Birth of a baby remains a miracle

Thursday 29th August 2013

Our Bank Holiday weekend go as planned. At least, most of it did, but there was an element of surprise. We’d arranged to have a house full of three couples, very old friends dating back to when we were all young parents in the 1980s. What we, as hosts, hadn’t counted on was the fact that one couple was awaiting the imminent (earlier than predicated) birth of their first grandchild – in Hong Kong.

The other two were pretty blasé: they now have six grandchildren, so know the ropes. We Traffords aren’t anywhere near that stage, but our expectant friends were fit to burst. Nana-in-waiting was like a cat on hot bricks, even sleeping on the couch so our wi-fi could bring her up-to-the-minute accounts from her son, the father of the eagerly expected baby.

The mother went into labour during Saturday: the baby was actually born in the early hours of Bank Holiday Monday (our time). Two days from the first contractions isn’t an unusual wait, particularly for a first child. For the prospective grandparents it was an eternity.

Smartphones have changed the way we receive news. The young father was present throughout the process in Hong Kong, using his iPhone to keep his parents (and in-laws) informed moment by moment. There’s a seven-hour time-difference: yet messages arrived instantly.  Thus we knew from one hour to another the rate of contractions. I suspect the grandmother was receiving more intimate gynaecological statistics: frankly, the rest of us didn’t want to hear.

We old hands naturally compared notes on how childbirth happened back in our day. Two of the three couples had babies during the 1980s, and were probably the first generation where it was taken for granted that the father would attend. The third couple started their family in the mid-1970s, and things were different then. A Scotsman living in Croydon (don’t ask why!), he nearly had to kick the door down in the hospital to be allowed at the birth of his firstborn. The midwife thought it was very suspicious: what on earth had a man to add?

Women reading this column will be nodding wisely: what do men add to the birthing process? We might make ourselves useful with the gas and air, and we offer encouraging noises. Otherwise we feel a bit of a spare part. But the point is that we share it, the pain and the screaming as well as the indescribable joy and sense of wonder at a new life.

That was what was so special about sharing this grandparental moment with the closest of friends. The new Nana shrieked at 4.15 on Monday morning, waking the whole household. What could we do but stumble into the kitchen and hear about it? And, thanks to the technology, we saw at the very start of his life a picture of the new-born baby boy, named Max.

That moment took us back to reminiscing once more. The mothers started comparing lengths of their various labours, other episodes and funny stories. As for us dads, we recalled that moment of incredulity, amazement at the infant appearing as if by magic from inside the womb, a tiny scrap of humanity yet impossibly bigger than we could imagine the mother’s fragile body could ever contain: helpless, dependent, utterly lovable and adorable.

Thanks to the not always welcome intrusion of wi-fi and smartphones, we shared that private moment in a way that would have been impossible for our generation. We weren’t there – but almost felt we were. We felt deeply privileged to be that close.

Birth is nowadays surrounded by all manner of technology in the form of scans and monitors, the mechanical element of phenomenal medical care. None of them, I’m glad to say, detract in the least from the sense of wonder and awe, from the small miracle that is the arrival of a new life.

That remains unchanged.


If fit is the new thin, how come I'm still fat?

Thursday 22nd August 2013

Well, there I was last week, worrying about juvenile obesity, when it seems I shouldn’t have worried. I found an article from a few weeks back assuring me that “fit is the new thin”. That latest message seems to be spreading.

Don’t believe everything they say! For a start, accompanying photos suggest the exponents of this new emphasis on fitness rather than weight loss are all impossibly slim young women: and in support of the theory the article I saw included a rundown of the most shapely Hollywood actresses who devote at least ninety minutes a day to exercise regimes, Pilates and yoga sessions.

Couple to that all those programmes claiming you can “lose that stomach in two weeks” and I’m frankly astonished that, after ten years of regular running, I don’t seem to have lost that stomach at all (I call it running: others are less flattering). Maybe I should book one of those routine health-checks for the (well) over-forties? Oops, no: Tuesday’s news said they’re a waste of time.

Last week I complained how young people are so frequently portrayed as feckless, hopeless, lazy and obese. One case of a twenty-stone ten-year-old girl is extrapolated to suggest that the whole of our nation’s youth is in crisis - in wilful contradiction of the evidence.

Moving on, I can boast of spending a personally active summer. To be sure, when we escape to North Northumberland I face increasing amounts of abuse whenever I go into a shop or pub. “You on holiday again? Only the six weeks off?” We teachers just have to grin and bear it. Additionally I face searching enquiries as to whether I’ve had my run to earn that steak, drink or cooked breakfast.

Actually, we Traffords have been running more than ever over this summer. To be sure, we don’t go far, and we follow the advice of the local legend Brendan Foster: “start slow and go slower”. My family uncharitably point out that he never meant anyone to go as slowly as we do.

Nonetheless we’ve followed the Gospel According To Brendan and kept running, against a backdrop of national criticism of the so-called post-Olympic legacy. Government, it’s said, is putting insufficient money into schools, youth activities, wherever, in order to grow sport. Well, we all like to knock governments, and there’s an element of truth there.

But governments cannot do it all for us. They can devise all the clever programmes they like. Individually we can sign up to any number of gyms or fitness regimes, wacky or sane. But the bottom line remains: young or old, we have personally to get off our backsides and do it.

Nothing succeeds like success. A strong lead from national heroes raises participation levels in a particular form of exercise more than any government scheme can hope to. Thus Cyclist Bradley Wiggins thrilled us in the 2012 Tour de France: the British team remorselessly took the Olympics apart; Chris Froome’s Tour win this year created further momentum. The result? People are now taking to the road on their bikes in huge numbers.

