a general election year, one in which the outcome is as hard to predict as I can ever remember. We are bound to be hearing a lot of interesting questions over the next four or five months. Can we expect to hear them answered straightforward, honestly – or at all?
Now that, I think you’ll agree, is a good question.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

What we could learn from Napoleon

History is written by the winners. It’s said so often that the idea has suffered the fate of all clich├ęs, to go almost un-noticed. But it’s worth thinking about occasionally.
What would we have grown up to believe about Hitler if he’d won? Those of us, that is, who were here at all. Which I probably wouldn’t have been.
Going back further, what about Napoleon Bonaparte?
I’ve always thought of the little French emperor as a sort of prototype Hitler, with his charismatic leadership and militaristic desire to conquer all of Europe. His 1812 march on Moscow, so vividly captured by Tolstoy in his great novel War And Peace, has always seemed to pre-figure the Nazis’ doomed assault on Russia.
For more than 20 years, from 1793 until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Old Boney was Britain’s bogeyman. The national obsession, the national fear, were real and ever-present. The Martello towers, built to stave off a feared invasion that never came, still dot the East Anglian coast.
Our great national heroes, Nelson and Wellington, were heroes because they defeated Napoleon. London’s most famous square, the nearest thing we have to a national public space, is named for Nelson’s final, fatal triumph at Trafalgar. Two centuries on, Waterloo remains the great “close-run thing”, a battle to rank in our mythology alongside Hastings (but better, because “we” won).
I never really paused to question the image of Bonaparte as a Bad Thing, the awful fate “we” managed narrowly to avoid. Not until the other day, when I encountered a surprising alternative view.
Which goes like this.
Wherever he went, Napoleon swept away hereditary privilege, bringing land and new freedom to the common people. He brought freedom of – and, crucially and highly unusually, freedom from – religion. He emancipated the Jews from all kinds of traditional repression (a bit unlike Hitler there, then). He introduced new standard “metric” measures (the one legacy people tend to know about).
The Napoleonic Code is also at root why France and a few other countries – including Germany (post-Hitler) – have a better legal system than us.
We tend, with our “great Britain” complex, to assume we do everything better than other people. Except sport (at which we actually punch above our weight). In many things it’s true, or true-ish, though getting less so. It’s really not true of our legal system, which is still largely run by privileged people for the preservation of their privilege.
That’s not to say there aren’t many fine lawyers, genuinely committed to the cause of justice. Of course there are. But the system works against them, not for them.
Consider the archaic and arcane language legal documents are written in. It’s deliberately impossible for anyone but a trained lawyer to understand, which is why they can charge such high fees for writing and interpreting it.
A key point of Napoleon’s code was that documents should be written in easily understandable language. Now, wouldn’t that be nice?
The other big difference between French-style and English-style law is between “adversarial” and “inquisitorial” proceedings.
Here, and in other countries with a similar system, any case in court is a battle between two sides. One wins, one loses. Sometimes you get the right result. Other times it’s a question of who can afford the better lawyer, who does better at appealing to a jury, or just plain luck.
The European system, based on Napoleonic principles, is not about seeing who wins. It’s about finding the truth.
Of course, it’s a bit more complex than that. But the central principle is there – and, to a large degree, it works.
German courts have a roughly 90 per cent conviction rate. They also have far fewer miscarriages of justice than here. Fewer wrong ’uns getting away with it – and fewer innocent people banged up.
They don’t have so many of their population in prison, because they don’t have our constant clamour for longer and longer sentences. They consider the high chance of being caught and convicted a better deterrent than ever harsher punishment for those who are.
They also have better after-care, which means fewer repeat offenders. It’s both more civilised and more effective.
The “what if” approach to history is always tempting, and never remotely possible to be sure of. But maybe – just maybe – if the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar had gone the other way we’d have a fairer society now. Including a better, less expensive, system of law.
Perhaps we’d have Napoleon on our banknotes and all celebrate him as the great saviour of the country.
In the meantime, back in the real world, senior legal figures have begun to think the unthinkable. The Lord Chief Justice, Baron Thomas of Cwmgiedd, gave a lecture earlier this year called Reshaping Justice, suggesting we might scrap much of our current system and adopt a more European approach.
Why would a lord in a wig, gown and chain suggest such a thing? Because the current system is so inefficient, and so expensive, that government cuts threaten to break it completely. So something good might come out of those cuts after all.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Sentiment v humanity

