Thursday, 23 March 2017

On Westminster Bridge...

"The world has not anything to shew more fair," wrote William Wordsworth after returning to his London lodgings from Westminster Bridge.

What the poet saw on that early September morning in 1803 is warmly described in the remaining thirteen lines of his sonnet.

His poem came to mind after I watched the television news about the killings and injuries inflicted on Westminster Bridge and inside the grounds of the Palace of Westminster by Khalid Masood, a follower of IS. Islamic State reportedly called him "a soldier of Islam". And that's maybe how he saw himself as he drove the car towards his target, justifying to his conscience what he intended to do.

IS and all the other jihadist righteous brothers bent on annihilating infidels make a great deal out of putting the love of god beyond all other considerations. Their interpretation of struggle embraces self-sacrifice and murder; the taking of life is their ticket to paradise.

I have remarked before on the absolving attraction of fatalism for those who find modern life fearful, complicated and demanding. Removing all responsibility from yourself, and hence culpability for what you do, is not simply the behaviour of the religious fanatic of a particular kind: throughout history it has been the mark of every zealot.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper gave a name to this kind of depersonalised idealism: historicism. Only he had in mind not Muslims of a certain stripe, but Marxists, at least those who worshipped the trinity of Marx-Engels and Lenin, for whom the grand march of history, irrespective of human cost, over-ruled every other consideration. "One death is a tragedy: a millions deaths is a statistic," said that great 20th Century cynic Joseph Stalin.

Stalin was many other things as well, but he best fits Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: One who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

That could be applied to the bearded leaders of IS, the Taliban and other jihadist movements, though one has to say, if paradise is as desirable as they claim why don't they offer themselves as suicide foot-soldiers? In the various forms of Christianity a martyr gives his own life to save the life of others, not take it. The embodiment of this belief, as reality and symbol, is Jesus Christ.

Whether or not the people in the vicinity of Westminster Bridge yesterday afternoon were practicing Christians doesn't matter. In the confusion and terror of the moment it is what those people did that counts. I saw the television-footage of people running towards those who lay on the bridge; I heard the same exclamations that I heard when the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center imploded on the morning of September 11, 2001: "Oh my god, oh my god, my god, Jesus Christ."

Today I was deeply touched by some of the sentiments expressed both inside and outside the House of Commons. All the big talk about liberty, democracy, tolerance belonged to yesterday in the ambiguous aftermath of ill-reported events. Realistically, you wouldn't expect anything else. Today I didn't hear many big words. Instead the talk was of ordinary people getting on with life, staying together, helping each other. Practicing curmudgeon that I am, my heart said yes to that although my mind remains on alert for the usual excuse that such attacks are a reaction to Islamophobia. I have been hearing that since the burning of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses in Bradford in 1989.

I could have taken the entirely cynical view that what happened in Westminister was a beneficial crisis as a result of which all manner of restrictions and curtailments of personal freedom would be justified by the authorities as a necessary part of the continuing war on terror.

This, by the way, was the very theme of three BBC film documentaries made in 2004 that I watched yesterday and the day before. The Power of Nightmares contended that ever since the United States aided the Mujahideen insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a symbiotic relationship has developed between neoconservatist and liberal values in the West and Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The power and influence of both relied on creating and maintaining a climate of fear.

It was asserted, for example, that the idea of an international network of Islamic terrorists called Al Qaeda, ready and willing to rise up and strike the West at the behest of Osama Bin Laden and others was a phantasy deliberately connived and perpetuated by politicians in Washington and London.

In the blood-light of the bombings, shootings, car-kills and stabbings all over the world after 2004, including those in London in July 2005 and May 2013, that thesis sounds specious.    

More convincing to me was Antonia Bird's 2004 film The Hamburg Cell, a dramatisation of the recruitment of the 9/11 jihadists in Germany and their subsequent undercover training as pilots in the United States. Reportedly made after two years of research, the film showed that an extensive network of jihadists did indeed exist. This network supplied money, equipment, ideological support and auxiliary backup. The men chosen to fly the planes were all encouraged to believe fervantly that they were heading for paradise. The American Airlines jet planes would be their firey angels, their chariots of fire, carrying them to everlasting bliss.

The Power of Nightmares ends with a summary statement to the effect that fear of a phantiom enemy is all that politicians have left to assert their power and influence. A society that believes in nothing is more liable to be frightened of people who believe ardently in something.