Our younger daughter took part in the RideLondon event a few Sundays ago, part of the year-on celebrations. She had the thrill of finishing by riding along the Embankment, past the Houses of Parliament, under Admiralty Arch and up to Buckingham Palace, completing her 100 miles in just over six hours and was delighted with the result.

I was telling a friend about what I considered a tremendous event. He hadn’t even heard about it. “You know the one”, I said, slightly exasperated. “They started in London, went way down to that place in Surrey, I can’t remember its name, and finished back on the Mall.” “Dorking?” came the suggestion.

“I think that’s a little harsh,” I replied, “But I admit I can think of ways I’d prefer to spend my Sunday.”



Our kids: fat, feeble and feckless? Not the ones I meet

Thursday 15th August 2013

“Young people nowadays!” We’ve all heard it said, with a sigh, generally by people of a certain age and intolerant disposition. But, let’s face it: kids today truly are a mess.

Evidence the recent media feeding-frenzy about the catastrophe, the health time-bomb, that’s waiting to happen. Children are fat, feeble and feckless: they’re weak-willed, live on pasties and chips, and are so obese that they’re in imminent danger of heart attack, stroke and early death.

Boys do nothing but play video games, never shifting their oversized buttocks from the couch. Girls are forever on Facebook. All social intercourse is digital: kids are losing the ability to speak to one another face to face.

Their attention span is now too short to cope with that great board game Monopoly. Our family games took all Sunday afternoon. My wife would engineer an early bankruptcy so she could cook the tea while I endured a few more hours. Now Monopoly has a new thirty-minute version: kids can’t deal with anything longer.

A report back in July predicted a school holiday plague of cyber-bullying, a veritable tsunami of offensive teenaged messages flooding the Twittersphere. Blame schools: teachers spend the summer lazing around on the Costa Brava, while parents are nowadays too preoccupied and hopeless to do anything interesting with their own kids. Result: they’re left to their own, invariably nefarious, devices.

It makes grim reading. Young people with the attention spans of goldfish are conversely spending countless hours creating internet mayhem while frying their brains and stuffing their faces. Forget the Olympic legacy. Tomorrow’s sport will be played by immobile wobble-bottoms waggling a remote control in front of an enormous interactive screen.

What nonsense! What do newspapers get up to in the silly season? Sure, there’s an element of truth in all the stories I’ve alluded to above, but I don’t accept there’s an all-out crisis. There are indeed kids who truly are fat, feeble and feckless, and we should worry about them. But the ones I meet (not only in my work-place, I must stress) are a wonderful bunch. Today’s teenagers are quick-witted, amusing, sharp observers of the nonsenses of adult life and society, compassionate, generous – and they work far harder than we did in my day.

Whatever your particular view, today should focus a few young minds. A level results are published. That means both the end-of-school A2 levels which hopefully confirm university places, and also the AS level, the halfway point to A level that tells lower sixth form (Year 12) candidates and their teachers how they’re getting on and what sort of university course they should apply for this coming autumn. That cohort should get off their lardy backsides, then, and do something useful. Sixteen-year-olds can slob around for another week until their GCSE results.

When we see today’s A level statistics (I have to write this before they come out), some fool will sound off as usual about standards being dumbed down (although politicians are starting to get the message that they give offence when they moan on results day).I’m in no doubt that the overwhelming majority of 17 and 18-year-olds will get the exam results they deserve: those results will reflect in the main enormous dedication and hard work, fascination with the subject and a depth of work going far beyond the mere requirements of the exam. Along the way these great young people have raised funds for charity, learned teamwork through sport, music and drama, made friendships in school that will last them a lifetime, and had a great time.

Give the kids a break! They’re marvellous, a credit to themselves above all, but also to their parents and to their schools. And to society as a whole.

So if you see a 17 or 18-year-old today, ask how they got on, and congratulate them warmly.

Be nice to a teenager: it’s only once a year!


If muttering was no longer aloud I'd stop moaning

Thursday 8th August 2013

I thought it was just me, or my age. First I couldn’t see what was on the television: next I couldn’t hear it.

Let me explain. A year or so ago I bought the DVD of the movie, The Road, having missed it in the cinema. Based on the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by American author Cormac McCarthy, it received pretty good reviews and starred Viggo Mortensen, more famous as the dashing hero Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Road is set in a curious post-apocalyptic world. An unspecified disaster has destroyed civilisation. The sun’s rays are feeble, apparently blocked out by something like thick dust, so the entire world is grey, lacking colour, warmth and light. Nothing grows, so the remnants of humanity are keeping alive by scavenging old stocks of food, and even resorting to cannibalism (an aspect stronger in the book than the film). Mortensen plays a father travelling the eponymous Road with his young son in search of safety and warmth further south.

Intriguing stuff? Well, maybe. But it was so cleverly filmed that the impression of loss of sunlight, the sheer unremitting darkness, was overwhelming. More than that, indeed, even on our reasonably large high-definition TV set, my wife and I couldn’t see what was happening. No matter how hard we stared at the damn thing, shadows moved across other shadows, furtively, fearfully, aggressively: we hadn’t a clue what was going on.

It’s one of the fringe benefits of the digital revolution, of course. Cameras are so clever now that a tennis or cricket match played in near-darkness appears as broad daylight on our TV screens. Similarly the detective programmes to which we two are addicted contain endless murky scenes where we can see everything or, rather, nothing - because they’re taking place in pitch blackness.

