Bernard's pieces for The Journal

From September 2011 to August 2015 Bernard wrote a weekly (Thursday) column for the North-East regional daily paper, The Journal. Prior to that (from 2009 onwards) he was contributing pieces on an occasional basis: and since September 2015 he has been writing monthly.

Where the date is underlined, click to link to The Journal's online version of Bernard's column.

For ease of organising his columns, they are mostly grouped here in four-monthly bundles. To identify particular themes or topics, please use the Search facility.

6th July 2017

“And now the end is near,

And so I face the final curtain …”

Frank Sinatra comes to mind because I’m reaching my own final curtain as, in a sense, part of the establishment of Newcastle: moreover, I seem to be enjoying “more farewells than Sinatra”.

Today I dismissed my students for the summer holidays (I know: earlier than most schools). And this is my last column for the Journal. After nine years heading the RGS, 18 running a similar, if smaller, school in Wolverhampton, and 39 in all as a teacher, it’s time to slow down. 

I’ve written this column for eight years, regularly six, distinctively as the head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. There’s an unwritten rule that a retiring head must get off the patch and leave the next regime to develop its own style and form its own relationship with its community.

So Mrs Trafford and I are leaving Newcastle, dividing our time in retirement between North Northumberland and Oxford, which sits in the middle of the area where most of our family and longest standing friends are located.

Thus we’ll be living an hour north of Newcastle, or some five hours south. And, while we’ll enjoy the cultural and intellectual delights that Oxford offers, we’ll journey north regularly to get a dose of the Cheviots, the North Sea, Bamburgh Beach, proper seaside fish and chips, historic ruined castles.

Above all, though, the people: we’ll need to hear the voices, and feel that warmth and friendliness still so powerful in the North East. You may yet encounter me my favourite Northumbrian pubs: swapping anecdotes with that journalistic old reprobate David Banks in Milfield’s Red Lion, or enjoying the craic and the crab sandwiches in the Olde Ship in Seahouses.

Meanwhile, thank you for letting me rail against the absurdities and contradictions of life (my family reckon it’s therapy for me), including Brexit (note that Newcastle and Oxford were among the very few places outside London to vote Remain).

I’ve kept you up to date on important cultural phenomena. Remember the first wave of Poldark hysteria? In the first series there was much comment about the smouldering good looks of Aidan Turner (Ross). The Editor particularly relished one piece I wrote about trying a bit of smouldering myself in Northumberland Street. Sadly, it seemed to frighten passers-by, rather than achieving Turner’s dazzling (even seductive) effect.

Now even Turner has lost his pin-up status to Demelza’s brother, Drake. It’s the way of the cruel world. Is he past his best? I know the feeling.

You’ve tolerated my complaining about my feeble efforts to keep fit by running around the Toon Moor (which hasn’t happened for a month or two): and sympathised with my losing battle against gluttony and weight-gain.

When one approaches retirement, people keep asking, “Won’t you miss this (or that)?” I’ll miss lots of things: but there have been signs that it’s time to go. Taking part in a recent school play, I observed the make-up team adding huge amounts of face-paint to make the student actors look older.  They didn’t offer me any (nor did they offer to render me younger!).

Then my wife arranged to pick me up in her white Fiat 500 (not an uncommon vehicle in Jesmond): in a fit of abstraction, I got into one owned by a random school parent (apologies to that startled mother).

Besides, now I find everyone's heard all my old jokes and stories before - and tell me so! Perhaps I need a fresh audience.

I shall become one of those elderly people it’s fashionable to complain about. People who voted for Brexit: though I didn’t. People who enjoy a pension but voted for austerity: though I didn’t.

I won’t stop writing – though it won’t be in the Journal for reasons given - and I certainly won’t stop sounding off about what I see as wrong!

And I’ll try not to be a bore. Well, not too often. Thanks for all the fun.

 

Whatever happened to our national airline?

1st June 2017

How was your Bank Holiday Monday? Did you experience any disasters? We suffered a modest one while wandering around Oxford. We’d reached the beautiful Christchurch Meadow, having walked along the banks of the Thames (or the Isis, as they insist on calling it in that city), when the heavens opened and soaked us to the skin. Then, since nature has a supreme sense of irony, the sun came out within moments of our getting indoors and shedding our soaked apparel.

Spare a thought, though, to all those British Airways passengers stranded at Heathrow and other airports all around the world, some of them for days. BA’s Fly computer system, which controls bookings, baggage and check-in, crashed and the result was chaos.

BA’s IT meltdown has wrecked precious holiday time for the sort of people I work with. To be sure, teachers and parents alike have had a full nine days of half-term from last Friday afternoon until Sunday night, but they have no flexibility beyond that. Teachers have to be at work, and parents won't risk being fined for taking their children out of school in defiance of government rules.

British Airways is losing friends. The same computer system went down three times last year: this time the back-up system was also wiped out, which seems an unforgivable weakness.

Travellers complain of a lack of information and endless queues at booking desks. Tales are emerging of people paying huge sums for hotel rooms or to book alternative flights with other airlines, in which case it appears BA declines to pay compensation. A first-world problem, to be sure, not encompassing famine, war or deprivation: but it’s still misery all round. Estimates suggest compensation claims will chalk up a £150m bill for BA.

Should we, the Brits, worry about this terrible damage to our national airline and its reputation? Once upon a time, I think we would have done. As a nation we were proud of our British Airways flying the flag and flying the world. But nowadays?

It doesn’t resemble a national airline any more. Indeed, ever since the fiasco of the premature opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in 2008, BA seems to have gone out of its way to alienate its public. Back then many blamed BA's then boss, Willie Walsh, for insisting that T5 must open, ready or not. Events proved it wasn't ready.

Since then Walsh has merged BA, Spanish airline Iberia and Aer Lingus into the International Airlines Group, further weakening any sense of “the nation’s airline”. Into BA Walsh brought Alex Cruz as CEO: he’s living up to his reputation as a hatchet man, gradually introducing what the press dubs  “austerity” to BA flights.

The difference shows. Living and working in Newcastle, I regularly use its excellent airport. I fly down to the West Country to visit my old dad. For that trip to Bristol I use EasyJet. It offers cheap, no-frills flying. Grumpily I decline to buy its refreshments on the forty-minute flight which is rarely delayed: I accept the deal.

On my occasional flights from Newcastle to Heathrow I used to enjoy something very different: British Airways’ old-fashioned, generous service, courteous staff, a beer or G&T with some crisps.

No longer. Those additional hospitable gestures are a thing of the past and, more often than I would like, I’ve left T5 late on my return home. BA resembles any other airline, though too often less reliable and less pleasant.

By contrast, if you fly from Newcastle to Amsterdam you still get a snack from KLM, rated the world’s most punctual airline. From Schiphol you can connect to anywhere you like: it’s become a better springboard than Heathrow, and is now my staging post of choice.

As for reaching the Far East and Australia, from Newcastle the best route is with Emirates via Dubai.

The tone of the media suggests I’m not alone in feeling negative about British Airways: but is anyone listening?

They don’t seem to be:  but how long can any once-proud business, currently in the mire, appear to treat its customers with contempt?

 

The election: just wake me up when it's all over, will you, please?

4th May 2017

What links Brenda from Bristol, sculptress Cornelia Parker and Martin Luther?

Of course, it’s the General Election.

The nation warmed to retired secretary Brenda when, in a street interview (what media types call a “vox pop”), she gave her reaction to the announcement of the forthcoming General Election. In her warm West Country accent (hailing from that part myself, I recognised the burr) she said, “You’re joking! Not another one? Oh for God’s sake, I can’t honestly … I can’t stand this”.

Amen to that. Frankly, we’re voted out: I haven’t met many people enjoying the thought of another five weeks of election misery. It’s not as if we’re hearing anything new or edifying. May supporters are all clones, shouting or waving slogans about “strong, stable government”, while the PM seems rarely to meet ordinary voters (question: what’s an “ordinary voter”?).

Jeremy Corbyn, generally dithering about, succeeded in speaking eloquently last week in his plea to young voters to get out and fulfil their democratic duty. Meanwhile Boris lowered the tone by reaching for his book of alliterative abuse (get it?), calling the Labour leader a “muddleheaded mugwump”.

Will there be any honesty in this post-truth world? I doubt it. Apparently lies are allowed in a referendum, but prohibited in an election. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, it appears that we’ll have an official election artist. Sculptor Cornelia Parker has been commissioned to observe the process and produce a work of art depicting her impressions.

I quite enjoy a bit of sculpture, and will be fascinated to see what she produces. She has quite a reputation and was once nominated (unsuccessfully) for the Turner Prize. One of her famous works was The Maybe, in which actress Tilda Swinton slept in a glass box. That might make an excellent comment on the General Election. Many of us would like to emulate Tilda, as either Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Winkle, and fall into a profound slumber, awaking only when the whole miserable business is over.

This notion of commissioning an election artist intrigued me. Shouldn’t we encourage the other arts? How would a composer produce music to describe the General Election? I suspect it might be in a style of music that I personally abhor, the minimalist classical/popular crossover style of someone like Philip Glass, or Classic FM’s favourite, Einaudi: tiny, meaningless fragments of music repeated over and over again until one is close to screaming point with boredom. That would aptly encapsulate the spirit of the election.

Writers could collect all our politicians’ banal election slogans into poetry, literature or even a play. Hold on! What about teaming up a playwright with a composer: they could create an opera of unbelievable tedium. Sitting through it would make enduring 14 hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (not a work I warm to, either) a walk in the park by comparison.

The opportunities are endless. Perhaps that opera could include some ballet? Dancers could go round and round in circles without achieving anything, finally collapsing from a mixture of tedium and exhaustion.

This idea has legs: we just need Arts Council funding. Oops! There is no funding in austerity Britain. That reminds me: a couple of decades ago, Wales suffered an education funding crisis. Someone pointed out with glee that the Welsh word for funding has no f in it. The joke quickly spread: there was “no eff in funding” in Wales.

And where does Martin Luther come in to this? 500 years ago this week he embarked on his Reformation. In protest against the established order of religion, I was led to believe he nailed his faeces to the church door. Only when older did I discover he actually pinned up ninety-five THESES.

Frankly, I’m tempted to adopt the former tactic to express my feelings. I’m normally an optimistic type, but from here on I reckon things can only get worse.

You’ve been warned.

