Tuesday, 17 June 2014

But What Have Wayne or David Got to Say About Isis?

The BBC's world affairs editor John Simpson is in Baghdad: therefore the situation with the masked and scarved gunmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) must be serious.

The inextricable tangle of tribal rivalries at the heart of it certainly looks ugly and hopeless. Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular used to be like that in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a wretched internicene conflict of different religious militias. Do-good outsiders who wandered between the jaws of it were taken into darkness for four to five years. Remember Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy? 

At least they survived. Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft did not. Accused by Saddam Hussein of spying, he was hanged in March 1990, a fate that was to befall the Iraqi leader after the invasion of Iraq. American journalist Daniel Pearl was captured by Al Qaida in Pakistan, that wonderful country, and beheaded by his captors in 2002. The video of it was posted on the net.

We, for whom a crisis is the telly or the boiler going on the blink or the barn owl population taking a bit of a dip, seemingly don't have the capacity to measure up to the import of these terrible events. If Wayne Rooney or David Beckham had warned (on television news, of course) that ISIS are worse than the Taliban in Afghanistan we might have take more notice.

Instead ISIS insurgents executing Shia men with machine guns came as a bit of surprise on Monday.  We thought everybody was watching the World Cup.

One consequence of all this is the turn-around in diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Why, only a few years ago Ben Afleck was making Argo - about the US hostage crisis. Now we're the best of friends with Iran it seems, with the re-opening of the British embassy in Tehran to prove it.   

Nothing should surprise us in the murky world of real-politick. Were ISIS to achieve the impossible and take Baghdad, I wonder if the EU would send envoys to the city to work out a mutually beneficial trade arrangement.  Or am I thinking of Ukraine? 

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Thinking Outside the Box

Whenever I am exhorted to
think outside the box,
usually by somebody
who should be in one,
I think of
Edson Arantes do Nascimento -
Brazilian Black Pearl,
triple World Cup winner -
who scored twelve hundred and eighty-two goals
in thirteen hundred and sixty-three matches
by not
outside the box.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Britons Never Will be Slaves...

And so 181 years after Britain abolished slavery in all its forms, the Coalition Government puts an anti-slavery Bill before Parliament to curb and punish more severely the practice of trafficking in human beings.

This, of course, has got nothing to do with the illegal transportation of immigrants in the backs of trailers. Human trafficking means the forcible coercion of others and the use of, or the threat of, physical violence or intimidation.

Seventy years ago Allied armed forces took a trot across the Channel to Normandy to abolish the Nazi enslavement of most of mainland Europe - 49 months or so after they'd been driven off the beaches of Dunkirk.

Less than 30 years after D-Day, lest we forget amid the flag-waving and bunting over the next few days, Edward Heath and his clever chums in the Foreign Office knowingly signed away Britain's sovereignty, as well as the country's fishing rights, steel making and ship building, for membership of the European Econmic Community. In reality it was the EPP: the European Political Project.

During the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979, I covered the Conservative Party rally in St George's Hall, Bradford. The main speaker in support of Lord St Oswald for Yorkshire West was Harold Macmillan, the old shaman, who spoke movingly of how Britain would once again rise like a lion strong and proud in its new role.

It didn't happen, of course. It was an illusion. The irony is the old man began his speech by describing a royal cavalcade he had seen in the streets of London when he was a child. Old Queen Victoria was passing by, the Empress of India, monarch of territories from Britain to India, Canada to Australia. "But it was all an illusion," Macmillan whispered.

Perhaps we all prefer illusions if, as T S Eliot observed in Four Quartets, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality."

The reality of human trafficking, of slavery, is not something we should bear at all. However, I am inclined to think - if that's not too grand a word for what passes through my brain - that the stiffer prison sentences and other measures in the anti-slavery bill are merely symptoms of a sickness that seems to have been allowed to get out of hand in parts of this country.

Can this be, I ask myself, because human trafficking is one of the consequences of demographic diversity that old Britannia has been obliged to embrace over the last eight or ten years especially? It's a multi-billion dollar market, so who's profiting by it? Where do the slave masters come from and what are they doing here?  

Immigration isn't merely about Africans appearing in large numbers all over the country, suburban open air high streets turning into down-at-heel, shady-looking souks or gentlemen from Pakistan grooming teenage girls in the backstreets of Oxford, Rotherham, Rochdale and Keighley. Its about criminal behaviour we thought we'd rid ourselves of in 1833 and went bankrupt fighting in World War 2.

But best not talk like that, not just now. Perhaps in another 70 or 181 years.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Swine Without Pearls

For years pundits, commentators and even panellists on television talk shows have described elections as beauty contests.

Beauty contests are shallow affairs based on looks, presentation and a lot of pancake make-believe. Judging by the overall voter turn-out of 34 per cent, many people think the same is true of Euro elections in that the Parliament in Brussels (and Strasbourg) appears to be all mouth and no trouser-suit. Swine without pearls.