That’s my complaint. I had thought it was just me, or maybe my age. But I think it’s connected with another currently difficulty I’m experiencing: I can’t hear what actors are saying. Okay, I understand that reportage-style filming and quick-fire dialogue are very much the TV in-thing now. In Sherlock, for example, there are sparkling exchanges between Holmes and Watson, brilliantly played in that skilfully adapted present-day version by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman,. The scripting is clever, sassy, vivid, incredibly quick: but I miss half of it.

At least those two enunciate clearly, in contrast to another current vogue in TV drama, an insistence on mumbling. I know it’s terribly lifelike, because the whole world mumbles nowadays. But it’s so hard to hear.

Sorry to moan, but it’s tough when you realise you’re becoming an old git: I don’t need television and film to rub it in.  Still, at last there may be hope. I find I’m not alone. The BBC’s new Director General, Lord Hall, has proclaimed that enough is enough: the muttering must stop. I’m with him all the way.

We don’t need a return to the era of Sir Laurence Olivier. No one nowadays wants actors strutting about, declaiming loudly and barking, “Now is the winter of our discontent …” But surely we want to know what the hell they’re on about.

Now we have a slightly less young man at the helm of the BBC perhaps, like me, he finds he can’t pick up the dialogue any more. Whatever the reason, full marks to Tony Hall. Just in case you didn’t catch that, I said, “FULL MARKS TO TONY HALL!”

If we can persuade directors to appreciate that, however sophisticated modern cameras may be, dark is still dark and by definition invisible, and that the audience simultaneously wants to hear what’s going on, then maybe, just maybe, I shall be able to enjoy TV programmes again without sticking the subtitles on. Then, for the first time in a long while, I’ll have some clue what’s going on.


Are you prepared to be a superhero?

Thursday 1st August 2013

 In the mid-1960s, when I was quite a little boy, I spent time in hospital with pneumonia. My mum trailed up daily from the depths of Somerset to the City of Bath to visit me. Knowing my low boredom threshold, she brought me a comic every day. The home-grown articles – Beano, Dandy, Valiant, Hotspur, Eagle (great names from the past) - weren’t numerous enough to keep me sated with light reading. In desperation she started buying unfamiliar, somewhat alien American alternatives.

In Marvel Comics, I first encountered Captain America, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and others. I guess the series was some 20 years old by then, and probably in its heyday.

I can’t say I hanker after those heroes nowadays, though I still think The Thing was quite a dude: but, in print as in Hollywood’s recent “realistic” movies about them, they were a bitter and twisted bunch. Even the Batman I read about was a dark and troubled soul, not the straightforward, heroic crime-fighter that we knew from television (remember the tune? na-na na-na na-na na-na, Batman!)

Now, I realise my nostalgic comic-reading childhood reminiscences aren’t all that interesting. But, while Hollywood does its business of creating spectacular movie fantasies, superheroes are apparently becoming part of real life. A few weeks ago London hosted the first ever Superhero Summit. Phoenix Jones flew over from Seattle where (with his wife, who adopts the super-heroine name Purple Reign) he’s part of a wave of new-style vigilantism spreading rapidly across the States. When neighbourhood policing fails and street crime spreads, these self-styled heroes step in (though, Mr Jones assures us, not necessarily in costume).

So there he was, resplendent in rubberised body armour, and at least one newspaper pictured of Purple Reign with her utility belt reminiscent of Batman, corset-style Wonderwoman top, curious arm-guards, purple hair – and what looked to me like the knobbly elbow- and knee-protectors kids wear when they take their skateboard to the park. Not so much kick-ass as cover-your-ass.

Will it catch on over here? I doubt it. We Brits are just too cynical. Besides, surely none of us can forget Del-Boy and Rodney Trotter (Only Fools and Horses) emerging from the London fog dressed as Batman and Robin, on their way to post-funeral drinks (they think it’s a fancy-dress party).  So, if we do find ourselves faced with a superhero vigilante, we’re more likely to shout “Lovely jubbly!” than ask in wonder, “Who was that masked stranger?”

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t dismiss Phoenix Jones and his ilk too lightly. He claimed in The Times, “I don’t consider it to be a gimmick. I’m not worried about the level of crime but the level of apathy. I’m not going to accept it.”

Apathy is a curse. Experts on bullying – whether in schools or the workplace – identify the problem of “bystanders”, those who witness but effectively condone it by refusing to step in or get involved.  Victims of street crime describe being mugged or even stabbed while others simply cross the road. When people took photographs of a husband appearing to throttle his celebrity cook wife, Radio 4 commentators subsequently debated whether or not they would or should have intervened.

We’re all quick to complain, but slow to act to stop a manifest wrong. And at least Phoenix and Purple (love the names!) get off their backsides and do something.

Moreover, our region may have greater need of them than others. If government agrees with the Noble Lord Howell that the North-East, with its “large and uninhabited and desolate areas” has “plenty of room for fracking… without any kind of threat to the rural environment,” our treasured landscape could soon be torn apart. Policy-makers are sufficiently, maddeningly, ignorant and south-centric to go for it.

If that happens, forget Swampy and the environmental warriors: let’s call in a few lycra-and-rubber-clad superheroes.

If nothing else, they might give us a laugh.


Life is for living, so let’s raise a glass…

Thursday 25th July 2013

Anniversaries matter. I was unsurprised to see, in last Thursday’s Journal, a lovely photo of Dunstanburgh Castle: Northumberland’s most spectacular ruin is much-photographed. But I hadn’t twigged that this year sees its 800th anniversary. That ought to be celebrated. Whenever I go there I tend to celebrate afterwards in the Jolly Fisherman in Craster, but that’s a purely private pleasure.

