Bernard's weekly Journal  pieces January - April 2012

Festive updates from families make me cringe

Thursday 29th December 2012

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Why surprise at BBC shortlist when lads’ mags were involved?

Thursday 22nd December 2011

You remember the old joke about the various types of people who read different newspapers? It was always said that The Times is read by people who run the country. The Telegraph is read by the people who think they run the country, while The Daily Mirror is read by those who would like to run it if the Times readers hadn’t got there first. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of those who run the country, The Guardian by those who think they should run it – and Sun readers don’t care who runs it as long as she’s got big …..

You don’t need me to finish. I am lowering the tone only because an extraordinary thing is going to happen tonight. The BBC will run its annual Sports Personality of the Year programme. And on the shortlist there will not be a single woman.

Reactions to this situation have ranged from unease to outrage: and I suppose a lot of people haven’t even noticed, or don’t care very much. To be fair, it’s only a TV show, doesn’t hurt anyone, doesn’t change lives and, in terms of audience, merely attracts the same people who watch televised sport all year.

Women’s sport will carry on, therefore, and no real damage will be done. But it is a symptom, I think, and not a healthy one. It’s worth pausing, perhaps, just to think how and why the programme came to publish a totally male shortlist.

In explanation (and rather defensively), the BBC described how it approached a variety of media bodies and magazines asking for their nominations, and constructed the list from those. Among the nominating publications were, it transpired, two leading “lads’ mags”, Nuts and Zoo.

Lads’ mags? Why them? On the face of it, it’s a logical choice. That sort of magazine is aimed at the youngish (twenty-something?) male interested in the usual young male things. For example, the popular image of such magazines is that they are full of pictures and articles focussing entirely on the physical attributes of nubile young women.  Actually (so I’m told), they do focus quite heavily on, and fill their covers with, well-endowed girls.

Let’s be fair to them, though. Lads’ interests are much broader than that. In those few seconds that experts say they manage between episodes of thinking about sex (sometimes up to two minutes, according to recent research), lads also consider sport, fast cars – and gadgets.

Frankly I’m getting a bit old for most of those alleged lads’ interests. But I must confess, I like a good gadget. Currently I’m excited about the little remote control I’ve bought for a set of electrical sockets. You may think that’s a little sad. But, now that I’ve put the Christmas tree up, at the press of a button I can turn on not one but two separate sets of tree lights, without having to crawl around under the tree, grope for the switch and get my hair full of pine needles.

There’s nothing very wrong with Nuts or Zoo. But asking those publications to give a gender-balanced view of sporting personalities is as realistic as asking the late Kim Jong Il to endorse Amnesty International’s Christmas campaign. Even the Sun, despite my unkind crack at the start, managed to nominate 2011 World Champion Rebecca Adlington. So what about come-back queen Paula Radcliffe, for sheer guts? Or heptathlete Jessica Ennis, the ultimate all-rounder by definition, and charming with it?

It’s not the editorial staff at Nuts or Zoo who are at fault, but crass management at the BBC. Not because they’re following some clumsy gender-equality agenda or political correctness: but because their crass omission is a slap in the face to women’s sport and to the athletes who excel in it.

I won’t be watching tonight: not from principle, but because I’ve been invited to a party. Oops!

Happy Christmas!


Youth of today deserve to be given credit

Saturday 17th December 2011

Congratulations to Rachel Blair, the Newcastle 17 year-old selected to join the Cooperative Foundation's panel trying to improve the perception of young people, as reported in the Journal a couple of weeks back. The Foundation’s Truth about Youth programme "shows that there is a lot of support out there for young people and a real desire to change the way that society sees them." Given the lousy press young people get most of the time, they’re overdue a positive story.

That's the problem, though, isn't it? Positive stories tend to be well-meaning but dull. So much easier to make a good story about rioters; hoodies; youngsters too lazy and badly motivated to turn up to school; too feckless to be punctual or hold down a job.

When people try to make good news stories about young people, they often appear contrived and rather tiresome. The previous Children's Commissioner, Sir Al Ainsley Green, invited politicians to "hug a hoodie", a challenge to which I recall David Cameron duly rose. Mind you, Dave was busy being everyone's friend and proving himself electable, so he was keen to be "right on wiv da yoof". Not that he's been a fan of hoodies, I guess, since August's riots.

So is the nation's youth out of control?  Actually, the situation's probably no worse than it’s ever been. However far you go back in time, right back to classical writers in ancient Greece or Rome, you'll find commentators complaining about kids behaving badly, showing lack of respect for their elders and betters and giving rise to serious concerns about the future.

Bad-news stories sell papers, I know, but it makes me angry that we should even need a programme such as Truth about Youth to change public opinion. To be sure, you can roam our city centres, particularly in the evenings, and see young people behaving badly. But there are rather older people there, too, also behaving badly. I don't excuse vile or threatening behaviour, but instances of it don’t make the whole of society sick. And a number of kids off the wall don't make all young people bad either.

In my experience young people are full of energy, ambition and willingness to work towards their own ends - and they’re equally generous in thinking of others at the same time. That is the hallmark of the overwhelming majority of the nation's youth. We should remember that when we get exercised about the few exceptions.

Nonetheless we should worry about that significant group of alienated kids, those for whom aspirations are unimaginable and education as currently offered to them meaningless. Their homes and their lives are without hope. Poverty remains a reality in Britain, and those children living in it are the least likely to climb out of it. Social mobility is greater than it’s often painted: but those stuck at the bottom still tend to stay stuck there.

We should be more careful as a society about the messages given to children. The hype of X-Factor-style programmes or the moribund Big Brother format suggests to those who don’t know better that you only have to be lucky to become famous or right. Okay, so X-Factor singers have to go to “boot-camp” to put their act together, but that’s merely a nod in the direction of the hard slog and dedication that go in to developing real, lasting talent and truly deserved fame.

The American inventor Thomas Edison maintained that success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. It’s the hard work that gets left out in these get-rich-quick dreams. Perceptions of young people? It’s not the messages they communicate that we should worry about: it’s the undesirable messages we send them.

Good luck to Rachel Blair and to Truth about Youth. I’m sure she and it will do a great job, and I wish them every success.

But I still think we shouldn’t need it.

Move to boost cash for Olympic ceremonies is insulting to athletes

Thursday 8th December 2011

I’ve always been a fan of Paula Radcliffe. I’m in awe of anyone who can survive the gruelling experience of running 26 miles, let alone set a world record (remember her run in the 2002 Chicago Marathon?). I think of her in the early-morning dark as I stagger the couple of miles around the Toon Moor two or three times a week. (Yes, that overweight guy puffing like a steam-train is me).