At football grounds all over the country at the weekend, players lined up together for a joint team photo. Home players mingled with their visitors in a comradely fashion before they started pulling and kicking each other as usual.
A nice enough gesture in its way, a pleasing show of unity in the face of… Well, yes, in the face of what? Not – let’s be truly grateful for it – in the face of trench warfare. Which is what it was supposed to be in commemoration of.
Both my grandfathers fought in the First World War – one was killed in the Second – and I’m certainly not one to belittle or dishonour those who did. The situation they were placed in was in a very real sense the defining tragedy of the 20th century, and led, directly or indirectly, to most of the major horrors that unfolded upon the world thereafter.
The “Christmas truce” of 1914 and the famous football match that broke out between the trenches were poignant moments that remain rightly iconic.
But does a chummy huddle on a football field a century later really add anything worthwhile?
Or is it, like the kitsch display of porcelain poppies in the Tower of London moat, merely another instance of a shallow and disturbing social phenomenon?
The number of British families now forced to rely on food banks suggests that we have become a less caring society than we once were.
The callous tendency of government and media to characterise the poor as “scroungers” is another deeply unpleasant sign of it.
So is the common uncharitable attitude towards immigrants – including that alarmingly growing number of desperate people fleeing the horror of lands such as Syria.
Real compassion appears to have given way to false sentimentality.
It didn’t begin in 1997 with the outbreak of mass mawkishness that attended the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. But the habit of strewing tokens in “memory” of people the mourners never knew got a massive boost then and seems to have grown ceaselessly since –encouraged, perhaps, by the purveyors of cards and cut flowers.
The callousness towards the needy was made socially acceptable in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher began the war on the poor still being enthusiastically waged by her Tory successors today.
It’s high time the balance was swung away from sentiment and back towards real humanity.


You have to feel for Chuka Umunna. Four and a half years an MP and already he’s being talked up as the next leader of his party.
As if there wasn’t someone still in the job and hoping to become prime minister next May.
A polished performer – perhaps even just a little too polished – in TV debates, Umunna is in no danger of suffering the fate that befell a previous Labour hope, the late Robin Cook. The fate, that is, of just not being good-looking enough for the trivial beauty contest that modern politics has become.
(And if you think that’s harsh on Cook, it’s what he himself gave as the reason for not standing for the leadership – a tragedy for Labour, and arguably for Britain.)
Umunna was the subject of a recent glowing profile in the high-brow French paper Le Monde, which described him as Britain’s Barack Obama.
And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, he has now been touted for the leadership by the man Cook chose not to stand against. Tony Blair.
Which ought to be the death-knell for any decent Labour politician’s aspirations.


Last week’s Autumn Statement from George Osborne bore all the expected hallmarks of a chancellor trying to curry favour with the electorate five months before a General Election. All the electorate, that is, apart from all those facing further swingeing cuts in public services and wondering where on earth those cuts can possibly be made.
Once all the fine calculations were concluded, though, it could be seen as more classic Tory policy. A campaign of further moves to redistribute money – out of the pockets of the poor and into the groaning bank accounts of the rich.
Does Osborne really believe this is the way to invigorate a struggling economy?
Former American president Bill Clinton understood the principles better. As he explained it, the way to get the economy moving is to put more money in the pockets of those who have little.
Give a fiver each to a million ordinary people and they’ll spend it, keeping the wheels turning.
Give a million each to five rich people and they’ll bank it, taking it out of the system.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Privacy - a privilege we have given away