 

How quietly, almost invisibly, the authorities are working to keep us safe

6th April 2017

Newcastle headmaster Bernard Trafford on what a friend's experience told him about the low-key checks that can give us all comfort

Sometimes it’s good to know people are looking out for you. For instance, in these days continent-wide migration and (so Brexiteers would assure us) an impending immigration crisis, it’s comforting to encounter evidence of just how secure our borders and our passports are.

My Northumberland neighbour has never held a full passport, but plans to travel to the Battlefields with her sisters in search of the grave of her great uncle: so now she requires one.

She was brought up in Yorkshire: she spent her 20s and most of her 30s on Tyneside, and has lived in North Northumberland for another two decades. She filled in the passport application form and, indeed, used me as a referee (they still seem to like headteachers and vicars on those forms!).

To her surprise, just this week she was summoned to Edinburgh for an interview. I didn’t know such things occurred: I’ve never had a problem renewing my passport. But nowadays it appears there’s digging to be done if someone who’s never possessed a passport suddenly applies for one.

We friends couldn’t resist pulling her leg, asking her who the current prime minister is and whether she knows all three verses of the national anthem. Then we realised we were quoting a probably apocryphal dementia test. Or the Cub Scouts.

Would they question my friend’s motives for wanting a passport? What purer patriotic motive could there be, she complained, than seeking the grave of a relative who gave his life for king and country in the First World War?

How should she prove her Britishness? She’d already submitted her birth certificate: what more could be required? Was her reaction just the attack of nerves usual before any interview? Was her worry fuelled by the alarmist talk surrounding Brexit? Or by the case of Irene Clennell, married to a Scotsman for 27 years but recently deported to Singapore because she’d spent 18 months nursing a dying mother back in the country of her birth?

Did they suspect she’d somehow been radicalised in Alnwick or Wooler, and was using her Battlefields trip as cover for a bid to slip off and join the Popular Front for the Liberation of Galashiels? (Hold on: she wouldn’t need a passport for that yet – not until Scottish independence, anyway).

What would happen if she didn’t pass the interview? Would she be deported back to … well, where? Darkest north Yorkshire? Perhaps she’d be confined to house arrest somewhere in Ryedale, her old stamping-ground.

Truth is rarely stranger than fiction. The reality proved mundane – but oddly reassuring. The questions took the shape of a conversation, though one that carefully and cleverly elicited information from her that could be double-checked against her application and any other details they possessed. When my friend confessed that we’d all been winding her up, the interviewer smiled and observed quietly that its purpose was as much to protect her identity (to check that a stranger hadn’t illegally tried to get a passport in her name) as to check up on her.

There was no passing or failing (as we knew there wouldn’t be), nor any kind of Britishness test. Her solid Yorkshire ancestry and Northumbrian credentials remain unchallenged. There is not a single blot on her escutcheon: and her passport should arrive any day.

Joking apart, and odd as it seemed initially, it’s reassuring to know such checks exist. Indeed, they’ve been around for a decade or more.

In contrast to surprise and anxiety that preceded it, the process was low-key but thorough. That’s how security should be: and, in truth, it’s how we mostly want our lives to be. The greatest excitement we seek is a ski holiday, a grandchild learning to walk, a celebration enjoyed. As last week’s tragic events in Westminster showed, we don’t desire big shocks, and certainly not nasty ones.

Quietly, almost invisibly, these people are keeping us safe. In our cynical, typically British way, we can poke fun at the bureaucracy (as we did): but we can be grateful that it’s there.

 

It's not the gifts we are given, but how we choose to use them

Thursday 2nd March 2017

Newcastle headmaster Bernard Trafford says old age cements the traits we already have - but gives us wisdom too

It’s said that, when dyslexic genius Albert Einstein left school, his teacher shouted down the road after him, “Einstein, you’re a waste of space! You’ll never amount to anything!

The schadenfreude in that teacher’s statement is not a million miles from the archetypal old biddy of the village, a staple of such TV shows as Midsomer Murders or Miss Marple, who mutters about a recently discovered corpse, “I always said he’d come to no good!”

It’s something of a human trait to prophesy people’s future, particularly (with some glee) their anticipated downfall. Even at the age of 14, when teenagers are just starting to kick off, parents and teachers alike cannot resist foretelling how they’ll turn out: mercifully, they tend to take an optimistic view.

Now it turns out we’ve been wrong all along. Long-term research published by the University of Edinburgh (“Personality stability from age 14 to age 77 years”) has proved we can’t predict what teenagers will be like at 70. Headed by Dr Mathew Harris, Research Associate in Brain Imaging, the team set out to trace some 1,200 77-year-olds who had been surveyed aged 14.

Back in 1950, their teachers had assessed these children’s levels of self-confidence, perseverance, stability of mood, conscientiousness, originality and desire to learn. Locating 635 of them in 2012 (not a bad effort), the researchers tested them again.

And the findings? There was barely any correlation in their character traits 62 years apart: only stability of mood and conscientiousness showed any signs of lasting a lifetime, and not often, even then 

Frankly, I’m relieved! My memory of the 14-year-old Bernard Trafford is of a boy young for his age, desperate to grow up both emotionally and physically, obsessed with girls, scared stiff of girls, constantly lurching from exuberant over-self-confidence (I’ve always been a show-off) to agonising insecurity.

I was just a teenager. Adolescence is a tough time, and all that spotty insecurity is (mercifully) just a phase. When parents at my school complain that their sons only communicate by grunting, I laugh and reassure them that they’ll get through it… adding, mischievously, when they’re 19 or 20! But they do grow out of it, thank goodness! To remain trapped in teenaged truculence forever would be a burden indeed.

The researchers unsurprisingly found greater consistency in character traits between early middle and old age. By 50 one has gained life experience, probably had children, and largely forgotten those painful years of hormonal turbulence 30 years in the past.

In political terms I’m sure our attitudes become more entrenched as we get older. I suspect most drift to the right, becoming small-c conservative: except for lifelong lefties who become even more radical.

Nonetheless, once old age is reached, we know that fulminating about politics will achieve little, except to risk a heart-attack. An acquired perspective, that gift granted to the elderly, calms the soul.  So, even if old age sees the cementing of the traits we already possess, to most it brings wisdom too.

I can’t write about age here without mentioning my 96 year-old Dad. The last couple of decades have spiced his nine-decade-grown sagacity with a warm patience, endowing him with a marvellous humanity.

I’ve never behaved towards one of my pupils as Einstein’s teacher did to him! I hope I haven’t placed an excessive burden of expectation on anyone, either. Someone might be a gifted mathematician, but choose not to be an accountant, actuary or Stephen Hawking! They might want instead to be an artist, or to go into social work. We shouldn’t push them where they don’t want to go!

It’s not about the gifts we’re given, but how we use them: age and wisdom combine to teach that lesson.

Even if I haven’t always got it right, I cannot do worse than the legendary headmaster [sic] of half a century ago who greeted a former student: "Tell me, Smith, was it you or your brother who was killed at Dunkirk?"

 

Donald Trump is not just a dangerous nutter; he's a fast-moving dangerous nutter

Newcastle headmaster Bernard Trafford says the new president is like a dodgy shellfish whose taste you can't get rid of

2nd February 2017

Trump. He’s dominating newspapers, TV, radio, social media: everywhere you look, it’s Trump. It’s as if Nellie the Elephant’s taken over the world.

Remember her? She famously packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus. “Off she went with a trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump!” We now know where she went: Washington (OK, with a bit of gender-reassignment too. This metaphor won’t stand up to scrutiny).

Many commentators have mentioned the fact that, in childish language, trumping is synonymous with farting. Somehow even that infantile pleasure has now worn off: he’s just not funny any more.

I write a lot. Most is educational, reflecting my day job: but Trump creeps in even there. It’s just Trump, Trump, Trump, as if a whole new strain of Tourette’s Syndrome has broken out on a global scale.

You could say it has. The reach of the US President (POTUS as the office is now generally termed on social media) is truly global: by any standard he’s the most powerful leader in the world, even before he “makes America great again!”

My complaint is that he’s having an adverse effect on my writing. I’ve been conscious of my prevailing gloomy tone since the Brexit vote. An unashamed Remoaner, yet a democrat who has to accept even a lousy decision taken by the electorate, I’ve been coming to terms with it, marginally cheered that the doom prophesied by some has not come to pass – not yet, at any rate.

But if, for a while, I’d convinced myself that we weren’t all heading for hell in a handcart, I was soon corrected when the US voted Trump in.

It’s not just his propensity for outrageousness – including unacceptable racist, sexist and otherwise abhorrent views and policies. He’s also a nightmare for those of us who like to comment in the media because he moves so damned fast.

He only took office on 20th January. How he’s managed already to sign so many executive orders without any check or balance from Senate or Congress I’ve no idea, but he has. With blinding speed.

Last Friday I penned a blog (www.voiceofthenorth.net) castigating Trump’s approval of waterboarding, if not more serious forms of torture. Yet, by the time I’d used that almost instant method of publishing, he’d moved on: my topic was forgotten and the civilised world was howling in protest at his order banning all refugees and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. He’s not just a dangerous nutter: he’s a fast-moving dangerous nutter!

There! I’ve said it: I’ve dared to print what so many are thinking. As a result, maybe the CIA is already monitoring my huge daily influx of unbelievably tedious emails: it’s welcome to them!

Trump’s rule is not illegitimate. He’s odious and, in many ways, absurd: but, before we organise mass expressions of outrage, we should recall that he’s democratically elected to lead his nation. His mandate may not be massive, and on this side of the Pond we may be puzzled by the mismatch between the popular vote and the electoral colleges: but that’s their system.

Notwithstanding everything above, perhaps the most unforgiveable effect of his whirlwind first days in office lies in the following sad tale.

Nowadays I send my Dad, 96, a weekly selection of my latest blogs and columns. On Sunday he commented with uncomfortable candour that my recent pieces have become, well, dull. 

He’s right. Why? I think it’s because Trump pops up in everything I write and sours it. He’s like that dodgy shellfish whose taste you can’t get rid of, even after a swigging a bottle of Listerine.

Now, that really is unacceptable. So take to the streets if you like! Condemn his executive orders! Tear into his cronyism and blast his intolerance!

But save a slogan and a placard for writers like me for whom Trump has become a tick, a tapeworm, a mother-in-law, that unwelcome guest we just can’t shake off.

And he’s hurting us.