I admire Paula because her road to success has been tough. Many top athletes make it look easy (though I know it isn’t). Not Paula. She looks as though it hurts; her enormous triumphs have been punctuated by public and painful failure (remember the Athens Olympics?). But she bounces back and amazes us time and again: her selection for the GB 2012 Marathon squad, her fifth Olympics, is another achievement in itself.

She’s an athlete, not a pundit: but we should listen to what she had to say on Tuesday about the government’s decision to double the budget for, wait for it, the opening and closing ceremonies at next year’s London Olympics. Not the budget for training athletes; not for development of grass-roots sport; not for “legacy” activity to ensure that, as a result of hosting the world’s greatest sporting event, we become a fitter nation, more focused on participation in sport. No, they’re doubling the cash for the shows that start and end the event.

I had written an article about something quite different: but that will have to wait because I was so incensed by this news. Why is the government bunging so much dosh not into the sport itself but into the window-dressing?

According to the BBC, the Prime Minister saw the plans and felt that, “The country should make more of its opportunity to showcase the best of Britain to a massive global TV audience”. Silly old me: there I was thinking that people came to the Olympics to watch, well, athletes.

Radcliffe dubbed the decision “frivolous”. My first reaction was stronger, and unprintable. Government (admittedly, the previous government), had promised that the London Games would not try to emulate the astonishing spectacles mounted in Beijing in 2008. Astonishing they were, but they had little to do with sport. And so hard did they try that wrong decisions were made. Remember the scandal about the little girl who sang the opening song? She had a lovely voice, but was deemed not pretty enough to be seen singing it: a more photogenic substitute was found, who mimed.

We’re in danger of returning to the territory of Tony Blair, the toe-curling period of Cool Britannia and the pointless Millennium Dome that cost taxpayers zillions to build, to maintain afterwards and even, it appeared, to sell off. Spin, froth and vapid Cool are still what count, and what get money thrown at them. It’s an insult to the athletes, to the Olympics and to Britain. Spare money (spare? My goodness!) should have gone into grass-roots sport which has not received enough support.

We’re in Austerity Britain. Other countries sending teams – such as Greece, the country that hosted the 2004 Games and whose ancient heritage gave birth to the Games in the first place – are suffering more than we are. Surely this is the year to set our face against show and spectacle for the sake of it and do the kind of dignified ceremonial that we Brits are actually renowned for.

Sadly, we’re clambering instead onto the treadmill of trying to outdo the previous hosts, ramping up cost and feeding an unhealthy obsession with appearance for appearance’s sake. Superficiality is all. Sincerity and authenticity have no place.

I love a big theatrical spectacle. I’m a sucker for special effects. But this is the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place. Restraint and solemnity would become us so much more: and we’re good at them.


Generations these days are divided by a common language

Thursday 1st December 2011

So it’s official. It must be: John Humphrys was busy disapproving of it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week. So I can tell you now, definitively, that it’s wrong to start a sentence – let alone a whole article – with the word “so”.

See what I did? Clever, eh? I started with the word “so” to grab your attention. It sounds as if it’s all cut and dried. A decision’s been taken: you somehow missed out on all that previous stuff and must now read on in order to get up to date.

So does one little word mean so much? (See, I did it again.) Apparently it does. But I’m afraid it’s Bad Style.

Modern media beam words in all directions. Global coverage is guaranteed in seconds across countless television channels and streamed internet interviews. It’s 24/7: new expressions or catchphrases spread virally.

Note my cunning insertion of a current expression: kids always say 24/7. I generally prefer the old-fashioned adverb “constantly”.

I’m in sympathy with John Humphrys bewailing the loose use of English. In my day job I harrumph about it. When colleagues get me to run my eye over a letter they want to send out to parents, I cannot resist taking out the red pen (actually, I’m tactful and do it in black) and improving their turn of phrase, picking up on some dodgy grammar. It’s an occupational hazard.

Awful expressions creep too easily into the language. My daughter did an English degree and became something of a lexicographer and grammarian. She’s driven to screaming point by people saying, “We’ll fix up a meeting with yourself”. Why “yourself”? Why not just “you”?

It’s because people have started to believe that using the plain word “you” is rude. They think they have to load it with a bit more gravity or formality by turning it into “yourself”. It’s well meant, but it’s unnecessary – and wrong.

There are numerous other examples. Why do people say “at this moment in time” rather than “now”? Policymakers introduce “rafts of measures”, and everyone is nowadays “going forward” (while their language is arguably going backwards).

I enjoy a good argument about these things: but I’m not outraged or offended by them. Language is a living thing, and evolves as people use it. Otherwise as a teacher I would have to be infuriated by the way young people talk. Even university students are, like, given to using words like “like”. They will use it, like, in the middle of sentences as I have just done twice.

Nowadays it’s also a shorthand for reported speech. No longer do kids say, “He said hello to me”: instead it’s, “He’s, like, hello.” And why do youngsters ask, “Can I get a Coke?” What’s wrong with “Can I have …” or “I’d like …”?

Nonetheless I am, like, relaxed about the whole situation. Every group in every society over time (there’s another one) has created its own code, a jargon or dialect unique to it. If Cockney wide boys hadn’t wanted to baffle the police with their rhyming slang, I wouldn’t be going to work in my smart grey whistle, keeping in touch on the dog and bone, and checking the time on my kettle. I’d miss that.

Context is everything. Problems occur only when people from one setting can’t understand those in another. A confident and articulate person can be as comfortable down the pub as meeting the Prime Minister or taking tea with the Queen. Maybe that’s one definition of being educated.

So, when I’m chillin’ with my Northumbrian homies in Milfield’s Red Lion, I might adopt an argot different from when mingling with a bunch of suits (sorry, whistles) in London. Me, I reckon I’m a chameleon (though I’m probably kidding myself and stand out like a Smurf in a convention of shop Santas).

And maybe it doesn’t matter all that much, anyway.


Music still has the power to move us emotionally

Thursday 24th November 2011

Last Tuesday Christian churches marked the Feast of St Cecilia. I’m not sure many places actually celebrated: she might not be fashionable nowadays. She’s remembered, not because of her inevitable martyrdom, but because she’s the patron saint of music.

There is a British tradition of honouring her in music. Purcell wrote not one but two Odes to her in the 17th Century; in the next century Handel wrote one; and in the 20th Century Benjamin Britten wrote a Hymn to St Cecilia. In truth, these choral works were not so much about the obscure life of an ancient holy woman but about music, that powerful, most expressive of the arts. Composers wanted to celebrate the patron of their art.

We might be forgiven for thinking that modern technology has managed to make music so universal that it’s lost its impact. We’re bombarded by mindless muzak in supermarkets, lifts and whole shopping malls. No advert is complete without a thirty-second jingle. Music is everywhere: has it become devalued, meaningless even?