Up to a point Lord Copper. A year ago today a dear friend of mind died. Lesley and I were on our way to London on the morning of his death at home, a place we had come to love. This man, John Pashley, always professed to be an atheist. But in terms of his behaviour in the lives of others he was a practitioner of the values of the Sermon on the Mount. From what I saw and heard on television, I would say the same applies to the people on and around Westminster Bridge yesterday.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Great Bastards

According to the BBC, Great Bustards are "on the point" of becoming self sustainable in the UK for the first time in 185 years.
"The world's heaviest flying bird was hunted to extinction in the country, with the last bustard shot in 1832. Over the past 13 years, a population of about 50 birds has been established from chicks brought in from Russia and Spain. It is hoped that by 2019 the number of "release birds" will have reached 100."

At first I mis-read "Bustards" for "Bastards", an understandable mistake in the circumstances; I had been glancing over the headlines about George Osborne's six jobs including the editorship of the London Evening Standard.

If the published salary estimates are accurate, David Cameron's former "Iron Chancellor" can be expected to clock up about £1.86m over 12 months. That's quite a stack of chips for Mr Austerity although nowhere near the pre-tax pay of footballers Wayne Rooney and Paul Pogba.

Three or four years ago Rooney and his agent persuaded Manchester United to agree a five-anad-a-half contract reportedly worth £350,000 a week, more than £80m for the duration.

Pogba, sold by Alex Ferguson for £1.5m to Juventus, was brought back to Old Trafford by Jose Mourinho for a reported £89m which surely makes the Frenchman the most expensive haircut ever to leave Italy.

Mourinho is very protective of the giraffe-like midfielder who has only shown flashes of ability in the matches he has played for United: against Chelsea in the FA Cup he was utterly outplayed by the smaller but more energetic N'golo Kante. The manager declared that people were jealous of Pogba's salary and so had it in for him.

My annual income is a single shred of orange in a jar of marmalade in comparison with what Osborne, Rooney and Pogba can spread on their toast every morning. But am I jealous of them? Not a jot. I don't live in their world, so you cannot judge like with like.

The only expectation I have is that they should be worth the dosh; for the money they are on they should be able to make a positive difference.

Lest that sound Gradgrindingly grudging, let me conclude this inconsequential post with a bit more of the BBC's news about Great Bustards (which reminds me of William Boot, the hapless bird-fancier-cum war correspondent in Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop).

"An adult great bustard can be up to a metre (3ft) tall and weigh up to 44lb (20kg). Its wingspan can reach nearly eight feet (2.4m).The bustard's size made it an easy target for hunters, leading to its extinction."

Thursday, 9 March 2017

A Dog's Breakfast

What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back? Answer: A stick. What is a party Manifesto pledge? Answer: Balls. What do you call a tax on pay that isn't officially a tax? Answer: An increase in National Insurance.

What is National Insurance for? Answer: State pensions, welfare benefits for sickness and unemployment and allowances. It's all part of the comprehensive safety net envisaged by William Beveridge seventy years ago to combat the the Five Giants of squalor, want, ignorance, disease and idleness. It wasn't intended to be a way of boosting central government reserves to pay the European Union up to £60 billion for leaving the European Empire.

Which brings me to an associated part of Philip Hammond's Spring budget announcement in the House of Commons: the £2 billion for extra social care provision over the next three years that the National Insurance hike for the self-employed is supposed to pay for.

Former Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbitt has said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's explanation - to equalise the contributions of the self-employed who pay a lower rate of tax with the tax contributions by the employed - is reasonable. Nevertheless, he described the budget as a "dog's breakfast".

What is a dog's breakfast exactly? Something that cats and human beings would find undigestible? The real question is this: Local authoritities already have the power to raise extra money from Council Tax to pay for Social Care. In view of the £2 billion tax grab from the self-employed for the same thing, will this power be removed from local authorities for the next financial year?

To this bear of astonishingly little brain, the uncertainty (a subject already covered in a previous blog) over Brexit is being used as an excuse to rack up price increases all round. The power company cartel, for example, is getting away with rises of up to 15 per cent. They blame mandatory carbon capture and lower emissions costs imposed by the European Union and signed up for by Ed Miliband when he was Gordon Brown's Secretary of State for the Environment.

The BBC, though, doesn't appear to be interested in the connection between higher energy prices and the cost of European Union legislation to the tax-payers of old Britannia.

The Corporation's bevvy of political and economics editors, though, have yet to find a way of blaming Donald Trump for the Chancellor's dog's breakfast. Give them time.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Trump, Trump, Trump...

Brexiteers continue the civil war that's been going on ever since former Prime Minister David Cameron announced the unbelievable news that UK voters would actually have a referendum on membership of the European Union.