 

Worry less, get on and live your life - the message I took from a visit Down Under

5th January 2016

Distance lends enchantment, they say. It also provides perspective. I don’t think our recent three-week holiday in Australia rendered me starry-eyed about the UK to which I’ve just returned, but it didn’t put me off it.

Australia’s very different: for a start, it felt bizarre to celebrate Christmas in temperatures above 30 degrees, let alone on a coral island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef.

When at last baking sun briefly gave way to rain, it seemed, momentarily, a little more like a UK Christmas!

Otherwise reindeer, Santas and Christmas trees appeared incongruous in high summer. On the other hand, snorkelling around a coral reef and following turtles and eagle-rays, not to mention the odd small shark, made for a memorable Christmas for all the family.

Visiting Poms inevitably stick out like sore thumbs. My appearances in chic Sydney beach resorts marked me out: in stark contrast to the resident surf dudes, I was either flabbily pallid or lobster-pink from sunburn. It’s also possible my white linen shirt, very English shorts and Panama hat distinguished me from the locals in their T-shirts and boardies.

When travelling, once I’ve got over the initial sense of difference, I can rarely resist homing in on the similarities I perceive to my home country. We Brits have plenty in common with Oz, including the same language, ethnically and culturally diverse populations and driving on the left.

Other major countries in the world have English as their first language: the USA, for example. To me, though, there’s a closeness to Australia and Australians in the strongly European flavour that underlies the fiercely patriotic Australian psyche.

Talking to Australians is easy: their opening gambit, like ours, is to talk about the weather. Christmas brought (mostly) day after day of hot, dry, sunny conditions; even when Sydney’s inhabitants complained of disappointingly cool days, we Poms found 20-25 degrees acceptable.

I wouldn’t fancy commuting to work in central Sydney in those temperatures, but it was a holiday period. Besides, there’s a fantastic train system (air conditioned and mostly underground); and workers catch water buses and ferries from points all around the massive (and beautiful) Sydney harbour.

The weather wasn’t all great. We were booked to go to Uluru, the famous Ayer’s Rock, between Christmas and New Year. Back in the UK you probably saw pictures of waterfalls running down that great monolith: for us an exceptional storm meant a flooded hotel and a cancelled trip.

Instead we arranged a last-minute trip to Adelaide, a city even more European in nature, with a strong German link.

The storm followed us there and, while it didn’t stop us doing anything, it knocked the power out across the Barossa wine-growing region, which we toured by coach.

Australians were furious about the disruption caused by flooding. All the wrangling felt rather familiar. Then there are Australia’s politics.

They haven’t (yet) experienced parallels to the Trump election or Brexit, but the centre-right Liberal party seems ready to tear itself apart, its left wing at war with those who lean more towards the right and its nationalist coalition partner.

While the UK’s credit rating dropped to AA in 2016, Australia still enjoys AAA – for now. Pundits reckon it too will be downgraded within 18 months if it doesn’t reduce its budget deficit.

Different country and continent – the other side of the world, in fact – but the same problems with pensions, public services and successive governments borrowing too much.

No wonder we felt at home in Oz for three weeks! The same difficulties appear to face all old Western democracies at present. If that’s true (and I fear it is), perhaps I should worry less than I have been recently.

In the end, even after the Brexit vote and before a Trump presidency, and even if we consider our politicians incompetent, useless, corrupt or any combination of the three, life goes on: business continues to function; people still buy and rent homes. They have to.

The dictum of my great, flawed hero, Winston Churchill, was KBO: Keep B*ggering On.

Is that what I’ve learned, then? Worry less, get on, and live your life.

Such advice appears equally applicable on the other side of the world. Happy new year!

 

 

I thought I looked like James Bond in my tux. The kids said I looked like Ed Balls

1st December 2016

So Ed Balls has finally been voted off Strictly. The former politician, lacking any background as an entertainer, has had a good run, dancing, playing the piano which he only took up a few years ago, and dressing very fancy.

I‘ve found myself masquerading a fair bit recently, repeatedly donning a bow-tie for formal events. Not a ready-made one, mind: I knot my own.  It never looks quite right, so people see at a glance that I’ve tied it. Classy, eh?

Last Friday in London I joined hundreds of other similarly-dressed blokes, fortunately equalled in number by much more elegantly accoutred women, at an educational awards evening.

The Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane is an immense place, apparently built solely for the purpose of accommodating several such events at once. My party arrived in two taxis at different entrances: searching for my colleagues, I found myself ushered into an entirely separate ballroom which was hosting the Irish Post’s Awards Evening. They seemed rather a jolly bunch: it was tempting to stay there rather than re-joining the slightly (but only slightly) more staid educational bun-fight.

I could have gone anywhere in that enormous building: in dinner jacket and black tie, I had become invisible, one of countless people dressed identically. No one cared which event I was attached to.

On Tuesday I was tangling the old bow-tie again, this time for a school fashion show for charity. I judged that the occasion demanded a modicum of elegance so wore, instead of the black DJ, a white tuxedo. This, I reckoned, looked pretty sophisticated: I even checked it for old red wine or gravy stains (always a hazard with delicate garments).

This “guest-appearance” posed a problem. A man of my age is inevitably less svelte than all the young people on the catwalk, so I couldn’t rely on sheer elegance of build and movement to impress. Instead I drew inspiration from Strictly: but not from this current series, notwithstanding Ed Balls’s success in convincing the public, for a while, that he might be a serious dancer.

No, I remembered the BBC’s former political editor John Sergeant. On retiring from broadcasting, he competed and became something of a cult figure. His dancing was execrable, newspaper critics describing him as dancing with all the elegance of a pig. He donned an expression of utter disdain as he dragged his unfortunate (professional) dancing partner along the floor, reducing TV audiences up and down the country to hysterical laughter. Time and again the judges voted him off: time and again the public voted him back in. Eventually he decided he was detracting from the show and resigned, to howls of disappointment across the nation.

Sergeant had cracked it: being simultaneously hopeless at dancing and no oil-painting, he decided to participate ironically. I took him as my model.

Thus I took to the catwalk on Tuesday, swinging my hips outrageously, pouting and posing provocatively, irony oozing from every pore.

But did I achieve the Sergeant effect?

Mrs Trafford, normally supportive, commented, “Has your back gone again? You’re walking oddly”.

“I was sashaying ironically,” I responded patiently.

“Oh,” she replied. “I thought you must be due for a visit to the chiropractor.”

It’s hurtful when the people closest to you just don’t get it. I accosted a couple of younger pupils who’d been in the audience. “Didn’t you think I looked rather like James Bond?”

“No,” they replied, with unnecessary honesty. “We thought you looked like Ed Balls: but older, and not as good.”

It was almost as depressing as my recent visit to an infants’ school. The head presented me to the children enthusiastically, asking, “Do you know who this is?”

They studied me with that serious expression that the very young adopt. I so, so wanted them to say James Bond.

After a long pause, a little girl ventured an opinion: “Is he David Cameron? 

 

The harsh choices we have to make should never cause human tragedy

3rd November 2016

The world’s in a mess: just look around you!

Across the Atlantic, American voters are being offered an unenviable choice between (if you believe the slurs and allegations: you choose which, about whom) a racist, sexist bigot and a criminal manipulator of emails.

We could laugh: but there is a real concern that, with America in stasis and the UK still suffering Brexit uncertainty, the western “free world” is looking impotent. No wonder Russia’s President Putin apparently feels free to heap more misery and death than ever on the inhabitants of Aleppo.

What can ordinary people do about that horrendous global situation? The answer is, of course, not much. But the teacher in me, when I’m in preaching mode, makes me suggest to my students that we can at least make a difference in our little bit of the world. We can make our family, our workplace, our school, the shops and services we use happier places by spreading patience and kindness.

At least here in the UK we inhabit a humane and just society. Except when we don’t: this week has furnished dismal local examples.

Monday’s local BBC programme, Inside Out, reported on the 3,000 hours in a year that ambulance crews waste queuing at Cramlington’s spectacular new Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital: the brand-new facility lacks the capacity to admit and process urgent cases in the quantity in which they arrive.

Chief Executive David Evans described an “unprecedented increase in demand”. But who did the planning? How could the experts who drew up the brief for this £95m building (and its running costs) get it so wrong?

I’ve done some building in my time, and quickly learned that, if you build something new and presumably better, demand for it will grow. I work to a rule: calculate the capacity you think you’ll need, then add half as much again. It’s worked for me.

Funding constraints probably deny planners that freedom. For example, so many motorways were so spectacularly under-designed that, up and down the country, motorists are constantly delayed by road-widening schemes.

Because governments always skimp on funding, resources are always rationed. When there’s rationing, there must be criteria to determine the allocation of scarce resources (an economists’ term): and, when decision-makers rely on criteria, harsh judgments follow.

My loss of confidence in society’s ability to exercise kindness and humanity plumbed new depths on Monday when I heard of an old couple in South Shields being separated after 65 years together.

Ray Lorrison, 95 and suffering from Alzheimer’s, had to be admitted to a care home while his wife Jessie was in hospital. Once she was home, the rules wouldn’t allow her to join her husband in the home: the criteria said that she was not ill enough, and that visits from carers each day enabled her to live on her own, albeit (according to her family) immobile in her chair.

Fortunately there’s a happy ending. South Tyneside Council (rowing back at speed from a PR disaster) declared that Jessie could after all be with Ray, excusing its earlier intransigence by stating that “multi-disciplinary assessments had needed to be completed, involving health and social care services, before a decision could have been made”. Hmm.

All’s well that ends… well, not too badly. But the couple should not have had to suffer that ordeal.

There will never be enough resources, whoever is in power in Westminster. Rationing is a fact of political life: but the harsh choices it necessitates should never be so inflexible as to cause human tragedy.

The Lorrisons have mercifully found justice and care in their declining years, but only after an unnecessary fight. Emergency patients of all ages are suffering long waits for treatment in Cramlington, while ambulances are held up in queues instead of answering the next urgent call.

That kind of society is not a caring one, and it’s one I don’t want to be part of. But I genuinely don’t know what to do about it.

  

Theresa May's cynical mockery of the decent liberal values I treasure is outrageous

Thursday 13th October 2016

Many’s the time I’ve stated in this column that I’m not a political animal and that, if pressed, I admit to being powerfully wishy-washy, a through-and-through centrist.  You might reckon I’m just playing safe. It’s hard to take exception, isn’t it, to someone whose views are exclusively moderate? In truth, I suspect and fear extremes.