No. Music still has the capacity to move us. The sound of the Last Post on Remembrance Day is an emotional annual moment. Silent Night remains the nation’s favourite Christmas Carol, according to most polls. And Liverpool supporters passionately sing You’ll Never Walk Alone from the Kop.

The last instalment of BBC2’s The Choir: Military Wives, broadcast appropriately on the eve of St Cecilia’s Day, was one of the most vivid demonstrations I’ve seen recently of the colossal emotional power of music. Choir ace Gareth Malone was once again parachuted into an unsuspecting community to form a choir - this time amongst the wives of two West Country military garrisons.

Few of them had sung before. Few believed they could do it. Yet within weeks they were ready to sing, along with their children, to welcome their men home from their latest gruelling six-month tour in Afghanistan. The tough, battle-hardened soldiers were visibly moved.

The climax of the programme was the choir of wives singing at the Festival of Remembrance in the Albert Hall, in front of the Queen. A spectacular venue, a Royal audience: but those weren’t the daunting or harrowing aspects. The wives were facing their own demons, acutely conscious that they were singing for all Forces wives who try to keep normal family life going while their men are away months at a time, risking their lives in a war-zone.

Earlier one of the children had talked about the knowledge that his dad might not come home - but with childish optimism, he reckoned he probably would. Living constantly with that fear, and having to maintain optimism for the kids despite their own fears, the wives had given Gareth Malone some moving snippets from letters sent home by their husbands. He commissioned composer Paul Meolar to set them to music.

They gave their all, many singing with tears streaming down their faces. Their audience was equally emotional – and hugely appreciative. More than the words, the music spoke to everyone of something very profound, and touched hearts deeply.

That’s the raw power of live music – and of choral singing in particular. The BBC understands that, and has been ready to follow stories of choirs that, once formed, change and renew communities.  Singing together really can do that. It’s why I’m a singing fanatic. 

It’s a peculiarly English thing to claim to be tone-deaf. Very few people are: but far too many have never had or taken the opportunity to learn to enjoy using that wonderful mechanism we’re born with, a singing voice. I hope the BBC keeps wheeling out the amazing Gareth to bring joy to communities, and to remind the rest of us what singing can do.




They have no conception of value, only price

17th November 2011

Oscar Wilde described Britain and America as being divided by a common language. He had a point. In the States car-parts such as wing and silencer are known as fender and muffler. Luggage goes in the trunk: and this recent misty weather is part of the Fall.

I cannot be the only Brit visiting Australia to have become confused with terminology. Walking into a bar, I saw a sign saying “No thongs after 8pm”. Wondering who was going to check customers’ underwear, and how, I was saved from making a Pommie fool of myself by my Australian host’s explaining that, Down Under, thongs are what we would call flip-flops. I could have got into similar difficulty with Durex - our Sellotape.

Such misunderstandings are overcome pretty easily. It’s far more irritating when image consultants insist on changing the names of things for no apparent reason. Why did the old Marathon bar become Snickers? People my age remember Treets, sweets which would famously “melt in your mouth, not in your hand”: now they’re M&Ms. My wife and I still refer to Starbursts as Opal Fruits: that’s the name we grew up with.

People dislike such arbitrary changes. We can’t help suspecting that the product won’t be quite the same: that someone has messed around with it - and spoilt it.

As for the renaming of St James’ Park, I won’t join the chorus of complaints that says it’s sacrilegious, that disrespect is being shown to its history, to generations of players and to loyal fans, even the occasional deceased fan whose ashes have been scattered there. Feelings are running high.

I just think it’s daft. The club’s Chief Executive, Derek Llambias, claims it’s a commercial imperative. The Board can charge a corporation up to £10 million to put its brand on the football ground. That would buy a whole striker! The club, Llambias insists, can’t afford not to take advantage of that earning power.

I differ, for two reasons. First, I can’t believe it’s worth £10 million to any firm to place its stamp on the Toon’s hallowed turf - especially when the fans will continue to use the old name, from sentiment and sheer bloody-mindedness. There are precedents all over the country. That hallowed cricket ground, the Kensington Oval, is renamed The Kia Oval. But do cricket lovers call it that?

No. My dad, 91 next month, happily recalls running for a London tram after school in the 1930s and reaching The Oval in time to see the last couple of hours of Sir Len Hutton locking horns with the great Sir Don Bradman. It was The Oval. It’s still The Oval, no matter what someone has paid to stick another word in front. It will be the same at St James’ Park.

Second, is it only about money? If so, when we’re short of readies, let’s just sell off a name and identity to bring in some extra cash. Why don’t we pay off the national debt by rebranding the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral (when the tents have gone), Wembley, the Olympic Village, the Lake District, the Tyne Bridge?

Let’s be bolder. Let’s rebrand people; get a price for renaming Cheryl Cole, Alan Shearer, Prince Philip, Robbie Williams, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare - and that one off the X Factor that everyone loves and whose name I can’t remember anyway.

My suggestions are no sillier than many grotesque real examples. If the Board of a football club thinks that an iconic name is no more than a potential earner, they’re choosing to ignore the very soul of club and sport, and to view it instead as merely a transaction. They have no conception of value: only of price.


Putting barriers up to the wrong people and causing total chaos

Thursday 10th November 2011

Who was it who said, “We get the government we deserve”? This week’s news suggests to me that we get the border controls government deserves.

The UK Border Agency, struggling to meet ever more stringent requirements to check people, passports and biometric data, was losing the battle. Understaffed and demoralised, it found that queues were growing longer and longer and passengers disembarking from planes, ferries and trains were becoming furious – so much so that at times they had to call in police with dogs. In desperation UKBA asked permission of Home Secretary Theresa May to carry out only minimum checks on holders of EU passports, codenamed Level 2.

Scandal erupted when it emerged that they had relaxed scrutiny not only for EU passport-holders, but for all.

Theresa May denied all knowledge of this extension of what, she insisted, had been merely a trial. She eased the boss out.

She had to. Otherwise she might have had to take responsibility herself, which politicians don’t do nowadays. But she was daft enough in the Commons on Monday to declare, in outraged tones, that we now have no idea how many inappropriate or potentially dangerous people have been allowed into the country.

The media were so hysterical one might have imagined UKBA had removed all barriers and put large signs up saying “Terrorists welcome here”.  Beneath all the hype, though, lay a pretty run-of-the-mill government-supervised mess. Once again a service was being asked to do too much with too few resources.

Over the recent half-term my school sent its usual 80 sixteen-year-olds to the Battlefields: our Remembrance ceremony tomorrow will have added meaning for that group. When their return ferry docked in Hull it took a crazy two hours to get through passport control.  Our students found the officialdom both hostile and inefficient. After all, they complained, they were only trying to get home.