Centenaries in particular provide opportunities for all kinds of mathematical errors. A few years ago I walked into an attractive old thatched pub down south to be greeted by a sign offering us a mug to celebrate the pub’s “200th Centenary”. A 20,000 year-old pub? That really is worth celebrating.

The years fly by. A couple of weeks ago my parents celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary. Said quickly, it doesn’t sound so much. When I told people I was flying down to Somerset to take them out for tea, most people nodded and then did a double-take: “Did you say 69?” they inquired incredulously.

My nonagenarian mum and dad got married just after D-Day. Dad’s chosen best man wasn’t available because, a couple of weeks before, they’d dropped him off a landing craft in charge of a tank equipped with a breathing tube. Crude but effective, the technology worked: he reached the beach and survived the war. If he had a weakness for red wine ever after, he might be forgiven.

It was a curious time, 1944. When the whole family last assembled to celebrate one of the Old Dears’ anniversaries (their 65th), Dad made a speech. He remarked how people often asked what it was like getting married in the war. He said it was probably much like other young people who fall in love, except there was a sense that life was precious and to be lived, so they got on with it.

But he added that, as young people, they just didn’t have much fun. He was approaching 19 when war broke out, so he probably did miss out. At that age he went off to medical school. St Thomas’s Hospital in London was promptly bombed, so his medical training was done in curious short bursts all around London and even, occasionally, as far afield as Oxford (which he didn’t like).

Dad has an answer for those who ask how they’ve managed to make a marriage last that long. “Fairly simple,” he says. “Live a long time, and don’t fall out!”

Now middle-aged, I find I’m turning into my Dad. Visiting him in June we took him out to Avebury, the pre-historic stone circle near Stonehenge. Sharing this picture



with my family I was asked, “Which are the ancient monuments?”

As you read this today, my wife and I will be celebrating our 32nd anniversary. It’s not a huge figure, but on the other hand we haven’t done badly. We succeed in being the statistical one in every two marriages that lasts by being enormously patient. My wife claims she has the patience of a saint, dealing with my typical male weaknesses such as failing to listen, never arriving anywhere on time, and always bringing dirt in on my shoes. There are, allegedly, other irritating habits, but they’re not fit for public consumption.

As for me, I’m an enormously easy-going and tolerant male, bearing heroically the requirements to be super-organised, follow instructions, pay attention when talked at instead of murmuring “Yes, dear” and carrying on reading the paper. Hell, sometimes I even get the washing out of the machine. That’s Nobel Prize stuff for a bloke.

Life’s to be lived, certainly: and when we hit landmarks we should celebrate them. So let’s raise a glass to them as they occur. I’m sure we shall tonight.


Giving MPs a pay rise may be what our politics need

Thursday 18th July 2013

Regular readers of this column may have formed the impression that I’ve little time for politicians. It’s true that they make me angry when they’re pig-headed, arrogant and opinionated.

Nonetheless, I’m feeling sorry for rank-and-file MPs: they’re in a mess over their salaries. Now, you may consider that their basic £66,396 is a decent annual total. Okay, so they’re not going to starve: but they’re earning fully a quarter less than other senior professionals.

Though many won’t accept that comparison, I reckon it could explain why politicians so frequently disappoint. Who would readily abandon a well-paid job for a life split between the constituency and Westminster; maybe trying to be a parent simultaneously; trailing home after a long working week for constituency surgeries; at the beck and call of Press and activists; and no future guaranteed beyond the next election.

For an ambitious adult with a family it’s a dodgy career path. Indeed, it’s nowadays a common complaint that too few of the political class have had proper jobs, families, experience of the world, of being accountable to customers, bosses, the public. They appear either to swan into parliament on a cushion of inherited wealth or to slip into a safe seat after a convenient period as a policy wonk: whether their bubble is one of inherited wealth or of Westminster politics, it’s not a reassuring grounding for representing voters or running the country.

Margaret Thatcher, conveniently married to a multimillionaire, wouldn’t countenance increasing MPs’ pay. Tony Blair did. David Cameron, again phenomenally rich in his own right, is against a rise. His cabinet is lining up vociferously behind him: their protests are just a little loud to be entirely credible.

When Maggie refused to increase MPs’ pay, a backdoor solution was found. Since the recent expenses row, we’ve rightly despised those who made false claims or got the taxpayer to fork out for their duck house or moat maintenance. Nonetheless it’s now known that MPs were actually pushed to maximise their expenses claims: it was a conscious, carefully hidden means of compensating for inadequate pay.

There’s never a politically right time for MPs to pay themselves more. The present administration formed the independent IPSA to set a realistic salary level for MPs.  Its boss, Sir Ian Kennedy, has devised a package that will deliver a more “professional” salary: but he’ll end the £30K pay-off for those who lose their seat and reduce the unbelievably advantageous MPs’ pension. Kennedy claims his proposed deal for MPs is also a reasonable one for the taxpayer, the overall cost increasing only slightly (in relation to government spending).

Trust parliamentarians to set up their own mechanism for independent, objective assessment, and then rubbish it! To be sure, some vocal critics are merely grandstanding: but they demonstrate how out of touch many MPs are with ordinary people.

Perhaps it’s too insulting to talk about paying peanuts and getting monkeys: but we do need more of the brightest and best at Westminster. As things stand, we’re arguably lucky to get as many good MPs as we do.

Parliament should be sufficiently robust to accept the recommendation of the independent body it created. Yes, when our next tax bill comes in we’ll moan: but if we end up with a more effective parliament and better representation, we should reckon it’s worth it.