Mr Cameron's successor, Theresa May, set the warring factions against each other again this week - intentionally or otherwise - by making a speech at London's Lancaster House in which she declared that Britain would be leaving the EU single market, at some time, in some way. Lancaster House was the place where Margaret Thatcher declared emphatically that membership of the single market was a really good thing. She may even have believed that, for a while.

While some Brexiteers like Nigel Farage cheer on Mrs May and, with Donald Trump as President of the United States, look forward to another Thatcher-Reagan era, others, some of whom publicly welcomed her as the best possible successor to David Cameron, are now prophecing catastrophe. Is it a car crash? No. Is it a train wreck? No. Is it a Jumbo Jet explosion? Almost certainly. What, then, does that make President Trump? Why, a nuclear holocaust of course. According to Polly Toynbee at least.

So, Brexit doesn't mean Brexit after all: it means Exit. The main thing that struck me about Mrs May's speech, though, was the outfit in which she chose to make it. The blue-green tartan bum-freezer jacket and matching trousers, hitched high round her middle, instantly reminded me of the Bay City Rollers, the 'tartan teen sensations' from Edinburgh whose biggest hit in the 1970s was Bye Bye Baby. The main difference between Mrs May and Les McKeown and the boys was that she wore flat shoes rather than boots with big heels.

Forty-odd years ago, while young Fionas, Daphnes and Theresas were leaping up and down with tartan scarves tied to their wrists, the man with a nose like a ship's rudder, Edward Heath, was tying Britain up to the European Economic Community, as it was then designated, assuring the nation that 'twas but a trading agreement, a market of six sovereign states. Thirty years later Uncle Ted superciliously admitted to BBC television reporter Michael Cockerall that it was in fact a political union.

No it wasn't. The 1972 European Communities Act was a web and sitting in the middle of it was the European Commission, spinning out ever more sticky strands to bind more and more member states together. The six became 28 or 27 plus 1. More nations need even more sticky rules, regulations, directives, thousands and thousands of them, many of them from international conglomerates a long way from Brussels. A great sticky ball of rules and regs larger than the Gordian Knot that Alexander the Great is said to have loosened with a single blow of his sword.

Is that what Theresa May has at the back of her mind, a single low to slice through thousands of strands of sticky red tape? Is that what President Trump has in mind as outlined in his inaugural speech attack on Washington's governing elite? - the talkers who do nothing but prosper while swathes of America turn into rusting tombstones. An unlikely image if you think about it, but President Trump is more a man of phrases than images. "The American carnage," was the phrase he used to describe the white collar crimes against America's blue collar industries.

Because I am easily distracted by trivialities, phrases from a popular song from the 1950s pinged into my mind before President Trump's big show in Washington. It goes:-

Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk

And said goodbye to the circus
Off she went with a trumpety-trump
Trump, trump, trump
Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk
And trundled back to the jungle
Off she went with a trumpety-trump
Trump, trump, trump

Nellie ended up on the road to Mandalay. Donald Trump unpacked his trunk in Washington, specifically at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I imagine him, the fuss of the great day over, taking off his trousers in the master bedroom, a day after ex-President Obama had put his on in the same room, perhaps, and turning to the First Lady, saying: "Melania honey, did you ever hear of the Bay City Rollers?" Chances are, of course, that Trump's pants could be tartan in honour of his mother's Scottish connection.

In response to all the Apocalypso Now doom-mongers, the time has come to echo that world-weary voice responding to the hapless J Alfred Prufrock in T S Eliot's poem and repeat:-

That is not it at all/ That is not what I meant, at all.

While it may be a mistake to impose the pattern of the past on the future, seeing in May-Trump another Thatcher-Reagan, I well recall that 1980 to about 1987 was a time of trouble, turbulence and fear, from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan. America was in retreat while the clunky Soviet Union was on the advance. Few foresaw in the mid-1980s the way things would work out by November 9, 1989 - the day when the German Democratic Republic accidentally abolished the Berlin Wall.

Perhaps it's not the great set-piece policy statements in London and Washington that make the real difference, except to the money changers, so much as unforeseen events along the way.   

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Bow Wow Factor

Some people are apt to get really boring about the misuse of words and phrases on radio, television and in the press. I'm one myself. I can't watch or listen passively. The frequent misuse of 'iconic', 'awesome', 'fantastic' and lately 'wow' is yet another indicator, to me at least, of the way the public is being treated like a regressive infant.

Only the testy old Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge appears to have any expectation of audience intelligence or at least a ready willingness to understand. But I don't suppose many would think of judging the nation by the standards applied to University Challenge, more like Gogglebox.