Indeed those same people believe the same is true of our own Parliament which long ago surrendered vast chunks of its sovereignty. Politics is about appearance, not reality. Therefore it is a beauty contest.

Therefore Joey Barton had the metaphor right on Question Time when he opined that UKIP was the least ugliest of the four main parties.

He should not have subsequently apologised. The mouthy UKIP female MEP who objected evidently believes that men should mind their p's and q's when in the company of freshly-elected ladies.

Pretty soon all current affairs programmes will be preceded by a continuity announcer warning viewers with a delicate sensibility that they might be about to hear people employing metaphors to make a point.

Laughter, mockery, it seems, has become dangerous. Perhaps we should ban it.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Don't Worry About UKIP, We're All Doomed

While clever psephologists calculate the percentage turnout of UK voters in the Euro election, comparing it unfavourably with voting in the rest of the European Union, and various deputy political editors pull faces in an attempt to calculate the likely impact of UKIP on next year's General Election, all these excitable chaps are forgetting one thing...

...The world as we know it is coming to an end. And the cause of this calamity, or happy news depending on your politics, has got nothing to do with Nigel Farage's "earthquake" and even less to do with drilling for shale gas in the South East. Nor has the coming Armageddon got anything to do with the Book of Revelations or anything remotely associated with the presence or absence, of God.

It's more serious than that. We're talking about the relentless erosion of topsoil the world over, we're talking about the elimination of the world's rain forests the size of the Duchy of Cornwall every thirty seconds. The "we" in question refers, of course, to HRH the Prince of Wales. In December, 2009, the heir to the throne gave a speech to the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in which he said:-

Over the past three decades, I have been privileged to talk with some of the world's most eminent experts on climate change and environmental issues and to listen to the wisdom of some of the world's indigenous people.

The conclusion I draw is that the future of mankind can be assured only if we rediscover ways in which to live as part of nature, not apart from her.

For the grim reality is that our planet has reached a point of crisis and we have only seven years before we lose the levers of control.

So if anyone out there is making plans for 2017 - such as a referendum on membership of the European Union for example, becoming King or taking over another country - forget it. According to Prince Charles the aircraft is going down, the ship is heading for Davy Jones' Locker, the car is spinning off the road, by December, 2016. If you happen to be a resident of Poundbury I daresay HRH has made due provision in his role as dutiful landlord.

It's a shame. For extinction means there are many things we won't live to see - Wayne Rooney scoring for England in the 2018 World Cup; the fruits of a future dalliance between UKIP and Le Front National; Prime Minister Clegg's first Liberal-Democrat/Labour Coalition.

However, even blood relations to the House of Hanover can be wrong. Long before we succumb to the global apocalypse touched on by Prince Charles in wonderful, wonderful Copehagen five years ago (I think he said that to frighten his mother), President Putin might do for us all in yet another Russian-style Operation Barbarossa.

It simply doesn't bear thinking about, quite simply. 

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Lost Moyes

The wittiest remark I've seen or heard about David Moyes is that the former Manchester United manager could be, should be, courted by UKIP - because he got United out of Europe in ten months.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Sanctioning Food Banks

More than 900,000 food parcels were handed out to just over 37,000 people in Yorkshire and Humberside in the past year by the Trussell Trust alone. Welfare reforms or cuts combined with the rising cost of living is the reason food banks are so busy even though the rate of inflation has gone down to 1.6 per cent and more people than ever are in work.

David Ward, Liberal-Democrat MP for Bradford East, whose constituency has seen a drop in Job Seeker’s Allowance claimants of about 900 over the past year, said he wondered if scaring people into jobs was part of the overall strategy. 

“Maybe the aim is to make it a hostile environment for people who are unemployed. The trouble is, the background to all this, is that the public at large believe the welfare system is dysfunctional and needs sorting out. They are pretty unsympathetic to people who are claiming benefits - the skivers, the scroungers, as they see it.

“But the system from the Department of Work and Pensions that comes through Job Centres is inefficient. There are delays, letters get sent to the wrong address, or people try to ring up and can’t get through. One man who I saw was given 14 job inquiries to follow up in two weeks. He had been to 11. But because he had not been to all 14 his Job Seeker’s Allowance was stopped - ‘sanctioned’ it’s called. It could take you seven months before you’re back on Job Seeker’s. What are you supposed to do if you haven’t got any money?” 

Sanctioning has always been a feature of the benefits system. In Bradford, between 2009 and 2010 sanctions handed out to job seekers totalled 4,370. Two years later the figure was 9,320, implying a tightening up of the regime. The people who make the most referrals to Trussell Trust food banks, I was told, are Job Centre staff, the same people who, under pressure to meet targets, issue these sanctions. There is an appeals system, but you have to be canny or assisted to negotiate it. You have to be patient too because the backlog of pending cases is so great you can be waiting for 12 months - without money. Commonsense and discretion are not encouraged among Job Centre staff, I was told. If you are one of the lucky ones whom this part of the changing world has passed by, be grateful without feeling too self-satisfied. Being down on your luck may not have changed, but the manner of the help available has. 