If parliament doesn’t put its house in order decisively and confidently, it risks continuing domination by the super-rich, for whom politics too often appears a hobby, and the graspers, who grab every freebie going, accept well-paid consultancies and build dubious, lucrative relationships with lobbying groups.

Is it so very heretical to suggest that we pay MPs properly and then demand better service from them? The alternative is to continue fudging, obfuscating - and suffering the consequences.  

Which would you prefer?


Patience is a virtue when it comes to deciphering the past

Thursday 11th July 2013

Lucky old Alex Kirton. The first-year student of Archaeology and Ancient Civilisations at Durham University hit the headlines last week when, on only his second day at a dig, he uncovered a rare Roman head, probably of the war-like Celtic god Antenociticus. Alex’s find, at Binchester Roman Fort near Bishop Auckland, is only the second such head to be found in 150 years.

The story put me in mind of my single youthful foray into archaeology. When I was 16, short of pocket-money during the summer holiday, I signed up for a dig on the site of Southampton Castle. I pictured myself scratching away with a trowel and finding priceless gold torcs and other trinkets. Imagine my dismay when, on arrival, I was handed a sledgehammer, a pickaxe and a wheelbarrow. Southampton Castle was buried beneath the foundations of a recently-demolished Victorian terrace. My job (paid, if I remember, a princely £6.50 for the week – but this was 1972) was to smash a way through to the archaeological layer.

At the end of the day I was so exhausted I could barely move. The second day I’d stiffened up, and thought I’d die. Fate intervened: wobbling along a plank, the barrow containing a single lump of concrete so large I could only just lift it, the whole thing overbalanced and somehow landed on my arm. There was blood, so I was sent to hospital for a precautionary tetanus injection. It spared me another afternoon’s torture.

Even in those heady days before Health and Safety ruled us the archaeologists were solicitous. Rather than returning me to hard labour, for the next couple of days they let me to do what all along I’d thought was the job: perch in a trench with a trowel. So did I unearth priceless ancient treasures? No. I collected old nails, broken bottles, and an endless succession of sections of clay pipe.

I’ve never felt inclined since to volunteer for a dig, but the episode served to teach me that the prime quality among archaeologists is patience. As in so many jobs, the occasional big excitement or amazing discovery occurs only within the context of protracted periods of hard and dull grind (even Wimbledon champion Andy Murray would say the same). So Alex Kirton was telling no less than the truth when he said he was unlikely ever to make such an exciting find again: that divine head is probably his lot.

Last weekend we found ourselves in London, doing a couple of art galleries. Finding time to spare, we slipped in to the British Museum and found ourselves looking at the famous Rosetta Stone.

This unique artefact features a royal decree from Pharaoh Ptolemy V (196 BC) written in three texts: ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs; Demotic; and Ancient Greek. Discovered by French troops in Egypt in 1799, but seized by the British and brought to the British Museum in 1802, the stone’s Greek script was rapidly disseminated among European scholars. But it was a French scholar who, in 1822, made the intuitive leap that both the Demotic (an ancient Egyptian legal language) and the hieroglyphs (familiar from the walls of temples and pyramids but not hitherto deciphered) used the same phonetic basis for writing language: in other words, the symbols represented individual sounds. It’s thanks to that realisation that we can now read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone is one of the most spectacular archaeological finds ever made. What amused me, as we tourists crowded round the display case and marvelled at this unique key to lost writings, was that the content is so dull. Amazingly, a tedious Pharaonic legal document opened a world of discovery to scholars two millennia after it was written.

In a roundabout way, that discovery also perhaps demonstrates how great breakthroughs come only after much solid and dull work.

A metaphor for life and achievement, then – and for Wimbledon success.


To whom it may concern… or not

Thursday 4th July 2013

Dear President Obama

I admit I find myself surprised to be writing to you. I was actually going to send an email to my mum but, since I gather you’re reading all our emails now, I decided I might as well write to you direct and wish you a happy Independence Day.

To be honest, I’m not sure what interest you can have in my emails, internet traffic or, indeed, the whole of my life. But that nice Mr Snowden assures me you have people monitoring all my communications. So I suppose you know all about my principal internet vices: Amazon and Tesco Wine online. You’ve probably observed that I spend too much with the former when I’ve sampled too much of the latter.

If you’ve noted what movies I buy on DVD, you’ll have spotted that one of my favourite films is Enemy of the State. You know the one: Will Smith plays a bewildered lawyer who falls foul of a CIA black operation involving the assassination of a senator. What’s fascinating about the film is that he finds he is up against the whole USA surveillance mechanism, subverted by a rogue section of the CIA. Sorry: I guess that’s a bit close to home fromyou!

I’m puzzled as to why you’re so interested in me and my fellow citizens. Do you need to know my political leanings in case I’m a danger to Western Democracy? You’ll have worked out I’m strictly a disillusioned wishy-washy liberal (with a small l). Frankly I find most  politicians too busy and self-important to listen to what real people need. Perhaps I should be pleased you’re listening, then? I’m finding it hard to get my head round this.

I hope you had a good trip to South Africa. Sorry you didn’t get to meet Nelson Mandela. He must be one of those few guys in the world that almost everyone (including me) would like to meet.

I’m glad you had a pleasant visit to Enniskillen with G8 the other week. I don’t know what your view is on our economic situation: I guess you’re busy with your own problems. But I expect you had some words of wisdom for our Chancellor, Jeffrey (aka George) Osborne: perhaps he’d have made a better Rhythm and Blues singer than chancellor – or was it the other guy? I really am confused now.