The willingess to use ready-made words and phrases as unthinking expressions of surprise, shock, incredulity or amazement exists against a soundtrack of Munchkin muzak in supermarkets, gyms, cafes and other public places. So no surprise that at a time of emotional cliches in popular music, invariably about love, the tendency to talk in cliches, like, is bound to be more noticeable. That doesn't make it any more tolerable, though.

I've just watched a programme on BBC2 about home make-overs in which amateur designers are given £1,000 and a bit of help to change a room in a house in the space of 48 hours. In every instance, two of the three judges inspecting the make-overs uttered 'Wow' as they walked into the room. Not a short, to the point, 'wow' but a lingering 'wo-o-ow', as though Greg Wallace had fed the entire prodution team of Master Chef with five loaves and two fishes. When God surveyed the created universe you may be sure he did not say 'wow, 'awesome', 'fantastic' lor even, 'wow, thar's iconic.'

I have a family relative who, last time I saw her, had a really annoying way of using the expression 'okay'. In response to virtually any new piece of information she replied, 'okaaaay?' interogatively, as though what you had told her was subject to some kind of commission of inquiry for validation. This is the same as saying 'right?' That little qualifier so common in conversation nowadays which indicates that the person using it is checking constantly that you are following his or her drift. Usually the subject is not at all difficult to follow, just bloody tedious, right?

Listen dog, next time you talk to me leave your wows in the kennel where they belong. Likewise awesome, fantastic and iconic. Either find a way of expressing what you think or feel or, if you feel and think nothing worth saying, then keep your mouth shut. Nod instead or shake your head.


Saturday, 10 December 2016

A A Gill: A Man for all Seasoning

It's been a busy year for obituary writers: David Bowie,Terry Wogan, Prince, Tony Warren, Cliff Michelmore, Ray Fitzwalter, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels, Victoria Wood, Johan Cruyff, David Herd, Mohammed Ali, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn, Fidel Castro, Peter Vaughan, John Glenn and now the Sunday Times columnist A A Gill.

Not being a regular reader of the Sunday Times - it looks as though it's lost its style to me - I was not familiar with Adrian Gill's food criticism; but I imagine that it was every bit as witty and perceptive as his television criticism. Before I was shunted out of my job as a regional hack I had a book of his TV pieces. On my last Friday I passed it on to a colleague in the hope that it would provoke both thought and laughter as it had done for me.

Gill's favourite target was costume drama - oh no, it's Dame Judi in yet another Georgian/Victorian dress and hat. If I remember rightly not even my beloved Middlemarch was spared. Try defending your fondness for Andrew Davies's adaptation to Mr G, I thought. Well, I think I can. The serial was not about wigs, country houses and four-wheelers but humility in all its various emanations - Bulstrode's sanctimony, Casaubon's lifeless piety, Lydgate's frustration, Dorothea's resignation and Sir James Chettam's unrequited love for Dorothea.  You can't always get what you want and all that - although that doesn't appear to apply to Sir Mick Jagger, a father for the seventh time at 73. The sound-track was good as well, good enough to win a BAFTA. You can't say that about many TV sound-tracks.

What larks, eh Pip? Mr Gill had an eye and an ear for the false note, the bogus, the pretentious, the duplicitous. I'd love to know his thoughts about the current TV drama obsession with serial killers on BBC1, 2 and 4 as well as ITV. Men killing women seems to me the acting out of a subliminal fantasy. Aren't there other subjects to explore, for example: political correctness and corruption, grooming in Northern cities, paedophilia in sport, the proliferation of food programmes in an age of obesity and seven days of the girlie-whirly Strictly Come Dancing across BBC1 and BBC2? 

I think he also had an appreciation of that which was genuinely touching, funny or authentic. He approved of sentiment, the kind that is not accompanied by a piano score in a minor key. He was made to engage in mental strife with this tattooed age in which style, the appearance of things, dominates over substance. Twas ever thus, you may say. I disagree. It wasn't like that in 1963 when Philip Larkin made the Beatles' first LP and Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' articulated what a lot of people were feeling but couldn't put into words. Look at the first part of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home bio-pic of Dylan dominated by Pete Seeger, Odetta, Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Jacob Niles, a young Nat King Cole, Izzy Young and Joan Baez. That wasn't an age for old men pretending to be wise or young men posturing.

After George Orwell died in 1950, W H Auden said he would miss Orwell's opinions, implying that the loss was public not private: national life as a whole would be poorer for Orwell's silence. I hope that's not the case with A A Gill's passing. We need all the judicious, fearless, oxyacetalyne voices we can get to cut through the climate of conceit and delusion that surrounds us.