My godson, currently studying overseas, brought his Australian girlfriend home in the summer. The suspicious, intrusive questioning she endured from Heathrow immigration left her bruised and angry. Is that what we Brits are really like, she wondered?

Maybe. Perhaps we aren’t as friendly and welcoming as we liked to think. We’ve always been suspicious of foreigners: now we’re paranoid about immigrants.

Do all these precautions make us any safer? At airports we have to remove our shoes so women can’t use their killer heels as, well, killer heels. I’m obliged to surrender my belt lest, James Bond-like, I slip a deadly steel filament from it and start garrotting the flight crew.

I can hear the voices raised in disagreement: “Surely you don’t want another 9/11?” No, I don’t. But I’m not convinced our current security will protect us. The underpants bomber still got through: though, to be fair, whatever volatile substances he had got in his drawers only succeeded in scorching his private parts. Ooh-er!

When we stop trusting people, life gets more difficult for everyone. Instead of trusting the judgment and vigilance of those supposed to protect us, we devise clunky, time-consuming and infuriating mechanical processes. And arrive at airports hours in advance so we can join long, dispiriting queues.

Nowadays, travelling back from London, I present my ticket for checking at King’s Cross before boarding the train. It’s checked again en route. On arrival at Newcastle Central Station, I join the queue of travellers fighting to get their tickets to work in those infuriating ticket barriers – barriers so prone to misbehaving that the station puts staff on them when a peak-time train arrives. Why so many checks?

Instead of trusting, we create systems on the assumption that everyone is a potential miscreant. And the quality of life is diminished.

“But we’re safer!” Are we? Convince me.  Meanwhile we’ve given UKBA an impossible job to do without the people to do it – and that’s before the forthcoming cuts bite.

The politicians will blame someone else. They always do.


Protest is in itself meaningless unless it gives rise to dialogue

Thursday 3rd November 2011

Readers of this column will have realised that I am, at heart, a wishy-washy liberal (emphatically with a small “l”) and applaud people who have the courage to stand up and protest when they feel strongly.

But there are moments when ideals are tested: for example, I wonder how vociferous supporters of the Dale Farm travellers would feel if caravans suddenly landed in their back gardens. I haven’t been troubled in that way: but recent events around St Paul’s are beginning to challenge my liberal sentiments.

Occupy is a loosely-linked international protest movement.  Outside London it’s occupying the green by Bristol’s cathedral green: closer to home there’s a small encampment around Grey’s Monument in central Newcastle. But Occupy has really made its mark in London, disrupting life at a famous landmark. St Paul’s Cathedral isn’t just a religious centre: it’s a symbol of renewal after disaster – built after the 1666 Great Fire of London – and symbolic also because it never closed throughout the Blitz.

Still, what Hitler’s bombers couldn’t achieve, a few tents did: with Occupy on the doorstep, the Cathedral closed for ‘health and safety reasons’. Apparently there was a danger of visitors tripping over guy-ropes. Cathedral clergy desperately wanted to avoid appearing to side with the Establishment against the protest: lack of courage led to a fudge, so they succeeded neither in supporting the protest nor in standing up for the cathedral’s right to continue its work..

Occupy is protesting against capitalism. There is plenty to protest about. Bankers continue to pay themselves salaries so mind-boggling that the “banking community” (to use a buzz-word) on its own distorts the entire London property market.  Since 2008 the economies of the UK, Europe and most of the world have been precarious at best. Whole systems are in collapse. From here it’s easy to view Greece merely as some kind of economic statistic. But millions of lives are affected: the human tragedy is stark.

Yes, capitalism has got itself in a right mess. But the fact that leading capitalists created this disaster doesn’t mean capitalism itself is finished. China, the fastest-growing economy in the world, has worked its miracle by embracing capitalism and loosening the shackles of totalitarian communism. South American tiger economies have similarly emerged from dictatorships into free markets and enterprise.

So what is the alternative? I don’t know: but I am sure we need to talk about it - which is where I fall out with Occupy. What are these protesters specifically seeking to achieve? A few beardies in tents might make city financiers and insurance brokers feel uncomfortable as they walk past them to work: but what then?

Protest, however noisy, is in itself meaningless unless it gives rise to dialogue. So what is Occupy? Who is it talking to, and what about?

The answers seem to be no one, no one and nothing! It’s a pretty bogus protest. It appears many of those tents by St Paul’s are empty at night. It’s chilly at night, now; easier for some protestors to pop home for dinner and a hot bath.

I’ll stick to my principles. To protest is right, if one has something to say. Occupy doesn’t appear to, though, so maybe the clergy of St Paul’s should quote their patron saint’s Letter to the Corinthians, describing Occupy as “a gong booming or a cymbal clashing”. Empty vessels, remember, make most noise.

There is a vital conversation to be had about where capitalism has gone wrong and how we repair economies, rebuild trust in business and financial institutions and recreate hope. But we’ll do that by generating real ideas, putting forward viable alternatives and thrashing them out.

Whatever point Occupy had to make – not much of one - it’s surely made it by now. It’s time those protesters packed their tents and went home. The issues are too important for them just to get in everybody’s way.


Theatre proves it can make waves – even with some rubbish

Thursday 27th October 2011

In 1913, they were rioting in Paris. Not about an oppressive regime in another country.  Nor about the evils of capitalism.  Not even about cuts or pensions, or the EU. It was all about ballet.

Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, was produced by impresario extraordinaire Serge Diaghilev with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. It pictures a primitive tribe’s pagan fertility rituals. At the climax, a young girl dances herself to death as a human sacrifice.

Everything about the ballet was ground-breaking. Stravinsky invented a whole new musical language, creating sounds and rhythms never heard before: it was shockingly, scarily new, ugly and compelling.   Nijinsky made his dancers unlearn their classical training and dance in novel, grotesque ways. It was all so challenging that Diaghilev’s performers were close to rebelling.

The 1913 Paris audience was split. Some loved this new creation: others yelled that it was an outrage, destroying ballet itself. The latter eventually came to blows with the former and it all ended in a riot in the theatre: so no one really saw or heard the piece.

What’s remarkable about this story is that people felt strongly enough to have a fight about ballet!  Of all the art forms that might cause a furore, it seems the least likely. 

Such strength of feeling is rare in the arts. As an audience we’re generally undemanding and easy to please, but it’s hard to retain our interest for long. In the modern world of TV and Internet, we just turn to other channels, surf a different website.  So it’s unusual when a work of art genuinely sets out to shock, let alone succeeds.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently making headlines with its revival of Peter Weiss’s famous (or infamous) 1964 play, “Marat/Sade”. The full title of the play is “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade”.