Still, when you pass this information on to our Prime Minister through those good people at GCHQ (Hi, guys! Hope you’re having a good day!), you might let him know that there’s a fair old head of steam building about MPs’ pay. That’s a tough one for them. MPs probably aren’t paid enough, which might account for a certain lack of quality: but it’s a hard one to sell to the public.

And just a special plea from this region of England: you could let Dave know we’re delighted the Lindisfarne Gospels have got as far north as Durham. Most of us up here think they belong in the North East, so don’t want them to go back to the British Library. In fact, wonderful as the world heritage site of Durham is, and nice as it is to see the Gospels sharing space with good old St Cuthbert, it would be even better to see them back home on Holy Island. You could put a word in for us there.

Must end now. I’m afraid I’ve rambled a bit: my mum’s not going to be interested in much of this. Maybe next time I’ll let you catch up on more Trafford family news. I know you’ll be bursting to know how Uncle Jim’s getting on after his hernia operation. Meanwhile Marjorie’s parrot is still moulting feathers at an alarming rate, but Julie’s springer spaniel puppy’s perked up. Oh, and Molly and Bill say hi.

Love to Michelle and the girls.

All the best



The road back to prosperity: make them pay twice

Thursday 27th June 2013

One of my favourite panelists on the BBC’s The News Quiz is Jeremy Hardy. He puts his finger on absurdities in a way that few can match. He once commented, “How brilliant Margaret Thatcher was. She even managed to sell us our water – which we owned anyway.” He went on to wonder whether the same could be achieved with the air we breathe.

He had a point. In contrast, I still derive a frisson of pleasure from the fact that my little country retreat in North Northumberland gets its water from a spring that appears never to run dry. No charge. No bureaucracy. No shopping around, no advice from regulators. The water arrives, is used and disappears.

All my adult life it seems politicians have been seeking ways of making money from nowhere. North Sea oil was the miracle find that enabled Maggie’s and successive governments to get inflation and borrowing under control (remember when borrowing was under control?)  Privatising the utilities in the 1990s meant we consumers carried on paying (after all, we’d always bought water and energy): but the government made billions by selling them to private firms.

To render their party electable a few years on, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown hit on the brilliant idea of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). They would rebuild hospitals and schools by effectively taking out a whacking mortgage with builders, firms that boomed and diversified, sometimes eventually providing entire government services contracted out to them. As for paying back the dosh, who cared? The crunch wouldn’t come for 20 or 25 years, long beyond the short-term thinking of any government.

Another administration, another scam: they’re forever in search of novel ways of raising revenue, in addition to taxing the backsides off all of us except the big corporations whom they never dare to take on.

Still, a new local government racket I came across at the weekend left me gobsmacked. If children want to play football in the bit of Hyde Park near the Royal Albert Hall, somewhere they’ve always played, henceforth they’ll have to pay by the hour. Frisbee throwers too and, while dog walkers will have to fork out £300 for a licence, fitness instructors could be charged up to £1500 a year.

The residents of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea might be forgiven for being a little confused. They may have thought they owned the park anyway. Now, you and I may not feel obliged to be too sorry for anyone who can afford to live in that particular borough: but, given that their council tax is likely to be stratospherically higher than anything we pay in the North-East, I find myself starting to sympathise.

Of course, this isn’t really anything to do with principle, of the right of councils to charge for the use of amenities such as parks, even for informal play: nor is it connected with the contradictory right of residents to use an amenity that they may argue they pay for through their community charge.

It’s all about austerity Britain: the books not balancing; councils being set unworkable budgets by a government that can’t control its own spending and looks with increasing horror at the black hole that is the national debt. Under those circumstances any cunning wheeze for making a fast buck is acceptable.

Newcastle City Council, take note! The Tyne and its bridges are iconic: so charge people to look at them! Forget national efforts to combat obesity: make fat guys like me pay to run across the Toon Moor (okay, I know it’s the Freemen who own it). And, since youthful revellers like to congregate in Bigg Market on a Friday night, put barriers at each end and charge them entry.

The possibilities are endless: there’s money to be made! Accept the principle of charging people for things they already own, and the sky’s the limit.

Get in!


I know who wears the trousers in the Trafford household

Thursday 20th June 2013

You read it here first. Two weeks ago I mused on the York mosque’s tea-and-biscuit strategy for diffusing a confrontation with the English Defence League. Last week I had a pop at that strange cabal of allegedly enormous influence, the Bilderberg Group. Both featured last weekend in BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show. Hah! Today the Journal’s columns: tomorrow the world.

One story that’s been building meanwhile is the growing concern that TV dramas and comedies portray men/fathers as useless and inadequate. This may also have relevance to recent alarming research revealing how many boys are growing up without male role models. In media fiction as in real life, we dads are branded both feckless and ludicrous.

Let me get this straight. Too many dads are useless: but fathers shouldn’t be made fun of on TV?  The gender battle’s full of contradictions.

News reports describe men still hogging the best jobs, women excluded by the glass ceiling. Simultaneously we’re flooded with stories about women who hold down top jobs while bringing up families at the same time: and contrasting features on mums who prefer bringing up a family to pursuing a high-powered career.

It’s true that the male of the species does himself few favours in image terms. Ever since the first caveman brought back a dinosaur chop and demanded his woman cook it for him, he’s been accused of sitting around, passing wind and expecting her to do all the work.

I just don’t buy that. Early man can’t have been permitted to get away with such behaviour for more than a few millennia. Women have been organising us men for ever: it’s not a modern phenomenon.

Regular readers will know I have two assertive and confident daughters. Products of a coeducational school in the Midlands (which, at the time, I ran), they quickly learnt not to put boys on any kind of pedestal - rather to knock them off it whenever necessary.