You value your privacy, right? Of course you do. It’s a basic human right, isn’t it?
Well, no, not really. In fact, like carpets on the floor, indoor plumbing and private motor vehicles, it’s a privilege that has only in fairly recent times been extended beyond the rich. And even then – like all those things – not everywhere.
Put yourself a few generations back in your own family – say 150 years. Carpet? Probably not. Indoor loo? Likely not. Car? Definitely not. Privacy? Probably not much.
Not that the state would have been much interested in prying on you. Big business didn’t yet have the reach.
But the working class – which was most people – mostly lived in much more crowded conditions than we expect now. There’s not much privacy if you live six, or eight, or 12 to a room.
Or if you all have to share an outdoor netty with a dozen other families.
And what was true in Victorian England is still more or less true in various ways in many parts of the world.
So no, privacy isn’t a right. That sign saying “private”, whether it’s on a door, the gateway to a country estate, or a company portfolio, is a sign of privilege.
And unlike the companies and the estates, it’s a privilege most people seem strangely happy to give up.
You use Facebook? Google? Twitter? Snapchat? Satnav? You think CCTV in public places is a good thing? You’re happy to let the government award itself ever greater powers to listen to your conversations, read your emails, track your movements? You really have given up on privacy, haven’t you?
There’s an old idea, still used to justify police and government intrusion, that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.
That rather depends, though, on how much you trust the police, and the government. And the police and government we might have a little further down the line.
I wrote last week about the Internet of Things, and I promised to discuss here what happens when the data it depends on falls into the hands of hackers.
And that is a “when”, not an “if”. It’s inevitable.
Your PC is your window to the world – and it can be seen through both ways. And as I outlined last week, it’s only the beginning.
Last winter, cybercriminals broke into more than 100,000 internet-enabled appliances, such as fridges and heating systems, and sent out 750,000 spam e-mails to their users.
These days we have “intelligent” cars. But not that intelligent. Security researchers – “good guy” hackers, if you like – say they have built a device that can remotely control a car’s steering, brakes, acceleration, locks and lights. Let’s hope the good guys keep that to themselves.
In the recent words of one Ford executive, a car is now “a cognitive device”. If you drive a computer on wheels, you can expect someone to hack it.
And of course it doesn’t stop there. Between its various arms, the government now holds an awful lot of information about you, and has the capacity to hold a lot more. Which you may or may not be happy about.
So what if the government system itself is hacked? The authorities haven’t always shown themselves to be the brightest and safest keepers of digital data.
And there’s rather more than everyone’s personal privacy at stake.
In the words of Matthew Wald of the New York Times: “If an adversary lands a knockout blow to the energy grid it could black out vast areas of the continent for weeks, interrupt supplies of water, gasoline, diesel fuel and fresh food, shut down communications, and create disruptions of a scale that was only hinted at by Hurricane Sandy and the attacks of September 11.”
Eggs. Basket.


Do online petitions work? There is evidence that those run by big groups such as 38 Degrees, Avaaz and Sum Of Us may actually have some impact on politicians and other decision-makers.
So, as easy and trivial as it seems, I do occasionally put my name to campaigns I support – and I’ve just signed another one.
It calls for the East Coast main line to remain in public hands, not given away like the rest of the rail network to private business.
Never mind re-privatising the country’s best-run line, what we should be doing is putting the rails and the trains back under the same management. By bringing back British Rail.
And talking of keeping things public, a £2billion increase in the NHS budget sounds like a good thing. But it does rather depend on who the money ends up going to.
Back-door privatisation has already put £2.6bn of NHS money into profit-driven firms since April last year. Research by the NHS Support Federation suggests that figure could rise to £9.2bn.
Among those who could profit is the American company Lockheed Martin. The “defence” giant is said to be considering bidding for a £1bn contract to supply GP support.

Do we really want a maker and seller of warplanes to be running – and profiting from – our health service?

Monday, 1 December 2014

Who cashes in on Big Data?