That says it all. The French revolutionary leader, having dragged a huge number of aristocrats to the guillotine, was murdered in his bath by his girlfriend, Charlotte Corday. The playwright’s fancy of imagining an unsuitable play performed by a band of imprisoned lunatics under the direction of a card-holding sex-maniac suggests he was pushing the boundaries.

The play includes nudity, simulated homosexual gang-rape, obscenity, sado-masochism…  you know the kind of thing. At least, maybe you don’t (indeed, I hope you don’t), but you’ll be getting the picture. The genre is known as Theatre of Cruelty.

Frankly, it’s not the kind of show I’d take my mum to, nor my wife: certainly not my daughters. But it’s not the extreme nature of the production that has made the news: rather the fact that people are walking out of it. Some 80 people so far.

Sam Goldwyn always said that the only bad publicity is no publicity, and I’ve no doubt RSC bosses will be delighted by this bit of carefully contrived notoriety. Some people love the show. Good for them. Others are deeply offended and leave in a huff. That’s their right.  The thing is, audiences can make up their own minds, and act accordingly.

Critics’ reviews have intrigued me. It seems the play tries too hard to shock, to be constantly outrageous and repulsive, so that it becomes silly, tasteless - and, well, boring.

As a result, I don’t think there’s going to be another historic theatrical riot. It’s not murdering theatre: but it risks boring it to death.

An unrepentant arts-lover, I’m pleased that theatre can still make waves, even little ones. That’s what it’s for. But it’s a shame if what’s made those waves is, as critics suggest, rubbish.

I doubt Marat/Sade will come to Newcastle’s Theatre Royal. I don’t intend to make the journey to Stratford, so won’t be able to judge the show for myself. I’m sure I’d hate it.


Rules not needed, just a personal code of conduct – be honest

Thursday 20th October 2011

Last weekend saw a cultural phenomenon.  The English started by cheering for the Welsh, and ended up commiserating with them.  Fickle? No, logical.  Once England had been eliminated from the Rugby World Cup, old rivalries were set aside and, with only Wales keeping alive any hope of GB featuring in the final, English Rugby support swung behind the red shirts.  And, when France proved unbeatable again, the English shared in Welsh sorrow.

Then followed the inevitable endless post-match analysis of what might have been. And of the burning question: was the referee right to send off Welsh captain Sam Warburton?

 Most observers thought the decision harsh, but the ref was enforcing the rules.  Accidental it may have been, but the tackle was dangerous.  I can almost hear my late father-in-law muttering his old Cockney wisdom: “Rules is rules.”

That’s the point: rules are rules.  But must we always be bound by them? And do they work, anyway?

The day before Wales’s defeat, Defence Secretary Liam Fox finally accepted the inevitable and resigned.  Not before time.  His position had been untenable since the moment the story broke about how his friend Adam Werritty allegedly posed as an official adviser and attended top-level meetings with him when he had no business to be there.

One wrong decision after another.  Fox should have faced reality immediately and gone with dignity: instead, as politicians do so often, he clung on and wriggled, hoping he could somehow claw his way out of the mire.  But he couldn’t.  So he went.  He had to.

Then, just as they do after a rugby match, pundits started dissecting the situation. Why had Fox allowed it to go on for so long?  And why aren’t there rules to prevent a minister from behaving as he did? 

Well, apparently there is a ministerial code, and Fox broke it. But one presumes it didn’t say explicitly: “Ministers may not take their friends along to meetings so they can do dodgy deals and gain access to important information they have no right to.”

The same questions were asked after bankers’ recklessness plunged us into financial meltdown.  Shouldn’t there have been guidelines to prevent them from lending money they hadn’t got to borrowers who hadn’t a hope of paying it back?

No. There shouldn’t.

So here’s one rule to cover every eventuality:   “Use your common sense. Be honest. Make sure those around you are honest, too.”  If ministers and bankers - and a lot of others - followed that simple rule, we wouldn’t be in the mess we find ourselves in now.

Rather than a rule, it’s a code to live by: a model for decent and honest behaviour, not a set of government guidelines which, for the sake of “accountability” (an overused word), must be checked up on – generally by teams of inspectors filling in tick-box questionnaires.

I don’t like lists of rules much, for other people or for me.  I prefer simply to be trusted to act decently and fairly: and I want to trust others to do likewise.

However we achieve it, a greater emphasis on morality and trustworthiness would help. It would be all the better if politicians of all shades set an example, as would quicker and firmer condemnation when integrity is found wanting.   Trouble is, it seems the decent ones are outnumbered and overshadowed by those who don’t give a damn. 

We’re all the poorer as a result.


It’s so dangerous out there, I’m afraid to leave the house

Thursday 13th October 2011

In the extraordinary futuristic vision of Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, the ignorant masses are kept peaceful by the mixture of a new religion – the worship of Henry Ford (“Our Ford”) – with a pleasure-inducing sedative drug called soma.

Downton Abbey, the current religious observance for Sunday evenings, is fast becoming the soma of our age. It works for me. Now the evenings are drawing in, settling down on a Sunday evening and watching the programme is like sitting in a warm bath, having first been rubbed all over with the contents of a chocolate fountain.

It’s cosy, undemanding and just the thing to round off the weekend. Forget about the week to come: lose yourself in the world of crinolines and sumptuous dining, dreaming that, as the song goes, “There’ll always be an England’.

Writer Julian (Lord) Fellowes tries to prick our social consciences with references to the Russian Revolution; a titled lady flirting with a revolutionary chauffeur; that glorious stately home filled with soldiers mutilated in the Great War. But harsh reality doesn’t impinge for long.

We don’t see the horror of the trenches; merely our heroes hiding from German soldiers in a wood. A potentially horrific terrorist outrage is narrowly averted when the bolshevist chauffeur is prevented from chucking soup over a general. And the strongest language lies in the acerbic put-downs uttered by Dame Maggie Smith’s character just before every advert break.

It was during the adverts that my Downton-inspired sense of wellbeing was abruptly shattered. Glancing through a Sunday paper I read that the European Union is outlawing noisy children’s toys – or, more precisely, noisy toys for children.

The Eurozone is in near-meltdown. Greece is about to default on its debts. The Governor of the Bank of England says this is the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, and possibly ever. A less determined body might be distracted by such events: but not the EU, which has unflinchingly issued a new Toy Safety Directive.

Party-blowers and children’s musical instruments, toy whistles and recorders, are now banned for under-14s: bits might come apart and choke them. Balloons, those well-known child-killers, must be kept from the under-eights in case they swallow them. Even a baby’s rattle will be subject to a noise limit.