I remember one daughter, then aged twelve, saying over the tea-table, “I had to slap James today. He was annoying.” My mild observation that there are better ways to solve disagreements was rejected. As it happens, James became head boy in due course: now he’s a doctor. Clearly this robust treatment made a man of him.

A long time ago, when I turned forty, I thought I should keep my all-female household on its toes. I said I planned to buy a sports car and start hanging out with chicks. After a brief, thoughtful silence, they replied as one: “Don’t be silly, Dad. You wouldn’t cope without us.”

I’m being flippant here about a potentially serious issue. Absentee fathers, those who duck their family responsibility, blight our society: they rob children, particularly boys, of a vital part of their upbringing.

But is it honestly a problem if dads are portrayed humorously on TV as ineffectual or absurd? Of course not. The real danger lies in taking ourselves too seriously. Men have a tendency to become overbearing, over-confident, insensitive, un-self-critical. Anything that helps puncture our self-deluding bubble is a good thing.

It took women centuries to get the vote because men behaved despicably to deny them that human right. A recent letter to The Times bewailed the blue plaque outside the Cambridge home of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, veteran leader of Britain’s constitutional suffragists, and her daughter Philippa, the first woman to obtain the top mark in the mathematical tripos. It reads: “Henry Fawcett lived here with his wife and daughter 1874-84.”  

Way to go. We men have no claim to special protection.  Like James, we need a few more slaps.

One final Trafford family anecdote. After a hard day at work (wielding, as a male headteacher, significant power and influence), I felt obliged to point out to my girls just who was in charge at home.

“We know who’s in charge, Dad,” they responded. “It’s not you.”


Shadowy group too busy schmoozing to see power slip

Thursday 13th June 2013

I love novels and TV thrillers involving hidden cabals: you know, mysterious, powerful groups secretly manipulating politicians and global systems with the fanatical aim of ensuring security and stability as narrowly envisaged by a sinister circle of incredibly well-connected conspirators.

In such stories the central character unwittingly stumbles on a piece of vital evidence that exposes the whole plot. It’s the individual against the state: the little guy against the machineries of power; the man (or woman) of honour against an organisation that is amoral, thinking itself too rarefied and important to obey usual norms of decency and openness.

It’s just fiction. Surely there aren’t really individuals or groups who think they’re above the demands of normal moral behaviour? Unless you count the peers and MPs who are still taking money to influence and make connections, even if they make a point of avoiding actual lobbying, that fine distinction carefully blurring the edge of decency.

It gets worse. Last week we heard the so-called Bilderberg Group is meeting in the UK. This is precisely one of those shadowy organisations that purports to float above government and across national boundaries.  Entirely self-selecting, into its secretive, un-minuted meetings where everyone arrives anonymously in limos with smoked-glass windows it invites the present movers and shakers - and those of the future.

Tony Blair was invited before he became Labour Party leader. Margaret Thatcher attended only once, judged less clubbable than current Chancellor George Osborne who has apparently been several times.

The group’s members have the capacity for shifting capital around the world and pulling together and influencing the politicians to make things work for them. They apparently see themselves as a kind of collective economic Big Brother, guardian angels of global prosperity.

Angels? Maybe not. If The Bilderberg group (named after the hotel where it first met) is so very powerful, shouldn’t we be worried that a secretive organisation purports to exist above and across governments, pushing individual economies, let alone the collective economy of the world, in directions that unaccountable, unelected, obscenely influential people have no right to do?

Fortunately, it seems we needn’t panic. The group was co-founded by 1970s Labour Chancellor Denis Healey, not an enormously successful politician, though an affable guy. That prosaic fact makes it hard to believe the Group can really run the world as has been suggested.

Moreover, opinion is growing that, founded in European/US roots, any influence it may have had is waning rapidly as the Far East and Pacific region becomes the global economic driving force. These guys are in fact money’s “ancien régime”, drinking their rare champagne and pricelessly ancient cognac, ensconced in comfortable leather armchairs - and oblivious to the fact that they’ve lost the influence they used to prize.

Healey claimed the group’s secrecy allowed open speaking, candour and honesty. You can make up your own mind about that. Me, I’ll vote with Groucho Marx: if it’s the sort of club that would want me in it, I wouldn’t want to join it.

I applaud the investigative journalists who, time after time, catch out greedy, grasping politicians so eager to make a fast buck by selling their influence that they can’t spot the honey trap. We should treat them with the contempt they deserve, and demand their removal.

Members of the Bilderberg Group are probably too canny to be ensnared so easily. Nonetheless, the world’s moved on, and we shouldn’t give them the time of day: we shouldn’t be intimidated by them; we should counter their influence with ridicule whenever we see them.

Past their sell-by date, let them schmooze around in their limos for their latest meeting - in Watford (yes, Watford: where Southerners think the North begins). Until the Bilderbergs emerge from the shadows and do something useful, open and honest, we should simply ignore them. But they won’t be seen in the daylight. They’ll stay hidden, insulated from the real world, irrelevant.

Forget them.


Put the kettle on… and get round the table for talks

Thursday 6th June 2013

That’s it, then. The final solution, the ultimate weapon against extremism, is… a cup of tea.

Anxious about a forthcoming demonstration by the English Defence League (EDL), the members of a York mosque pondered what to do. One, a professor of electronics named Mohamed El-Gomati, remembered a line by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: if the Prophet Mohammed were presented with all the problems of the world, GBS proposed, he would have solved them over a cup of tea.