So the recent baring of Kim Kardashian’s bottom didn’t break the internet. But the fact that it was billed as a plausible attempt to do so was an extraordinary comment on the times we live in.
The obsessions with peepshow nudity, vacuous celebrities and the net brought together in a weird nexus.
The internet is now so all-pervasive that people of school or college age can barely conceive of a world without it. Yet it is only 16 years since I was in the team that delivered the Ipswich Star’s first website. And we were ahead of the trend, not behind it.
There was no sound, no video or moving graphics. We had to keep images small, just one per page, to avoid overstretching people’s patience while they downloaded. In this age of streaming movies and real-time high-definition news and sport, that seems like ancient history.
Developers of the early computers would have been amazed (maybe) at the computing capacity most of us now carry around in our pockets. Gadgets so cheap most schoolkids take them everywhere provide ready, rapid access to most of the world’s stored information – and we use them to share videos of cute kittens and photos of Kim K’s curvy bits.
“Wearable technology” puts its users in a world fore-imagined in the Terminator movies. Internet-gathered information superimposed on ones view of the real world around you.
A dream to some, this sounds to me like a nightmare. But then I was a late convert to the CD and the VHS video. Maybe I’ll come round to internet-enabled specs.
All this new capability is empowering, exciting and just a little scary all at the same time. And we’re still, in historical terms, only in the early days of the internet. Expect the changes ahead to be bigger and quicker than those already behind us.
Next up, what’s been dubbed “the Internet of Things”.
Already you can use your mobile phone to set your satellite TV box to record programmes. With the right kit you can get an app to operate your home central heating from anywhere in the world. It’s apparently possible to buy internet-connected washing-machines, fridges, slow-cookers and vacuum-cleaners, and light-bulbs that switch themselves on when you and your phone get near home.
All this is based on Big Data, and inevitably it means Big Bucks for some very Big Companies.
The boss of one of those companies, Cisco Systems, has calculated that “the Internet of Everything” will be worth £9trillion by 2022.
That’s about £1,275 per person on the planet. Or, to put it another way, about five times the total size of the UK economy. All heading for the coffers of a handful of mostly American firms. Cripes.
The writer and “social theorist” Jeremy Rifkin, getting all excited, reckons this amounts to a Third Industrial Revolution. He predicts that the inter-connectedness of people and machines will make everything so efficient it will reduce the cost of producing things to “near zero”, thereby overthrowing capitalism and making us all happy ever after. Calm down, Jeremy.
If manufacturing is so efficient it no longer needs to employ workers and all the money goes to the firm, who’s going to buy all the wonderful stuff produced?
And apart from creating all this lovely warm customer satisfaction, what is all this Big Data actually for?
Cisco Systems is working on a piece of kit called “the Connected Athlete” that “turns the athlete’s body into a distributed system of sensors and network intelligence. The athlete becomes more than just a competitor – he or she becomes a Wireless Body Area Network, or WBAN .”
Very clever, very futuristic. And worth a second thought.
Google, your phone provider – and potentially anyone they want to sell or give the information to, such as the government – already knows at any given moment where you are. Or, at least, where your phone is.
Hook up your body to the internet and anyone who wants to know – your employer, your insurer, your privatised health-care provider – can access your heart rate, your blood pressure, your breathing pattern.
Cars that record where you are, how fast you’re travelling and how many passengers you have are equipped already with the equivalent of an aircraft’s “black box”. How long before the police demand access to such information?
A public already inured to the prevalence of CCTV probably won’t object. Most don’t seem to mind living in the most intense surveillance state the world has ever seen.
Cases such as the phone-hacking scandal, paranoia about people taking photos of other people’s children (as if they didn’t show their own images constantly on Snapchat and Facebook anyway) and constant bleats by royals and other celebs would suggest we still believe in privacy. That it’s something we feel we have a right to, and don’t want “invaded”.
Too late, guys. Google, Facebook, MI5 and the CIA have already brought the Age of Privacy to an end. The Internet of Everything merely erects its tombstone.
  • Next: what happens when all this Big Data falls into the hands of hackers?