I had thought things were improving. In opposition, the Conservatives promised to cut down on such nonsense, to re-create a world where citizens can clear the snow from outside their houses without facing a court case if anyone slips on their bit of pavement. But it seems that, after all, the Nanny State is alive and well, and living in Brussels.

We don’t need this. Health and Safety is generally blamed for the killjoy regulations that have allegedly killed off village fetes, and traditional events such as conkers and Gloucester cheese-rolling: but the HSE is not the culprit. Indeed, for several years the Executive has been trying to spread its message that it’s concerned with assessing risk and taking sensible precautions, not banning things.

Instead we must point the finger, as so often, at the compensation culture. The HSE doesn’t ban fairs or traditional sports: insurance companies render them impossible by refusing, or charging exorbitant fees for, public liability insurance.

And why? Because ambulance-chasing compensation lawyers are too ready to urge anyone who has slipped on a banana-skin in a shop or got a headache at work to sue the backside off anyone on whom they can pin a scrap of blame.

David Cameron talks about the “can-do culture” and removing “can’t-do sogginess”. But first he, or someone, needs to knock some commonsense into insurance and the legal system.

With so much risk about, I hardly dare go out. I prefer nowadays to brew a warm posset, wrap myself in a duvet and get back to Downton Abbey. There, at least, the worst injury I’ll encounter is the occasional breaking of an aristocratic heart.


Give teachers a break – they deserve it

Thursday 6th October 2011

You know the old joke about vicars.  They must have an easy life: they only work on Sundays.  Similarly, in the old days when banks used to close at 3.30 in the afternoon, we used to reckon cashiers had a cushy number, going home so early.

As for teachers, don't get me started!  Those long holidays; sending the kids home 3pm; why don't they stop moaning and get a proper job?

Of course, it was only a joke about vicars and bank tellers: but people have always muttered about teachers’ holidays.  The muttering got a bit louder among some commentators during August’s horrendous inner-city riots.

The Prime Minister saw the riots as evidence of our “broken society”.  Others blamed young hoodlums who didn't know the difference between right and wrong (or, rather, chose to ignore it) and needed to be slapped down with heavy court sentences.

Others again blamed it on schools.  Not, for once, because schools were failing to instil in pupils the required sense of right and wrong: but because they shouldn't have had such a long summer holiday.  If the kids had been busy in school, critics claimed, they wouldn't have been out on the streets trashing stores and hurling missiles at police.

Well, up to a point: by definition, if they'd been in school the yobs who were of school age couldn't have been out on the streets.  Except that the riots happened at night.  And has it occurred to those pundits that the kids out looting weren’t the sort who, in term-time, would have been sat at home quietly doing their homework?

So are school holidays such a problem?  Some think so. A new Free School in Norwich, opened last month, believes all the term-time good is undone in holidays, and everything learned forgotten: it will be open all year, only closing for a week at Christmas. Lucky kids. Lucky parents.

Hold on! Schools aren’t a glorified child-minding service. Nor are they day-prisons to keep the streets safe from young hoodies!

That fits with a utilitarian view that sees school purely as preparation for employment, training youngsters to become cogs in the gigantic economic wheel. It’s a simple, but simplistic, argument - if kids and teachers worked nine to five, five days a week, 48 weeks a year, they’d get a lot more done and learnt: and they wouldn’t be hanging around street corners causing trouble.

But school is precisely not the adult workplace.  As well as learning, developing and growing up, children need space to be children; to enjoy, well, their childhood.  Moreover, holidays aren’t merely a perk for knackered teachers. School terms are madly busy:  children and teachers alike, give them a break. Literally.

My reason for mentioning all this is because yesterday was designated by UNESCO and Education International as World Teachers’ Day, described as “an opportunity to celebrate the profession and to promote international standards for the teaching profession."  Wow! 

A decade ago, government was desperately trying to recruit new teachers with the slogan, "No one forgets a good teacher".

Good strap-lines are best when they’re true.  That one was. Everyone (well, almost everyone) remembers at least one teacher who spoke to their hearts; cared about them; inspired them; changed their life. 

That's both the burden and the privilege for teachers.  The burden is their incalculable duty and responsibility to every child they teach, and to the future adult lives they will lead.  The privilege is the unique buzz they get when children respond and surprise themselves with what they can achieve, and their faces light up.

In the good old days (that golden age which never existed), appreciative children would bring an apple for the teacher. When I was a real teacher, I think I’d have preferred gin.

Still, it’s the thought that counts. Even if you missed World Teachers’ Day, spare our teachers a thought.  They’re worth it.



Anyone cross, brusque or impatient risks being branded a bully

Thursday 29th September 2011


Clever old Alastair Darling! Just before the Labour Party came together for some collective apologising – for losing public support, messing up the economy and, perhaps, not dealing with hacking or CIA torture – the former Chancellor got in first with his memoirs, dishing the dirt on his erstwhile ministerial colleagues, describing a government in meltdown.

Stories first emerged early last year about Gordon Brown losing his temper, shouting and throwing things. His supporters excused him, claiming he was passionate about the job. So if he was indeed a man in a hurry, and short-tempered with it, was he merely a boss coping poorly with pressure or a bully, as some asserted?

I wouldn’t have wanted to work for him: but I’m not convinced he was a bully.

Anyone being cross, brusque or impatient risks being branded a bully nowadays: whereas they might in truth just be cross, brusque or, er, impatient. That wouldn’t matter, except that it inflames a serious issue: the language becomes loaded; chefs’ tantrums and children’s squabbles alike are characterised as bullying. Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon; and sensible discussion becomes difficult as a result.

Let’s remind ourselves what bullying is. It’s the calculated, systematic hurting or humiliation of someone else, a terrible, destructive wrong. It was disheartening earlier this month to see the Equality and Human Rights Commission report “disability hate crime” increasing, and the charity Scope comment that abuse of disabled people in the streets has risen in the past year.

All the more reason, then, that we need to be clear about what is and isn’t bullying and, when it is bullying, on principle refuse absolutely to tolerate it. Unfortunately, people like me who work in schools are rarely permitted to stick to principle: we are instead instructed to create paper-trails.

The last government required schools to log incidences of racial bullying even among infants. Now a tot in a temper who shouts something hurtful, almost certainly parroting words heard without understanding them at home or on TV, will go on a register monitored by both school and government.  That’s nonsense.

Don’t get me wrong. Bullying is real. It’s bad. Like offices, government departments, families, sports clubs and every other walk of life, schools must admit the reality of bullying and deal with it firmly.

But we must be careful. At school, young people go through phases where confidence waxes and wanes. They have to learn how to deal with others, and often get it wrong. And sometimes the need to assert themselves, or to prove something to themselves or to others, gets out of proportion. If they haven’t yet developed the emotional maturity to appreciate the impact of their words or actions, they hurt others or make them feel bad.