Politicians have fought for the moderate vote throughout the last couple of decades. Tony Blair cunningly occupied the centre ground to win his landslide election in 1997. Following the hapless Gordon Brown, centrist Tory David Cameron reoccupied that middle territory.

Now the political landscape’s shifted again. Bizarrely, as both major parties have shifted to the extremes the middle ground has perversely become not merely lonely, but uncongenial.

People like me, educated and essentially liberal, are now lambasted by our new (unelected) prime minister. We’re the “smug liberal elite”, accused of sneering at patriotism and at the concerns about immigration felt by “ordinary hard-working people”.

It gets worse. 

I’m an internationalist at heart: I’m not sure how one can be in education and not be so. In schools we teach foreign languages. We take children abroad and encourage them to understand and immerse themselves in other cultures: we encourage young people to appreciate their place not just within their own society but in the world as a whole. 

Since last week’s Tory Conference, however, internationalists are derided: described as “citizens of nowhere”, we’re said to despise our own country.

Human Rights have also come in for stick, not from the PM but from Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon. Concerned about soldiers accused of war crimes, he wants to disengage from the European Convention on Human Rights. I’ve written before about how nervous such proposals make me: worse still, the Tory conference booed any mention of human rights lawyers. I begin to wonder what we fought the Second World War for…

Why on earth has the PM set out to rile the middle? We’re the people who decide the outcome of elections by shifting our vote, unlike (you might argue) the tribal majority. 

In last Saturday’s Times, Matthew Parris suggested Ms May did this precisely because she can afford to take the risk. Centrists currently feeling offended will, he insisted, mostly return to her at election time. Meanwhile, with Labour in disarray, she is staking a powerful claim to the middle ground in an attempt to win over disillusioned UKIP and Labour voters alike. 

Hence her appeal to “ordinary hard-working people”, assuring them she’s taking seriously their concerns over immigration: she stretched the truth to breaking point in claiming to understand how they feel about immigrants taking their jobs or, by accepting lower pay, forcing wages down. That was economic nonsense: read the BBC’s online Reality Check. Still, who in the Tory party would believe that den of lefties? They’re seeking to clip the BBC’s wings!

So no, she’s not after my vote, nor that of people like me. She may try to woo us back later on: but right now, although most of her policies are lurching to the right, with no credible opposition she’s bidding to occupy not just the middle ground but the entire political landscape. She may succeed, too.

It’s a high-risk tactic. She’s infuriated me, and undoubtedly many others more likely than me to vote for her at the next election. Our memories are long. A rather-too-quiet ex-Remainer now advocating hard Brexit, Mrs May’s created a big enough credibility gap to bridge without pouring scorn on those of us who chose not to turn our coats.

Her cynical mockery of my decent liberal values is outrageous: not easy to live up to at the best of times, I nonetheless follow them resolutely.  If believing in moderation is to be branded wishy-washy, I’m content - and proud to be so. 

Deserving better, we moderate liberals may yet punish our Prime Minister in 2020. 

 

Pastoral care has to be much more than an add-on

22nd September 2016

Bernard Trafford and Sue Baillie discuss how schools are tackling the growing problem of mental illness among schoolchildren.

“Schools face mental health crisis!” “Teenage depression at all-time high.” “UK teenagers unhappiest in Europe.”

The last couple of years have seen many headlines of that nature: we two are not convinced there’s a crisis, but there’s certainly a trend that cannot be ignored.

It’s hard to say whether mental illness is more prevalent in the young, or merely reported more readily. Fortunately with a greater body of experience and expertise nowadays in schools and in GPs’ surgeries, professionals are better at in telling the difference between adolescent moodiness and a cause for genuine concern.

Mental illness can affect children (and younger than teenagers) in any type of school. Deprivation and poverty contribute to mental illness: problems with anxiety, perfectionism or low self-esteem (to name just three) can happen in the highest-achieving school in the leafiest suburb.

Education professionals are deeply concerned that gaining access to medical support is so hard. On average a child waits twelve weeks for help from CAMHS (Community and Adolescent Mental Health Service): only recently Newcastle nearly lost its in-patient unit for children with eating disorders (mercifully reprieved).

Government veers between being realistic about the challenge of mental health (former Prime Minister David Cameron always professed support, having himself experienced the strengths of the NHS as a parent) and near-denial: ministers sacked their nominated Mental Health Tsar (and founder of the Self Esteem Team), Natasha Devon - apparently for speaking out too strongly about the scale of the problem and the inadequacy of government’s response.

Schools are very much alive to the problem: but it’s no use simply talking about a crisis and wringing our hands. All schools have gained training and confidence in dealing with mental illness, knowing when to offer in-school support and when to refer cases to medical experts. Moreover, they understand just how much proactive work is needed to ensure children’s wellbeing, demanding a better-informed, more highly trained and confident pastoral system.

But what IS great pastoral care, and how can we recognise it?

It’s all about having the people and systems in place to support our students. That requires excellent communication between pastoral staff and students, teachers and parents alike.  Ultimately, though, great pastoral care is achieved when a school manages truly to amalgamate that necessary focus on student attainment with the ability to listen to individual children and their needs and, putting aside that otherwise necessary concentration on grades, to understand them.

With more and more schools understanding how growth mindset can inform both teaching and pastoral support, the highest-quality care (both academic and pastoral) becomes more than wishful thinking, more than an add-on: instead it forms the central focus for all the school’s work and ethos. 

There’s much talk nowadays of “character education” or “grit”. We aren’t great fans of such labels: but we know we must make it our priority to arm our students with the vital personal qualities of resilience, compassion and perseverance which will enable them to take control of both their academic and personal lives and simultaneously help their positive mental health.

In the past two years Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School has hosted pastoral conferences looking specifically at practical ways to support students with mental health issues.  This year’s ReTHINK16 Conference, held at the Royal Grammar School on Wednesday 28th September, will move forward to consider how, by focussing on building and positively supporting students’ self-esteem, schools can support their academic and personal development. 

With keynote speeches from Natasha Devon, Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer (author of Self Esteem for Girls and Self Esteem for Boys) and Pooky Knightsmith from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, plus a host of practical workshops to provide immediate ideas to take back to school, the Conference promises to be both inspirational and rigorously practical. 

The Conference will be of interest to school pastoral leaders, heads of year and such support staff as school nurses, counsellors and mentors: it will also add value to academic leaders looking to develop growth mindset principles in their schools.

We know this: confident, resilient adolescents don’t just cope better with emotional troubles. They learn more effectively too!

That’s the focus of ReTHINK16.

Details are available from the Royal Grammar School on 0191 281 5711, through its website at www.rgs.newcastle.sch.uk or by email hm@rgs.newcastle.sch.uk

  

We wouldn't be so silly as as to mortgage our country to greedy multi-nationals, would we?

1st September 2016

What a good job we’re about to “get our country back” - subject to our politicians working out how to do Brexit. Once out, we won’t have to put up with the kind of monstrous intrusion that Ireland’s suffering right now.

Brussels has pronounced: Ireland’s cosy tax arrangement with the Apple Corporation, characterised as a sweetheart deal, has been declared illegal. 

The Irish government’s unhappy. It denies there’s any deal and claims Apple has always paid the 12.5% corporation tax that any business must in Ireland.

Brussels contests that Apple has paid nothing of the sort and that the firm’s so-called headquarters in Ireland is a sham, without premises or employees. European officials referred on Tuesday to aggressive tax avoidance: they’re moving to stamp it out.

We might sympathise with Ireland. Its economy, in meltdown after the credit crunch, is now recovering strongly. The presence (and employing power) of global businesses such as Apple keep the economy ticking over. Brussels, on the other hand, says that any special deal on tax amounts to a state subsidy: that’s anti-competitive, and against the rules of the free trade area.

Is this just another example of the European Union overreaching itself and bossing its members around? Surely individual countries must decide how best to do business with multinationals?

The UK isn’t immune to temptation. Super-rich individuals and large corporations have time and again received favourable treatment from HMRC. There have been well-publicised reports of absurdly generous deals cut. A pragmatist might argue it’s better to get at least some money, rather than see the battles rolling on and on. But that’s a potentially dangerous line to take.

In the end, we risk robbing ourselves as a country while simultaneously encouraging the super-rich and the enormous to invest huge sums (lawyers’ and accountants’ fees) in constantly developing new ways of avoiding tax. That leaves all of us the poorer, apart from the fat cats.

Left-wing columnist Owen Jones and I don’t have much in common politically. But he was on the money, writing in Tuesday’s Guardian: we all lose out, he insisted, when we allow tax evasion, whether by lazily failing to chase illegal avoidance, or by allowing rules to be circumvented.

When big tax bills are dodged, the country’s revenue is smaller: then we have to cut public services, slash council budgets and suffer austerity – because the big boys (I wonder why it’s the male gender?) get away with it.

Jones is right. At bottom, in a prosperous country where people and businesses are earning the tax take is greater, allowing the state to provide better services. It is, of course, the argument against former Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity: it’s also counters those who, by contrast, would see government spend ever more on benefits and grand projects without stimulating a matching growth in earned, taxable, income.

I should demand that ordinary people like me make a stand. I didn’t know Apple were behaving in a way I find reprehensible: I use an iPhone and a MacBook. But, if I’m honest, I’m not about to give up my Apple products.

Other major corporations such as Amazon have also been roundly criticised for paying derisory sums in tax. Yet I still buy books and CDs (or their digital alternatives) through that website: it’s just so convenient.

The battle between Ireland, Apple and Brussels will rage for some time and arouse strong emotions. As Brexit gets underway, will our government feel the temptation to cut deals with multinationals, untrammelled by Europe’s bureaucratic requirements?

For my part, I’m in favour of Brussels trying to uphold fair tax laws across a trading area of 500m consumers. I’d rather finance that bureaucracy than be screwed by a corporation with more economic muscle than a whole nation.

I just hope we don’t “get our country back”, only to mortgage it to greedy multinationals.

We wouldn’t be that stupid. Would we?

 

Sex-obsessed TV threatens youngsters' emotional wellbeing and even their sanity 

4th August 2106

There’s a television programme called Love Island in which young single people are incarcerated in a comfortable villa in a hot place (Portugal).  Sporting skimpy swimwear, tattoos, gym-fit bodies and (for men) bristly macho hair, they are paired off in the expectation (presumably, the requirement) that they’ll become (in current vernacular) “loved up”. 