As readers of The Sunday Times know, he wrote his last piece of journalism for the colour supplement. The subject was his diagnosis, treatment and reflections on the NHS which, he asserts, suffers from a kind of institutional cancer:-

We know it's the best of us. The National Health Service is the best of us. You can't walk into an NHS hospital and be a racist. That condition is cured instantly. But it's almost impossible to walk into a private hospital and not fleetingly feel that you are one: a plush waiting room with entitled and bad-tempered health tourists.

You can't be sexist on the NHS, nor patronising, and the care and the humour, the togetherness ranged against the teetering, chronic system by both the caring and the careworn is the Blitz, "back against the wall", stern and sentimental best of us - and so we tell lies about it.

We say it's the envy of world. It isn't. We say there's nothing else like it. There is. We say it's the best in the West. It's not. We think it's the cheapest. It isn't . Either that or we think it's the most expensive - it's not that eiher. You will live longer in France and Germany, get treated faster abd nore comfortably in Scandanavia, and everything costs more in America......

......Actually it's not being told you've got cancer that is the test of character, it's the retelling. Going home and saying to the missus: "That thing, that cricked neck. Actually it's a tumour, the size of a cigar." It ought to come with a roll of thunder and five Jewish violinists, instead of the creaky whisper of fear.

People react differently to different cancers: most women think they'll survive, and statistically they're right. Most men think they'll die - and likewise......

......I'm sitting in bed on the cancer ward trying to get the painkillers stabilised and a young nurse comes in. "There you are. I've been waiting for you all day. You are supposed to be with me down in chemotherapy. I saw your name. Why are you up here?"
"Well, it turns out the chemo isn't working." Her shoulders sag and her hand goes to her head. "F***, f***, that's dreadful." I think she might be crying.
I look away, so might I.
You don't get that with private healthcare.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Leonard Cohen: Going Home

Even to talk about one's self at a time like this is a kind of unwholesome luxury. I don't think I've had a darkest hour compared to the dark hours that so many people are involved in right now. Large numbers of people are dodging bombs, having their nails pulled out in dungeons, facing starvation, disease. I mean large numbers of people. So I think we've got to be circumspect about how seriously we take our anxieties today," Leonard Cohen said in an interview published in July, 2009.

Well, he goes out as President-elect Donald Trump comes in. As Albert Einstein is reputed to have said: Coincidence is God's way of remaining invisible.

Leonard Cohen will be remembered by the unreliable media as a lugubrious Spock-like troubadour of mournful love songs. Of all the songs that Leonard Cohen wrote and recorded the ones I like most are not, wirh the exception of Suzanne and Famous Blue Raincoat, love songs. Ever since David Marlow, a Jewish friend with whom I shared a basement flat in Hackney in the early 1970s, introduced me to his work I think I have always preferred the outward Cohen of Story of Isaac to the introspective Cohen of Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye. I made my compilation last month after reading David Remnick's monumental interview with the man himself in The New Yorker. All of it is worth reading, twice; but here are the last two paragraphs, an apt post-script, Cohen signing off from the material world:- 

"I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not," Cohen said. “It’s there, you can feel it in people—there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity. So that’s operating. That activity at certain points of your day or night insists on a certain kind of response. Sometimes it’s just like: ‘You are losing too much weight, Leonard. You’re dying, but you don’t have to co-operate enthusiastically with the process.’ Force yourself to have a sandwich.

“What I mean to say is that you hear the 'Bat Kol.' The divine voice. You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process. At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, ‘You’re fucking up.’ That’s a tremendous blessing, really."  

My top twenty Cohen songs are:- Sisters of Mercy: Suzanne: Story of Isaac: Joan of Arc: Famous Blue Raincoat: Hallelujah: Who By Fire: Song of the Partisan: Everybody Knows: Tower of Song: In My Secret Life: Here it Is: By the River's Dark: In the Land of Plenty: The Future: Democracy: Going Home: Show Me the Place: Darkness: You Want it Darker.

Pick any one and you’ll find apposite lines that resonate with the times, trials and tribulations of the reality in which you’re living. The tawdry Trump versus Clinton scrap for the sepulchre of the White House prompted me to nominate You Want it Darker, the title song of Cohen’s latest LP, as the soundtrack for this particular movie. Others might say, ‘Yes, but what about the more sardonic Democracy? Or the ironic but poignant last lines from In the Land of Plenty:- May the light in the land of plenty/ Shine on the truth some day 

But of all Leonard Cohen’s songs I have chosen Going Home to send him on his way. God bless, Mr Cohen.

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He will never have the freedom
To refuse 

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow

Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I want him to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to SAY what I have told him
To repeat

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before