In other words, temper or insecurity can easily develop into bullying: but we should be careful to distinguish between behaviours. We mustn’t label every falling-out as bullying, or every angry kid as a bully. It’s the old animal reaction, an immature one in humans: “I’m hurting so I’ll lash out at someone”. They’re kids! The process of growing up involves learning better ways.

The solution is to educate potential bullies, not threaten them. Encourage youngsters (and grown-ups) to analyse their actions and attitudes; teach them to copy civilised, considerate behaviour.

In tackling the damaging, wicked thing that is bullying we should not allow it to get confused with thoughtless words or playground spats - or even with the boss being impatient or insensitive. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that paperwork will solve anything.

As for Grumpy Gordon, or Bully Brown, leave him alone. He’s out of it. Besides, we wouldn’t want to be accused of bullying him, would we?


Coming together for common purpose brings on tears of joy

Thursday 22nd September 2011

Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger at the end of Terminator 2? As the killer-robot-turned-good-guy says goodbye he says, “Now I know why you cry. But it’s something I can never do.”  I seem to cry too easily nowadays. Watching movies, I always used to cry at sad endings: now I cry more at happy ones.

On Sunday I watched the start of the Great North Run (with a daughter taking part). Thousands of us were surprised by the unannounced appearance of the Red Arrows at the beginning, paying tribute to their comrade Flt Lt Jon Egging, killed in August, and to his widow who both started and ran the race. Tears blurred my vision for a while.

I felt almost as moved at last week’s reopening of Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, after its £5 million refurbishment; not by the building, though it’s wonderful, but by the fantastic performance of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III with the brilliant David Haig in the title role.

Lucky enough to meet the cast afterwards, I was charmed by how grateful they were for all the compliments being paid to them. Modestly, they confessed to being scared stiff doing the opening night and were delighted to score such a hit.

There’s a common theme here. It’s about teamwork and the camaraderie of coming together for a common purpose. The Great North Run does that par excellence: and that small theatre cast was so good precisely because its members worked so closely and sparked off one another.

Those examples of shared endeavour contrasted sharply with last week’s UNICEF analysis of why our children are the unhappiest in Europe. Parents aren’t finding time for them. Instead they buy them gadgets and toys, replacing love with materialism.

It’s a picture we can identify with, perhaps, not helped by the fact that we all seem to be working harder, and longer. But it’s not only about family time. Children also need engagement and activity. They need to be busy, not idle.

There are countless activities out there for them - in schools (naturally) and beyond. Certainly parents have to get them involved, fetch and carry them.  But sports clubs, dance, drama and music activities are invariably on the look-out for members.

There’s so much out there, and the best activities offer not cosy socialising but challenges that require children to strive, learn teamwork, tackle difficulties and surprise themselves with what they achieve.

Successive governments have pushed schools to run homework clubs or booster classes. They may help some kids to get homework done, but in that form generally add little other value to the school day: youngsters learn rather more about themselves when they’re three goals down in a hard football match.

When teenagers are lost in the rain on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition in the Cheviots they have to dig deep for mental strength. Dance is (or should be) physically demanding, exhausting even. Whatever the activity, worthwhile opportunities should challenge kids, not merely fill their spare time.

I’m not a slave-driver nor trying to work youngsters into the ground! But in schools the fact is that the children who are most busily involved in valuable activities outside the classroom generally do best in it. They’re happier, too.

It’s the privilege of my job to watch youngsters achieve great things and witness the sense of achievement on their faces - coming off the sports pitch bedraggled and weary, but satisfied because they’ve played as a team, or tired but elated at bringing a play to life on stage.

The Great North Run gives thousands a similarly fulfilling group experience. That’s why, at such moments, I cry. Because, unlike The Terminator, I can. And because it matters so much.


So good, we can stand comparison with the inspired Italians

Thursday 15th September 2011

When I was a lad returning to school in September I always knew what the title of the first English essay would be: "what I did on my holidays".  It was hardly an inspired or inspiring topic: I never worked out what people wrote if they hadn't been anywhere or done anything.  How far can you spin out an account of, well, nothing? 

There again, maybe that was precisely the skill that was being practised. I can hear my two grown-up daughters, saying it worked for me: “Dad, you’ve been writing articles about nothing for years”. (Family are always your sternest critics).  The more prosaic truth is probably that it kept pupils busy while the teacher got organised for the new term.

This was a gentler time, before schools were driven by minutely-planned schemes of work and rafts of targets; when English was still called English, not Literacy; and government largely left schools to get on with it.

This year we celebrated 30 years of marriage by dragging those same critics off with us to Tuscany for a 10-day celebration. The weather was glorious, we ate and drank like kings and queens, and we avoided bumping into the Camerons.

I love Italians, particularly their obsession with food.  I believe it's impossible to find bad food in Italy: to serve up rubbish would go against every cultural value.  They can’t do it.

Moreover, they retain fierce regional identities.  So Tuscany’s ribollita, once the pathetic bean stew of starving peasants, is now transformed into a culinary masterpiece.  Wild boar furnishes ham, sausage, pasta sauce or steak.  Even the pasta comes in shapes and sizes particular to that region.

They are so proud of it.  We spent days trying to identify the “cinta senese” that kept appearing in menus.  Only when we saw a picture did we realise it’s a pig, the Siennese equivalent of our Gloucester Old Spot. One daughter, in training for the Great North Run, ordered a mozzarella and tomato salad: the cheese, a gooey grapefruit-sized ball of delicious white buffalo extract, arrived almost to a fanfare of trumpets.

If Italians are deferential about their food, devotion to their wine becomes almost religious.  We travelled down through Chianti to the heart of Italian red wine-growing, Montepulciano and Montalcino.  Bottles were opened with reverence and so single-minded were they that, when we fancied a glass of white one lunchtime, we were met with incomprehension.  The waiter was bemused. Why would we want white wine?  Here?  We gave in and had still more Brunello, the ultimate red, grown just down the road.

There was a time when the feeling of deflation on returning from Mediterranean warmth to a cold, wet English August was strengthened by missing all that great food.  No longer.  The North-East is becoming something of a food heaven.  Every serious restaurant in Newcastle now boasts Northumberland beef, lamb, chicken and duck – even ice-cream – and frequently names the very farm they come from.

The food tent at the Glendale Show (Wooler, Bank Holiday Monday) was stuffed with glorious local produce: rare-breed pork, wild boar sausages, game pies, cheese to die for; not to mention all the rest.