In long-established Big Brother style, they talk individually to camera about how they feel and how the loving is going. In groups one gender moans about the other. 

The obligatory voting-out of contestants is followed by those inevitable painful interviews, first with the disappointed ejectee and subsequently with the lover left behind. Both declare themselves bereft and lonely – for an hour or two, until the survivors find themselves head-over-heels in love with new partners.

If this form of edgy reality television seems as tacky to you as it does to me, what about Sex Box, an American show imported from over here? Two people make love (or have sex, at any rate) in a large, mercifully opaque, box. Emerging in front of a studio audience, each describes how it was for them, their answers and attitudes analysed and deconstructed by a panel of sex therapists.

I learned about such programmes not by watching them myself (honest!) but by talking to some young people who do, generally claiming to watch them for laughs. 

The conversation came about because the papers are currently full of discussion of the latest nude-fest on UK screens.  Every article I’ve read about Channel 4’s speed-dating programme Naked Attraction deplores the ever-increasing sexualisation of television and the increasing prevalence of full-frontal nudity. Each critique is illustrated by images of that newly-opened naked restaurant in South London, last month’s conceptual art project in Hull where artist Spencer Tunick painted thousands of bare volunteers blue, a nude cycle-ride in London or Newcastle (yes, Newcastle!), or simply a random row of buttocks.

What’s going on? The human race is born with an inbuilt sex-urge: that’s nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species. But I’m not convinced that we highly intelligent humans need to talk about or watch it constantly.  Moreover, if it’s true that (as I’m always assured) the average young male thinks about sex every ten seconds, the media adds little by pandering to the fact. 

I’m not a prude. But there are current and serious concerns which, I’d argue, are exacerbated by using sex and nudity to sell newspapers or TV. 

The relentless suggestion that only one type of slim female or gym-developed male body is acceptable puts huge pressure on kids: preoccupation with body-image easily damages a young person’s self-esteem and can lead to eating disorders.  

Children are constantly bombarded with sexualised imagery via legitimate media sources, let alone the freely available torrent of pornography that even an eight year-old can (and does) too easily find online.  Among other perils, such messages suggest to them that sending and sharing images of their own naked bodies is normal and commonplace, rendering them easy prey to bullies, groomers and abusers.

Porn suggests that relationships are entirely about sex and that sex involves one partner using the other as an object. Sex-obsessed television isn’t pornography: but it nonetheless carries risks to young people’s sanity and emotional wellbeing.

That’s the educationist in me speaking. On an everyday level, though, isn’t wall-to-wall media sex in any case rather sad and demeaning? Shouldn’t life, publishing and broadcasting be about, well, other and better things?

More flippantly, three questions remain. 

How DO naked cyclists avoid appalling chafing?  Isn’t nude dining a high-risk activity where hot soup’s involved? And for most of us, when it comes to it (and putting gym and beach-bodies to one side), isn’t baring one’s all in public just a bit wobbly?

Here’s my advice to broadcasters and participants alike: shut up about sex, and put some clothes on!

Besides, I’d rather read a book.

 

As our world grows more fractured and dangerous we would all do well to remember the Somme heroes

5th July 2016

Friday 1st July, 7.30am. A whistle blows three blasts: the signal for men to go over the top.

The tall, elderly man nods to the comrades gathered around him. A job well done: still using his stick lightly, his gait slow but steady, he walks back to his transport.

No, it’s not 1916. It’s last week: and the elderly man is my dad. 

He and a dozen other stalwarts of the British Legion in Wells, Somerset, was commemorating the start of the Battle of the Somme, as people did up and down the country, as well as in Northern France. 

I feel a closer link to this than to other Great War commemorations because, last summer (as regular readers will know), we took Dad around the Battlefields, particularly the area connected with the Somme. Dad’s father, my grandpa, arrived at the front in June 1915. He fought in the Somme from 1st July 1916 invalided out at High Wood that September. Lucky man, he got a piece of shell in his foot and was only fit thereafter to be what he called, somewhat derogatorily, a “parade-ground soldier” (mind you, he was a proper RSM, with a proper parade-ground bellow!).

We visited Lochnagar Crater, the place where the appallingly costly Battle of the Somme started 100 years ago last week: the enormous monument at Thiepval, where, it’s said, the birds still don’t sing: we saw the Newfoundland Memorial, with its deformed countryside pockmarked with shell holes and trenches, now softened by a century of nature’s healing.

We found the little corner of St Patrick’s Irish Cemetery, changed and tidied up from when Dad had visited 40 years previously: and located the row of graves of unknown soldiers, one of which must be grandpa’s greatest friend, Leo Shurley, whom he buried in haste and after whom he named his first son, my uncle. 

Dad’s 95 now. Mercifully in good health and with all his faculties, he either walks slowly or is pushed in a wheelchair, because he can’t do distances now: and people invariably treated so old a visitor with courtesy and respect. 

But it was something more. At the Menin Gate in Ypres, where we attended the Last Post ceremony (still performed every sunset without fail), he and my wife were ushered through to the front, given pride of place. I wondered if people mistook him for a veteran? Survivors of the Great War have visited those shrines to those who lost their lives countless times over the past century. 

No longer. The last few combatants from the First World War died in recent years, aged 100 or more. Dad was born in 1920, four years after Grandpa received that lucky wound at Highwood. He was fortunate, as I’ve said, but he knew at the time  that his luck was running out. He wrote home to his fiancée, shortly before the Somme: “Almost all the old set are gone now”. 

He’d buried his best friend: another he’d dragged from the battlefield, amazingly still alive despite a chunk of shrapnel passing through his chest: he outlived Grandpa, dying around 1980 having become a fruit-farmer in California where the climate suited a man with one lung.

In the early stages of the Somme, regimental records state that Grandpa’s company was reduced from some 100 men to 17. Already an NCO, he became Regimental Sergeant Major: he was the man with rank still alive. Amid the chaos, they were eventually reinforced, or amalgamated, men who, like Grandpa, had somehow survived a year fighting alongside raw recruits, those fresh-faced patriotic boys who, arriving at the Front, must have thought they’d entered a scene from hell, something even Hieronymus Bosch never imagined in his paintings.

That’s why Dad nowadays pins his father’s ribbons on the right side of his suit: why even at 95 he got up early to commemorate a landmark centenary with the British Legion. A doctor trained at speed in WW2, therefore not a combatant, he nonetheless remembers. 

Right now the world seems a much more fractured and dangerous place than it did even a couple of years ago. We would all do well to remember, as so many did last Friday.

 

Our politics and democracy have been diminished by the bully and bluster of the EU debate

3rd June 2016

While we celebrate his 400th anniversary, it’s fascinating how often Shakespeare’s greatest plays reveal deep truths.

The bard has been in my thoughts more than usual recently, not least because I recently saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream: not the version televised on Monday, but the new production at London’s Globe which I enjoyed a couple of weeks ago.

As always with Shakespeare, within uproarious comedy lie darker overtones which shed light on human frailties: but I’ve been struck more powerfully in recent weeks by the similarity in our political world to that depicted in his famous history, Julius Caesar. I cannot help feeling some measure of sympathy for David Cameron as one close colleague after another stabs him in the back.

They’re lining up to do it! The Sunday Times last weekend reported a letter from Michael Gove and Boris Johnson accusing Cameron of “corroding public trust”. We’re always given to understand that Gove is a particular friend of his, while he and Johnson are, if not close, at least old associates from school and university.

Friends don’t have to agree on everything: and feelings run high on both sides of the EU referendum debate. Nonetheless the attacks launched on him by (presumably) erstwhile friends are vicious and unedifying. 

It’s not only Gove and Johnson who have emulated Shakespeare’s Brutus and Cassius. Other Tories are out for his blood. Backbencher Nadine Dorries shamelessly opined that if we vote Leave on 23rd June, Cameron “will be toast”.

Little of this anti-Cameron campaign is strictly connected to Brexit. At the root lies a mixture of disloyalty, arrogance and stupidity.

One may feel Cameron’s was the first error in letting his ministers choose sides in the referendum: but the average voter will feel only scorn for MPs who won their Commons seats on Cameron’s ticket but now openly and wantonly seek to destroy him: that’s betrayal on a breath-taking scale.

Political parties are no strangers to disloyalty. Having lost two General Elections, Labour is in the process of tearing itself apart. However, with four years still until the next General Election I suspect it’s the sheer arrogance of power that encourages Tory MPs to behave similarly. They laugh at Labour’s internal travails: yet, with a degree of arrogance typical of the Westminster bubble, fail to observe how they are wrecking their own party and government. The electorate rarely forgives a party for treating it so contemptuously.

Stupidity? Certainly. Short-sighted, egotistical politicians on both sides of the EU debate try to scare voters with lies, distortions and exaggerations. Remain has raised the spectres of global war, victory to Islamic State and a loss of national security. Vote Leave accuses Brussels of Hitler-like ambitions to rule Europe, while the noisiest critics of its “undemocratic” processes have failed us, refusing for decades to engage properly with Europe and thus prevent the creep of unaccountable bureaucracy.

Bully-and-bluster tactics employed by both sides. Our politics and our democracy have been diminished by this experience: the damage done will be lasting.

Sadly, Cameron appears inept rather than commanding. This week saw criticism of him for sharing a platform with London’s Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan: a curious pairing, given Cameron’s offensive comments about Khan during the mayoral campaign. On the other hand, it was a relief from the misery of constant wrangling to see to politicians sharing a common belief across the party divide, an act of honesty rare enough in political life.

Cameron increasingly resembles Julius Caesar as knives are repeatedly plunged into his twitching political body: though his current haplessness recalls Mr Bean more than the Roman leader. 

But remember, Caesar died: while Cameron will live to fight back. If he is vindicated at the end of June, the Cabinet reshuffle will be something to watch.  Arrant disloyalty is deeply repulsive: to see it punished would prove therapeutic.

Yet Shakespeare’s wise mischief-maker Puck must have the last word: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” 

So Prince and David Bowie have died. Remind me, who were they exactly?

5th May 2016

That’s another one gone, then. A couple of weeks ago the music world was grieving the early demise of the Artist now truly Formerly Known as Prince: his death was confusing, announced on the day of many royal headlines, the Queen’s 90th birthday. 

I felt sorry in the way that I feel sorry for anyone who dies untimely, but I could not for the life of me think of any of his songs. I know: I should get out more. But be patient with me for a moment.