Never having been in the benefits’ system I have no experience of its methods and means. I don’t know how it feels to be summarily sanctioned for contravening strict rules for the unemployed, to be told that state help will be withdrawn for four, seven, thirteen or even twenty-six weeks. 

Suppose I am not a feckless mumper acclimatised to living off the state. Suppose what little self-esteem I had vanished when I lost my job or had to stop working. Suppose being caught up in the welfare benefits command and control web with its system of sanctions and punishments and the sense of humiliation that goes with obeying Jobsworths proves unsupportable. Suppose what money I had saved up against ruin and despair had gone – there are so many ways to get financially wiped out these days.  When you ain’t got nuthin’ you got nuthin’ to lose might be a stimulating idea to those in transit from one interesting cultural experience to another, but the naked reality is, I suspect, more heart-gripping and desperate. But David Ward is right. Public sympathy is in short supply if the following online newspaper comment made recently in Bradford is anything to go by:- 

Charities should not undermine Government policy, which is to use starvation to force the lazy to get a job. It’s the only weapon left to use on benefit scroungers who think the state is just there to keep them in idleness. Poverty is a choice by the thick and the do-nothings. They have to be taught to live with the consequences. The next Conservative Government will do away with the freebies like health and education. The poor will then have to shape up or bear the consequences. (pcmanners)

In one supermarket we go to they’ve taken to security coding bacon, cheese and better cuts of meat because people have been stealing them. Two or three years ago a manager in another store told us that thieves nicking electrical goods was costing the store about £3,000 a week. I assumed this form of daylight robbery was connected to drugs. I don’t think people nick rashers to buy heroin, besides most of it has already been smoked. People are stealing food because they’re hungry.West Yorkshire Police, I was told, were after the addresses of food banks in Bradford so they could refer petty felons to them; evidently they saw no point in charging hungry people with stealing food. 

If ever there was a suitable time to revive Edward Bond’s play Bingo, this is it. In this play a mumbling, stumbling Shakespeare, retired to his New Place mansion in Stratford-upon-Avon, wondering if his writing career really amounted to much. “Was anything done?” he keeps asking rhetorically.  Bond draws a telling parallel between the insights into social injustice and cruelty uttered by King Lear and Shakespeare’s personal implication in Stratford land enclosures and the consequent poverty and hardship that came from it.

The old monstrous King gives his kingdom away to two of his three daughters and they, after proscribing his followers and blinding his ally the Earl of Gloucester, abandon Lear to the elements. In the midst of a terrible storm Lear is struck by a lightning bolt of insight which reveals the true state of his kingdom to his shattered but reorganised wits:-

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have ta'en
Too little care of this...Unaccomodated man is no
More but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.  

Bingo was first published by Methuen in 1974. My battered 1976 edition contains, just about, a seven-and-a-half page introduction by Bond. In it he says this:- I wrote Bingo because I think the contradictions in Shakespeare’s are similar to the contradictions in us. He was a ‘corrupt seer’ and we are a ‘barbarous civilisation’.  Because  of that our society could destroy itself. We believe in certain values but our society only works by destroying them, so that our daily lives are a denial of our hopes. That makes our world absurd and often it makes our own species hateful to us. Morality is reduced to surface details and trivialities. Is it so easy to live like that? Or are we surrounded by frustration and bitterness, cynicism and inefficiency, and an inner feeling of weakness that comes from knowing we waste our energy on things that finally can’t satisfy us?

It might explain why in a welfare state democracy, when people are stealing food to survive and others are being denied the means of survival by the state, painting pictures, writing books, listening to music and going to the theatre, feel self-indulgent activities. Socially we have come a long way from the England of Elizabeth 1, where terrible things occurred every day. The England of Elizabeth II in which I grew up encouraged the belief that the state would always offer a safety net to those who fell on hard times; that in spite of those who selfishly exploited it, having it there was a better idea than not having it there. I never had to use it, wouldn’t have had the first idea how to exploit it; but just knowing that a safety net existed allowed my generation to live a bit more courageously, to charge off all over the world or take up ventures that didn’t necessarily lead to a retirement pension and a silver cigarette case after fifty years. In short, old buggers like me have no experience of this brave new world of welfare sanctions, food banks and people nicking bacon and cheese to keep themselves going.

The likes of cpmanners  can’t wait for the day when the mumpers, the skivers, the scroungers – the poor – are dealt with once and for all. But even Hitler’s final solution backfired. His attempt to turn European Jewry into smoke resulted in the creation of state of Israel: the leader of the Third Reich was Israel’s true founding father. The mistake that pcmanners and all those like-minded make is that they will never be poor, that they have enough of the right stuff, the moxie, the will, to triumph over the worst that adversity can throw at them. Am I alone in hearing in that stentorian voice of malice – They have to be taught to live with the consequences – the angry, self-justifying, note of fear?