In many ways it was reminiscent of Italy.  Italians enjoy their prosciutto, cheese and steak for themselves, largely as they come, rarely messing around with complicated sauces.  That is happening here too. We celebrate sheer quality at country shows and in city food festivals, not least NewcastleGateshead’s EAT! Event, now every June.

Buy quality, buy local.  It's never been easier than it is now.  We don't have the climate for wine, but we do produce fantastic beer in small breweries on Tyneside in Northumberland.

In short, my Italian holiday reminded me just how far we've come back home.  If we’re not actually in food heaven yet, we’re very close. 


A protest was fair, but the time and the place were not

Thursday 8th September 2011

Who said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?  You might be tempted to answer Voltaire, the 18th century French Enlightenment writer/philosopher. Sorry: it’s a trick question. Voltaire never actually used those words: the famous quote is a 1906 summary of the great man’s overriding philosophy by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

Whoever’s those words are, they define a principle I’ve always admired. A wishy-washy liberal at heart, I have always championed free speech, not least in the schools I’ve run over the years. Moreover, I always try to instill in my pupils an understanding that we must speak out when we see something wrong: it is by doing nothing that people permit horrors or atrocities to take place on their own doorsteps.

Accordingly I always add, only half joking, that it takes courage to be wishy-washy.

I sometimes wonder how I match up to that ideal myself.  Do I really stand up and campaign against the wrongs I may perceive?  In my own relatively safe field of education, I probably do, up to a point. I write letters or articles, and occasionally meet politicians: they’re invariably courteous, though I’m not sure they take much notice.

In bigger things, though, I fear I fail the test.  I believed the country was wrong to invade Iraq and Afghanistan (I criticise the policy, but never our troops who implement it with constant heroism). But I wasn’t among the million who took to the streets to tell Tony Blair he was wrong.  Why? Too busy, too preoccupied… probably too complacent.

To my surprise, I found my tolerant credentials tested last week.  My wife and I, both former music teachers, belong to that tiny subset of the population who listen to Radio 3, a minority boosted at this time of year by the BBC’s Proms Season. Last Thursday we tuned in to hear the amazing Gil Shaham play Bruch’s Violin Concerto with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and were astonished to hear a kerfuffle in the Royal Albert Hall, some shouting and boos which disrupted the entire concert.

A group of around 30 pro-Palestinian protesters unfurled banners, shouted slogans and sang songs against “Israeli Apartheid” and “violations of international law and human rights”.  There were scuffles, and some protesters were ejected.  The BBC pulled the plug on the live broadcast, and played a CD instead.

How would I have felt if I had paid money to be in the hall that night?  Furious, I guess, at having my musical treat disrupted. Indeed, it emerged that the booing we heard was from members of the audience outraged at the interruptions. 

On the other hand, many people in the UK have the gravest concerns about Israel’s current treatment of Palestinians. So should I sympathise with that entirely peaceful protest, or condemn it?

This is really difficult territory. Where angels fear to tread, fools rush in: so here I go. I don’t agree with some critics that the protest was racist and anti-Semitic: it was genuinely about principle and human rights. On balance, though, I think those protesters chose and hurt the wrong target. Both orchestra and soloist are generous communicators who through their music build bridges between communities and nations, even where strife exists.  They are not political, in no way formally representing the state of Israel or its policies.

Sadly, there’s no simple line to draw here between right and wrong. But we can learn. We only have to look at the Arab Spring to see how righteous protest in some countries requires huge courage, sacrifice and loss of life. Let’s be proud that people can protest peacefully and safely in the UK. 

I’m uncomfortable, but I am still with Voltaire. I disapprove of what the protesters did, but would defend to the death (if only I were brave enough) their right to do it.


History shows it pays to think before sharing your thoughts

Thursday 1st September 2011

My late father-in-law had a mischievous habit that generally amused me but which (blood being thicker than water and emotional baggage inevitable) would drive my wife to screaming point. When visiting he would focus on some aspect of our household management and (to her mind) imply criticism by murmuring, “Just thinking aloud, I wonder if you could have got a better deal on x,” or, “Just thinking aloud, I wonder if another plumber would have done y differently.” A shriek would follow, and I’d have to spend forty minutes upstairs calming his daughter down.

“He’s just venturing an opinion, dear,” I’d say mildly.

“An opinion?” she’d snort.  “He’s always done it, and it’s maddening!”

I was being disingenuous. He knew quite well what he was doing: he was winding her up.

History is full of powerful figures “thinking aloud” - with disastrous consequences. King Henry II famously blew it when, exasperated by his Archbishop of Canterbury, he groaned, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Some of his trusty knights took him at his word and knifed Thomas à Becket at his own church altar. Martyrdom for an instant saint: red faces all round for the red-handed.

I’m assured Stalin never ordered the extermination of 11 million Russians. It was just that, after the first million or so, his acolytes assumed that it was what he wanted, so kept slaughtering in order to please him.

It still happens. Take our Prime Minister’s response to the riots. As someone who knows how much he needs a holiday by the end of a school year (please don’t have a go at teachers’ holidays!), I felt only sympathy when he was dragged back from Tuscany to London. Indeed, it was pretty harsh how some papers demanded, “What’s the PM doing having a holiday at all?” Give the guy a break: it was Sod’s Law that the riots started just days after he’d unpacked his Speedos and sun-lotion.

Still, even the abrupt interruption to his sun-and-Chianti therapy can’t excuse the ineptness of some of his utterances.  He failed to back the police (not the wisest service to alienate) and tried with his ministers to take the credit for instigating firm action. Then, talking tough, he demanded severe penalties for rioters and looters. He would claim he cannot influence judges and magistrates: but some of the excessive sentences that are sure to be overturned on appeal (like five months for receiving some nicked knickers) will have stemmed directly from his rhetoric.

Following the violence, Cameron threatened to close down Facebook and the other networking sites that had been used to spread it. Would those be the same networking sites that he and others have been praising to the skies as furnishing the lifeblood of the Arab Spring? The same networking sites that we lambast China for blocking to stifle democratic dissent?

I’m always asking this, I know, but why don’t politicians look at themselves in the mirror – better still, listen to themselves?

Still on rioting, London Mayor Boris Johnson was apparently ambushed in a live interview. Encouraged to repeat his condemnation of young thugs wearing gang uniform and smashing places up, he was then asked to comment on the antics of an Oxford drinking club whose members wore a silly uniform and wrecked restaurants in the 1980s – er, a club he and the future PM joined as students.  People in glass houses…

By the way, when I was at Oxford back in the Seventies we ordinary students didn’t mix with members of the Bullingdon Club. They were too posh, too rich – and far, far too yobbish.

I’m just thinking aloud now, but don’t you think it would be better if politicians stopped thinking aloud - and just started thinking?