There I was at work, having a meeting with some senior colleagues, when I had to admit my total ignorance of the former star’s oeuvre. To a man and woman they laughed at me and said that I must surely remember his big hits from the 80s.

But I don’t. For us the 80s were all about having babies: I have no memory of hits from that period (which accounts for my almost total ignorance of other great stars such as Michael Jackson, David Bowie to whom I’ll return, let alone the great super groups of that era, white lycra and all). In my defence, in that decade I was already busy working in classical music education: but these artists and their songs just didn’t impinge on me. 

During the meeting my colleagues decided it would be amusing to slip in as many song titles as they could in order to test whether I noticed. Frankly, mention of Little Red Corvette or Purple Rain seemed contrived: they were greeted by jeers. However, as the meeting broke up, the plea from one colleague of “Let’s go Crazy” was neatly timed. 

David Bowie was another legend of whom I was barely conscious over the decades: when the media was full of clever references to British astronaut Tim Peake, currently orbiting the earth, someone had to explain to me the constant repetition of Ground Control to Major Tim.

To defend myself in the face of such mockery I generally fall back on an immortal line from Alan Bennett’s hilarious school play, Forty Years On. When a young, rebellious teacher mentions to the headmaster that his standards might be out of date, he replies grandly (preferably in a Sir John Gielgud voice), “Of course they are. That’s what makes them standards!” I rest my case.

We Traffords are however grieving the recent loss of two luminaries of TV, stage and screen. When we see legends such as Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith continuing to play magnificent roles from one decade to another (even though Maggie Smith complains there aren’t any great roles for nonagenarian actresses), we feel robbed of 20 or 30 years from the late Alan Rickman and Victoria Wood.

We first heard Alan Rickman’s reedy tones, so reminiscent of a human bassoon, as the weaselly and ambitious cleric Obadiah Slope in the 1980s (yes!) television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles. If that built his reputation, his performance as the villainous Hans Gruber in Die Hard, ultimately defeated by a barefoot and vest-clad Bruce Willis, cemented it. We haven’t yet seen Rickman’s final film, currently showing: but his last film, Eye in the Sky, currently in cinemas, will be something of a farewell, too.

Then there was Victoria Wood. Who can replace that jolly, hilarious faux-naïve northern lady of a certain age?

The sense of bereavement is, in part, sheer selfishness. Who will make us laugh as much as Victoria did? One feels that life will be that bit greyer, and less hilarious. Such is life, and death too. Sic transit gloria mundi: thus passes the glory of the world.

I can’t help feeling Victoria would have been unable to resist the temptation of translating that Latin tag as the description of a northern lady called Gloria Munday feeling nauseous while travelling in a van.

Lord, how we’ll miss them all!

 

6th April 2016

I’m just back from a long weekend deep in central rural France. The region known as La Creuse is characterised by huge oak forests between which chestnut-brown Limousin cattle graze the lush grass. It’s like stepping back in time: one almost expects Robin Hood and his Merrie Men to emerge from the trees. 

There are countless old farmhouses with attached barns, all dating from the Revolution when parcels of farming land were handed out. Long derelict, many are being bought up and restored. Not by the French: as they flee the countryside their place is taken by eccentric Brits, my brother among them, in search of affordable retirement projects.

Our family foregathered in France, ostensibly to celebrate some notable birthdays but really to nose around my brother’s imaginatively recreated period dwelling. Following French tradition, the whole village was invited, including the commune’s (elected) mayor. We performed the ceremony of “La Pendaison de la Cremaillère”, the traditional practice of hanging the cauldron over the fire: being able to make soup symbolises the fact that the hearth is warm and welcoming. Thus the French met the English: each speaking each other’s language badly, but enjoying a drink and discovering mutually that those on the other side of the Channel aren’t so different after all. 

A furious farmer interrupted the festivities to complain that some partygoers had photographed a dead horse in his field and posted the pictures on Facebook. He now feared a visit from the gendarmerie and was very cross.

This needs explanation. It appeared he had shot an old, ailing carthorse humanely, but without the vet required by law to do the job. We also suspected (but didn’t like to ask) that he was about to bury the horse, rather than incurring the cost of disposing of the body according to regulations. He was probably flouting two laws, and didn’t welcome police interest.

His rage changed to smiles when we assured him it hadn’t been any of us. He embraced my brother, wishing him happiness in his new home: they parted friends.

A farmer in the depths of a large country needed to put an old, sick animal out of its misery. Infuriated by laws that create considerable costs for doing it, he did it his own way, hoping to get away with it.

That struck me as a metaphor for British agonising about the European Union. Brexiteers fulminate about the iniquities of the rules that emanate from Brussels. Yet the UK government itself is as obsessive a regulator as Brussels. My independent (yes, independent) school has to comply with more than 400 regulations: all come from Westminster, none from Brussels.

It’s a generally appealing feature of us Brits that we do what we’re told. We queue in an orderly fashion. We pay taxes: everyone except the super-rich, that is. Similarly we obey every silly Brussels edict, but then we complain like mad. Indeed, most of the arguments for Brexit merely represent an extension of that national propensity for moaning.  

Our fellow-Europeans react differently: many simply ignore the dafter regulations, either at a national or an individual level, and go their own way. They’re right. I’m not advocating wholesale civil disobedience, merely observing that we should emulate our neighbours in this respect. There’s precedent, after all: our own governments routinely repudiate election promises and backtrack on international pledges on emissions.

We ordinary citizens should engage with Europe, demanding reform: but we don’t. As an electorate we’re so apathetic and lazy, we barely turn out to vote in elections. Yet we should know the names of our MEPs (most of us don’t, apparently): hold them accountable and, through them, refuse to permit unelected Brussels bureaucrats to boss us around. 

Better to stay in, argue and achieve change than say “to hell with you” and head for the exit: even if (you knew this was coming) Brexiteers accuse us of flogging a dead horse.

 

3rd March 2016

I don’t remember much of the mid-1980s. We were busy having babies, and those sleepless years left us short of memories beyond the joys of becoming parents.

But we recall 7th October 1986, the day a new national newspaper was first published: The Independent, a new, serious broadsheet, its title proclaiming freedom from bias or owners’ slants. It started well, including excellent photography, all in black and white then. And it promoted thoughtful comment. 

30 years on, the Indie has lost the battle. You can still read it online, and there’s its lightweight sibling, the “i”: but that print stalwart has gone. At a time when all printed newspapers are losing readership, it shed quality journalists, and its demise was inevitable. 

So I was astonished to learn of a new paper, owned by the Journal’s publisher, Trinity Mirror Group. I picked up my free copy of The New Day on Monday and skimmed through it: I was underwhelmed. To be fair, it’s not aimed at me (no one aims at me: the radio news described it as a middle-of-the-road publication, aimed at the Mail and Express market). 

With large print and short articles, it’s not a challenging read. The promised balanced reporting (I realise I am arguing perversely here) is so exaggerated as to irritate. The Prime Minister’s column about staying in Europe sits opposite an an art teacher demanding fuller information. The so-called “snoopers’ charter” is condemned by columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, and defended by TalkRADIO presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer.

I’m forever demanding balance and lack of bias: yet this is too obvious, and somehow patronising.

All in all, I was glad to return to my heavyweight of choice, The Times, which frequently drives me to fury, but not as much as the Guardian or Telegraph (the FT is beyond me). 

I’m hard to please. The Times did a hard-sell on me recently. I’d written a couple of blogs for The Sunday Times: they were exclusively online, so I could only read what I’d written, let alone print a copy to send to my 95-year-old dad, by taking out a subscription. Now I get those silly tokens for The Times instead of paying £1.20, which would be fine but for the fact that many newsagents won’t take them. And I don’t blame them. 

The Times’s strategy is to push people towards reading it online. But I don’t want to! I want to hold a paper in my hand and since, nowadays, I always seem to read the morning paper most often in bed at night, I don’t want a laptop or tablet in bed with me.

Despite the advent of a new paper, newsprint is apparently doomed to move online. The very purpose of a newspaper is in question: since we get news more quickly online, on TV or via radio, a paper really exists to provide commentary. That requires high quality professional writers.

Sadly, as the producers of printed papers relentlessly slash costs, fewer writers are paid. The editor of the Huffington Post UK, Stephen Hull, proclaimed in a radio interview:

“If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

So it’s not “authentic” if a professional writes it? Hm. When editors print only the allegedly genuine voices of unpaid authors, they don’t uncover hidden talent: on the contrary, they increasingly fill their pages with the ramblings of people with axes to grind (I should know!). I guess The New Day will be no different.

As this trend continues, inevitably, we shall see less and less intelligent printed comment, and increasingly endure personal agendas thrust at us.

And thus intelligent papers – printed or digital - will finally die.

 

If it wasn't for those who attempt the impossible the human race would be far less adventurous

4th February 2016

In 1979 Stephen Pile published his “Book of Heroic Failures”. Its self-evident title tapped into that characteristically British sympathy for the underdog and willingness to applaud the loser (“Come on, Tim!”) for trying awfully hard, however disastrous the outcome.

The first edition of the book gave rise to the Awfully Good Club, which attracted some 30,000 members. Pile put himself beyond the pale: his book became a best-seller, getting him expelled from the club.

This attitude remains alive and well in British culture. Why else would the media give such prominence to the two septuagenarians, Steve Shapiro and Bob Wiese, attempting to cross the Atlantic from Norway in a 40-foot yacht? They’ve been rescued several times on the way to Cornwall: suffering a damaged propeller shaft and flat battery; running aground in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland; two more disasters in Cornwall. Finally, in Hayle harbour they left their boat when the tide went out: it rolled over and caused a fire, because they had apparently “not blown a candle out properly”.

This sorry tale caused guffaws nationwide: but it isn’t an isolated example. Around Christmas four young Britons got into trouble on a trek across Iceland. Spokesmen there (including one Icelandic MP) echoed British voices concerning the hapless sailors, claiming that ill-prepared idiots who require rescue should meet the cost. These lads were meant to be crossing 250 miles of tough Icelandic terrain: unfortunately they had to be retrieved three times:  their car got stuck on the way to the starting point; then they caught various infections, had frostbitten toes, and the wrong sort of skis.

When it was revealed that some of them had attended private schools, they were immediately branded rich, spoilt Hooray Henrys possessed of excessive self-confidence but the common-sense of a louse.

The media started to get nasty about these university students who, to be fair, had wanted naively to inspire other young people to explore the outdoors by filming a documentary. A more generous Icelandic MP spoke up for them: Frosti Sigurjonsson said the lads should be forgiven, commenting with glorious understatement that young men “aren’t always sensible at that age”. Perhaps he had children of that age himself.

Of course it must be infuriating. Mountain-rescue teams (and those operating in other terrain) have had enough to do in Cumbria this winter without being summoned to rescue nutters who insist on scrambling along dangerous paths like Helvellyn’s Striding Edge without proper equipment.

We can all condemn such idiotic wannabe adventurers. But it becomes less easy when we start to consider truly heroic yet tragic failures, even recent ones. Henry Worsley died only the other week, airlifted out just 30 miles short of crossing the Antarctic unaided on foot. His wife said last weekend that he had no idea how close he was to death: septicaemia set in, and his organs closed down. He thought he was merely exhausted and that he’d better phone for rescue. Idiot? No. Hero? Well, he was a lot braver and tougher than I’ll ever be.

Other Brits have died with great courage in the same place. Consider Captain Scott’s fatal 1911 attempt to reach the South Pole before Amundsen. Some historians would call it a suicidal expedition, driven on by Scott’s massive ego and bullying temperament. Facing death, Captain Oates famously slipped away into the darkness saying, “I may be gone some time”, so he would not become a burden to the rest. They died anyway.

Heroes? Fools? When an expedition or attempt to climb a mountain (think of Mallory on Everest) ends in tragedy, we readily dub those who lose their lives heroes. When there’s touch of the absurd and no serious harm is done, they’re branded foolish.

Yet if it weren’t for those people who insist on attempting the impossible, the human race might be that little bit less adventurous and end up achieving so much less.

 

Westminster is obsessed with ticking regulatory boxes: but the big picture eludes policy-makers

7th January 2016

The last gasp of the post-Christmas and New Year period saw a gathering of the Trafford family and friends, some twenty of us in all.  At one stage most of us walked along what I regard as one of the best sections of Hadrian’s Wall, that spectacular stretch near the quaintly-named Twice Brewed, from Steel Rigg to the famous Robin Hood Tree.

In the dip immediately to the west of that tree is a good example of a mile-castle, with its regulation double gateways: one pointing out of the wall north, the other on the southern side. One of our party noticed that the north-facing gate led straight to a precipice: what was the point of that, she asked?

Then I remembered. One reason for the Roman army’s great success was that it operated by the book. Organised into clear structures (tens, centuries, legions), it followed strict rules. So when the Emperor Hadrian announced that the wall would be built, it was built, to very specific dimensions (though the width was changed half-way, to economise on time, labour and stone). Every mile, it was decreed, there would be a small, square fort with two gates. The fort we visited was a mile from the last, so it was built there according to the rules, even though the gate was of use only to mountain goats.

How little things change over the centuries! It seems to me we are seeing that mile-castle mentality in government’s failure to deal with flooding. Yes, ministers and even the prime minister come to the affected areas, make sympathetic noises and promise that millions of pounds will be spent.

Yet they’re missing the point. We may keep building flood defences, ever longer and higher. But in December the North saw millions of pounds’-worth of barriers overtopped. Okay, you may say, we have to stop somewhere: engineers must determine a height that provides reasonable protection at an affordable cost.

But these are the wrong solutions. Even after the flooding of the Somerset levels not long ago, lessons are not being learnt. The inhabitants of inundated rural Somerset were adamant that their disaster occurred because the responsible authorities had stopped dredging the rivers. As a result the water couldn’t get away quickly enough.

It looks as if evidence is mounting of the same problem in the North East and North West. Building barriers of increasing sophistication (such as the one in York that didn’t work) is insufficient. I’m not convinced that anyone is really planning how to get rid of all that exceptional rainfall, rather than just keeping it out of particular areas. Our universities contain some of the world’s greatest brains, genuine experts on flooding and on the engineering required to prevent or control it. Yet only last week the Journal reported on the expert, Newcastle University’s Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, whose (now) five-year old report to government has been ignored.

To add further evidence, consider the map that did the rounds on Twitter after York was so badly flooded. December’s floods matched almost exactly a plan of mediaeval York where, on its eastern side, a city wall was never built because it was protected in any case by a very significant marsh. That ancient marsh, its very shape, is recognisable as the precise area of modern buildings, houses and apartments, so damaged by floodwater, with consequent lives disrupted, homes wrecked, families heartbroken. Did medieval builders know more than modern-day town planners?

Notwithstanding this government’s alleged commitment to “small government”, anyone working in a field controlled by government regulation is familiar with Westminster’s obsession with minutiae, with ticking all the regulatory boxes: but the big picture constantly eludes policy-makers.

How many more crises and disasters, how much sheer misery must occur before government realises it must engage experts, listen to them and develop grand strategy to tackle the whole problem? Many more yet, I fear.

Happy New Year!

 

 

Geordie Angels that defended Muslim woman prove we can rise above ignorance, suspicion and hostility

Thursday 3rd December 2015

“Some really bad things are happening and they’re happening fast”. Thus spake US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump after the Paris outrages. It’s true. There are some serious nutters out there, doing terrible things. 

Crikey! Surely I’m not starting to agree with The Trump? No, be reassured. While he and I agree that there are some wicked people out there planning and implementing dreadful events, I don’t agree with the solutions he proposes to the problem. He wants to take firm action against refugees instead of “accepting them all”: and he reckons it’s going to be necessary to close down mosques. Not all of them: just those that cause him concern.

Wow! You could say that fighting fire with fire has always been the Republican way: George Bush, the younger one at any rate, had a tendency to be trigger-happy, arguably with Tony Blair riding on his coat-tails. Where there is wholesale war, I suppose that, notwithstanding my broadly pacifist leanings, I’d agree we must fight against aggressors, invaders and those who want to destroy our way of life. But remember, Trump was talking about closing down mosques in his own backyard, in other words, labelling and marginalising a sector of society.

Murder and mayhem in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam will inevitably provoke extreme calls in response. Alas, even in our peaceful UK society fundamentalist violence gives rise to suspicion, while anyone with a skin of darker hue than the average Anglo-Saxon is likely to encounter vicious abuse from ignorant thugs who will readily label them as Muslim or terrorists – or both.

Nonetheless, just occasionally something happens to cheer me, and a lot of other people, and prove that everyone isn’t like that, that humans can and do rise above that brand of ignorant suspicion and hostility. A couple of weeks ago, as reported in last week’s Journal, Ruhi Rehman, a 23-year-old Muslim woman who wears a burka, was travelling on the Newcastle Metro. A man accosted her and her sister, shouting: “Get up out of that seat”. He started hurling abuse at the young women, accusing them of being immigrants (both were born here).

When a number of other passengers remonstrated with him, he turned on them snarling, “What? Do you want them to bomb this train?”

What happened next was the most striking. A group of men (including, according to Twitter, football supporters clad in Newcastle United shirts) confronted the yob and told him literally where to get off, ejecting him at Palmersville.

Better still, as he left the train, which pulled away, the other passengers in the carriage applauded those blokes, then made a fuss of the girls, one woman hugging both as they left the train. Ruhi’s comment: “I’ve never felt more proud of being a Geordie. It was lovely that everyone came together to help us and I can’t thank them all enough”.

It’s only one little incident, fortunately one where a nasty racist incident came contradictorily to a happy ending. But it demonstrated what our Prime Minister often cites as “British values”, although to my mind his list simply encompasses the universal human values that all races should encourage. He talks about democracy: the rule of law; individual liberty; respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

As a rule, I confess I take exception to politicians telling me what I should believe in. In this case, though, I’ll happily affirm that the splendid response from those Geordies precisely embodied for me a living model of British values.

Better still, they didn’t do what train, tube or metro passengers are often accused of doing, ignoring the fuss, tut-tutting but not intervening.

No. These guys saw something wrong, stood up and took action. They’re an example to us all. 

It’s clear they weren’t just living out British values: hell, they were Geordie values. Like Ruhi, they made me proud.

 

The Lords are a ragtag of sour-faced political has-beens settling old scores

Thursday 5th November 2015

“Remember, remember….”

At the end of that odd film, V for Vendetta, the central character, having slain the Prime Minister and his corrupt cronies, drives an underground train packed with explosive under the Houses of Parliament and blows them up. In the movie’s dystopian world, the Mother of Parliaments has become a sham, democracy a cloak for dictatorship (unlike any large modern countries we know, then): V’s solution is to destroy it.

Today is Guy Fawkes Day. Up and down the country there will be bonfires and fireworks. If celebrations follow tradition to the letter, on top of the bonfire will be burnt an effigy of the man (a North-Easterner, educated in York) who packed the cellars under parliament with barrels of gunpowder but failed to set them off.

To think someone nearly destroyed our democracy by blowing up its very seat! Of course we commemorate that near-miss.

Something less worthy of celebration is Parliament’s recent behaviour. Not the Commons, I hasten to add: whatever the colour of our personal politics and notwithstanding any reservations we may have about our electoral system (first-past-the-post is always unsatisfactory to my mind), our government is properly elected. If we, the electorate, don’t like the one we get, we get to vote it out again in 2020. That IS democracy.

But what are the Peers up to? The House of Lords, packed with Lib Dem and Labour peers, has been blocking the government’s attempts to push through its policy of welfare reform. It didn’t quite become a constitutional crisis, because Chancellor George Osborne agreed to rethink his plans, though some might feel he should have had the courage of his convictions.

You don’t have to agree with this particular government policy: but we, the electorate, did vote the Tories in on that ticket. That an unelected upper chamber should able to play such political games and arbitrarily block the will of the democratically constituted government is bizarre.

I confess I used to think an upper chamber of wise people (yes, often former politicians from the Commons who knew their way round the business of government) was a good thing. I always believed age, experience and greater time for reflection would somehow offset the shortcomings of the Commons and of the party in power at the time: governments are always in a hurry.

I was wrong. In hindsight I can see it has led, eventually but inevitably, to the kind of impasse we are now seeing. Far from operating as a repository of wisdom and experience, the Lords have become a ragtag of sour-faced old political has-beens settling old scores.

That’s no way to run politics: it’s certainly no way to run an upper chamber; and it’s definitely no way to run a country.

Democracy must be allowed to function democratically. Just as a Prime Minster cannot be permitted to impose his will on the Commons without checks and balances in the form of votes on crucial major issues, so the upper chamber may not capriciously sabotage legislation drafted and approved by the elected chamber.

We have two options. First, to legislate to put an end to the House of Lords as currently constituted. If we need an upper chamber, I guess we must elect it. It works elsewhere, though problems in America have demonstrated the impasse faced by a Democrat president attempting to pass legislation when the Senate majority is Republican. I’m not clever enough to solve that conundrum.

The second’s quicker and, on 5th November at least, more attractive. Blow the whole place up. After all, it will cost millions to repair Big Ben: and the repair bill for the whole of the Palace of Westminster is estimated at £6 billion.

Why bother? Let’s stop messing around. Fill the cellars with high explosive and set it off. Boom! And claim the insurance. Three birds with one stone.

Just joking!

Anyone got a light?

 

I behaved badly at times when I was young - we all did. But we don't have to be punished with it forever

Thursday 1st October 2015

Most people will have forgotten: I certainly had. But, some 15 years ago, people were referring to Tony Blair as “Teflon Tony”. As so often seems to happen to Prime Ministers, he had ministers or advisers who blotted their copy books. Even Peter, now Lord, Mandelson, New Labour’s chief architect, was forced to spend time in the wilderness after accepting a loan deemed inappropriate from fellow minister Geoffrey Robinson.

Mud never seemed to stick to Tony. Despite the non-existent weapons of mass destruction and the allegedly sexed-up dossier which provided grounds for the invasion of Iraq that were dodgy at best, he won another election. Even now, while some call him a war criminal and others loathe him for taking us into that war (the latter sentiment I share), no one has nailed him: at the rate the Leveson report is going, he and I alike will probably be in our graves before anything’s proved against him.

You’d expect a Prime Minister to have plenty of aides, PR people and spin-doctors to protect them, but mud generally sticks nonetheless.

Or does it? David Cameron, the present incumbent, enjoys a similarly charmed political life. He’s prone to making unfunny jokes, and having subsequently to apologise: there was the time he said, “Calm down, dear” in a patronising manner to a female MP; just the other week he made an unfunny crack about Yorkshiremen; but he sails on regardless.

The media insist on pursuing our leaders on holiday. Somehow Dave and Sam manage to enjoy their espresso in Tuscany without suffering any bacon-sandwich-style moments, while action photos of the two of them plunging through the Cornish waves in their surf gear look, well, good: and the PM isn’t afraid of being pictured in a fun run or mud challenge.

Surely, though, the latest episode revealed in Lord Ashcroft’s revenge-motivated unauthorised biography will embarrass him? Drunken Oxford toff parties: smoking a spliff aged 19 while listening to Supertramp’s Crime of the Century; newly wed to Sam, allowing houseguests to snort coke; that thing with the pig’s head, so repulsive as to be hilarious; surely even Teflon Dave can’t shrug all that off? Even if they’re only partially true?

Actually, I suspect he can, for two reasons. First, lots of young people do really stupid things, some of the daftest when they leave home and go to university.

I was at Oxford a decade before Cameron. I wasn’t a working-class boy who battled his way there from disadvantage. Nor was I a toff. I was a rather sheltered middle-class lad, a doctor’s son, who found university strange and wonderful. I don’t think I worked hard enough: I know I behaved badly at times.

I was neither sufficiently posh nor dissolute (nor did I have enough money) to be asked to join those toffs’ dining societies. I didn’t take drugs, nor smoke pot: no one offered me any, so I wasn’t tempted. Nonetheless, alcohol and boorishness led me to behave in undesirable ways at times. I hope I learned from the experiences and grew up.

Similarly I wouldn’t defend any of those behaviours attributed to Cameron: but he doesn’t try to, either. He maintains a dignified silence to which he’s entitled. That’s the point. Most of us have done things when young that we regretted: we may still harbour remorse. But we don’t have to be banged over the head with them for the rest of our lives. The same clemency should be extended to the PM.

There’s a second element in Cameron’s defence. The book appears to be a deliberate attempt to rake muck and discredit him. Those British values that Cameron likes to promote (and insists we teach in schools) include tolerance and a sense of fair play. Both are offended by this smear campaign.

I’m not convinced it will hurt Cameron one jot: but the names of his accusers will surely be mud. Deservedly so.

 

Thursday 3rd September 2015

It was iconic Liverpool manager Bill Shankly who famously declared: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

For the most part people keep things largely in proportion and manage to say, whether winning or losing, “It’s only a game”. But on occasions we suddenly lose our heads and apply Shanks’s rule: picture the recent national rejoicing when England’s (male) cricketers win the Ashes, even if joy was swiftly tempered by a humiliating loss to Australia in the final, by then irrelevant, Test.

By the way, it wouldn’t have hurt the nation to celebrate Sunday afternoon’s  outstanding European Championship victory by England’s women hockey players over world leaders Holland, a match grudgingly and belatedly transferred from the BBC’s obscure red button to proper BBC2. When it went to penalty shuttles to decide the outcome, we Traffords (all hockey fans, my daughters still playing serious club hockey as well as running school teams) were on the edge of our seats.

So, yes, there are times when sport is more than just a game: they occur when it really matters. In a big game, when a team finds itself two goals down and running out of time (as the England women did) but digs deep for the necessary reserve of determination to turn the situation around: at such moments something special happens.

I was similarly delighted by last week’s Athletics World Championships. Team GB, fourth in the medals table, had a good week, gaining seven gongs in all, four of them gold. So-called “super Saturday” saw three Britons win gold: Mo Farah (10,000m); Jessica Ennis-Hill (heptathlon) and Greg Rutherford (long jump). Interestingly, all three triumphed in Beijing last week, having known nothing but misery when the Olympics were held there in 2008: back then Farah failed to qualify; Ennis-Hill couldn’t compete because she’d broken her foot; Rutherford only managed 10th place and then spent time in hospital with kidney and lung infections.

All three of these ultimately triumphant Brits returned to Beijing this year with huge question-marks over their recent performance. Ennis-Hill had much to prove, coming back from a year out after becoming a mum. She was one of several athletes who said, when interviewed, how tough it was additionally leaving a young family at home.

It wasn’t only the Brits. Added pressure was heaped on Usain Bolt when the media positioned him (despite being on less-than-top form, according to the pundits) as the standard-bearer for “clean athletics” against the twice-banned (for doping) Justin Gatlin. Two golds for the good guy did much for the sport’s reputation.

Fairy-tale endings didn’t happen for everyone. Christine Ohuruogu, also returning after difficulties, had to deal with finding herself off the pace, coming last in the 400m final: at least she was part of the bronze-winning relay team.

Katarina Johnson-Thomson is part of the up-and-coming generation, pushing Ennis-Hill hard for gold. Cruelly, she fouled three times in the long jump, crashing out of the heptathlon. Amid the highs and lows I admire the way strong characters bounce back from crippling adversity to triumph: given Johnson-Thomson’s positive attitude, she’ll be back.

The penultimate day saw GB’s men’s 4x100m relay team make so catastrophic an error in the baton-change that they didn’t finish. Devastated, the team didn’t behave well afterwards, their mutual recrimination becoming painfully public.

I’m inclined to forgive them. The fact is that they cared, so much that failure hurt them: and it’s when things really matter that great achievements occur. Many doubted Mo Farah could achieve the double (both 10,000m and 5,000m) against the best in the world. Yet he ran a tactically inspired race to prove his critics wrong.

Proving Shankly’s dictum, just for a moment, that race was (almost) more important than life and death. Mo made a nation proud.

 

Thursday 27th August 2015

One of the privileges of being a columnist is the opportunity it affords to be wise with hindsight. We often end with a hint of “I told you so”.

Another thing we’re prone to say, as the latest crisis leads to demands that “something must be done”, is to warn from the side-lines that we should be careful what we wish for.

I came back from holiday feeling I could regard many current issues from both standpoints.

One story was the revelation that Cedric Belfrage, a government agent in America during the Second World War, had spent years sending military secrets to the Russians.  Yet after the war there was no prosecution. Such action would cause such embarrassment to our secret services that it was deemed best to let that sleeping dog lie.

To overlook such treason seems incredible: except that cover-up and turning blind eyes remain commonplace. Think credit-crunch: in the corridors of the City or Whitehall, chaps merely have bad apples up to lunch and tell them chaps can’t behave like that.

Notwithstanding my cynicism, I’m encouraged that, by and large, modern society is becoming ever more open, opportunities steadily diminishing even for the most powerful to hide away the things they’d rather we didn’t see.

So on one level I was mischievously pleased when it was revealed that computer hackers had torn into the Ashley Madison website and made public details of all its subscribers.

I’m old-fashioned about things like marriage, though I know Mrs Trafford and I are fortunate to have held it together for 34 years (my grown-up daughters observe a little too often that I couldn’t function without Mum to organise me). Not all marriages work out: things change for one or both partners, and separation or divorce becomes inevitable.

So I try not to be judgmental: but a website designed to help people set out with expressly to commit adultery is repugnant. Well done, those hackers!

Or was it? I don’t like what Ashley Madison does or did: but who has the right to say, “I don’t like this, so I’ll destroy it”? Is that not a form of digital or business terrorism? And what about those, exposed as adulterers, who have taken their own lives?

Those questions led my thoughts on to the current travails of the Labour Party. It’s clear a slim majority of Labour supporters want to see the party move to the left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. For the moderates/centrists/Blairites who have held sway for 20 years, that’s unthinkable: the mechanism the outgoing Ed Miliband set up is leading to “the wrong person” being elected.

The plot thickens. Opponents of the party are joining to vote for Corbyn: if they succeed, it’s claimed, the party will render itself unelectable, condemned to decades in the wilderness.

Of course the party wants to defend itself against fifth-columnists: but that raises more questions. Who decides whether an applicant is a genuine Labour supporter? What if you genuinely wanted to join the party because you sought to change it democratically form within? Would you be allowed in?

Surely the Labour party must be open and democratic: yet if it remains so it’s apparently vulnerable to wreckers.

I’m not a party-political animal, and if anything a centrist. It grieves me to see any party become extreme: but the democrat in me says it must be permitted to, if its members desire that move. For Labour’s right wing to seize back control and stop the leftward swing would surely be undemocratic: unless that dramatic lurch to the left is proved to be a wrecking tactic by those inimical to the party.

I don’t know the answers. I hope the dilemma’s resolved in the Labour party: democracy demands it.

I remain a passionate advocate of openness: but I can see how, from time to time, we need to be careful what we wish for.