Accordingly Professor El-Gomati and his fellow Muslims prepared to greet the EDL with cups of tea and custard creams. Word of their plan spread, and some 200 sympathisers (by no means all Muslims, nor from ethnic minorities) turned out in support.

In the event, only six EDL members appeared outside the mosque, perhaps reinforcing the fact that we Brits don’t really like extreme views. Or maybe we’re just apathetic.

Six people were never likely to intimidate two hundred, so they started talking. When they said, “We don’t want to surrender to the Taliban,” their Muslim hosts agreed: why, they riposted, would anyone sane want to surrender to a bunch of nutters?

They ended up sharing jokes and even playing football. As the EDL left still carrying their flags of St George, Professor El Gomati decided diplomatically not to tell them St George was Palestinian, or maybe Turkish.

The tea and biscuits are central to this story. Eating and drinking together is one of the great ways of bringing reason to bear and achieving harmony. When, a few years ago, I spent a year as national chair of a headteachers’ association, I was surprised how many lunches and dinners were involved. I mentioned this to my elder brother who, for the past 15 years, has been an unusual kind of missionary, preaching between Tasmania and Borneo.

“It’s simple,” he said. “Even if the other person is your enemy, you can’t knife one another when you are sitting down at a table and eating.” There are practical considerations: there’s a table in the way. More significantly, though, there’s a fundamental level of human courtesy that generally prevents us from mixing violence with dining, conflict with tea and biscuits.

Picture the timeless strategy of a mother cooling a heated family argument around the table: “Don’t let your tea get cold, dear”. There has to be a pause, a silence, while eating and drinking are done. Across all cultures, and between them, there are rules and forms of courtesy concerning meals.

To be sure, a proportion of assassinations over the centuries have involved poison. But only one famous example comes to mind of truly violent contravention of the rules of hospitality. In 1692, soldiers from the Scottish clan Campbell were given shelter from a blizzard by their old enemies, the MacDonalds.  As their hosts slept after dinner, the Campbells murdered them. The Massacre of Glencoe became a model for infamy, transgressing the fundamental human value of hospitality.

Nowadays much conflict is aired through press conferences and the media. Politicians and even football managers are generally too ready to strike poses and wage propaganda wars instead of talking through their differences.

Yet, as the York Mosque demonstrated last week, simple tea and biscuits bring people together peacefully. Perhaps we should be quicker to require warring factions – wherever they occur – to break bread together and seek common ground instead of constantly emphasising division. In the medieval Vatican, the cardinals used to do that when electing a new pope: they were only denied food when they took too long to decide!

It’s worth noting that it took a playwright, GBS, to come up with that wise observation about the Prophet and tea. But then, when the political classes are too busy making noise to come up with the answers, poets and playwrights - creative artists - frequently do so.

That’s one of many reasons why we need them.


Roll up to toast a victory over the ambulance-chasers

Thursday 30th May 13

Is it a triumph for common sense or for madness? Whatever your view, the point is that the traditional Bank Holiday Monday cheese-rolling event went ahead, as it has done for hundreds of years on Coopers Hill, Gloucester. Some 3,000 people turned out to watch or compete, and the winner was a young estate agent from Colorado: he travelled specifically to take part and was delighted to be the first hurtling down that precipitously steep hill to catch the cheese – now replaced (for reasons of safety) with a foam replica of a real round of Double Gloucester cheese.

86-year-old cheese-maker Diana Smart has been making the 7lb (3kg) cheese for the event for 25 years. She hit the headlines last week when police warned her that, if anyone was injured, she could be regarded as the event’s organiser and therefore legally liable. In a magnificently cautious statement, Gloucestershire police made it clear they weren’t banning the event, merely confirming: “We feel it is important that those who, by law, could be constituted as organisers of the event, that they are aware of the responsibilities that come with it so that they can make an informed decision about their participation.”

Unsurprisingly, there was widespread talk of “Health and Safety gone mad”. But hold on! For once, let’s not lay our frustration at the door of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). There are undoubtedly risks in having hundreds of people careering madly down a hill so steep that, just round the corner, there is an artificial ski slope: and there are always broken limbs. But no one outlawed the event.

People have a right to do crazy things such as bungee-jumping, parachuting, windsurfing and other activities the thought of which give me the willies. None of them is banned. But they can, and frequently do, represent a liability nightmare when participants get hurt. So, if you insist on undertaking a hazardous activity, the organisers will undoubtedly get you first to sign a disclaimer absolving them of any blame, so long things are properly organised.

If you go skiing, you’d be irresponsible not to take out suitable insurance: it’s costly getting airlifted down from the piste. But even the most litigious-minded skier would find it hard to blame anyone for the slippery snow on which they fell.

Nonetheless, trips, falls and injuries are now so widely seen as grounds for compensation claims that you might hesitate to get out of bed for fear of being blamed for someone else’s misfortune. My doorstep sticks out about a foot from the front door. Should I put a yellow stripe on it and a warning sign on the door, just in case the postman falls over it? I don’t: but I might be well advised to. Still, my home insurance automatically includes cover for third-party action against me. That never used to exist: then it became an optional extra. Now it’s thrown in, but it’s not “free”.

It’s a state of mind: “Ouch! I’m hurt. Who can I sue?” We pay the price in ever-increasing insurance premiums.

Fraudulent compensation claims, particularly related to car accidents, now form a major criminal industry: Tyneside recently saw a crime-ring busted, a compensation scam organised on a huge scale.

After a few years’ absence, to the fury would-be participants, the Gloucester cheese-rolling is back. The cheese-makers deny organising anything: it’s just something that happens, they claim. Sadly, though, the police warning was accurate: a litigiously-minded injured cheese-chaser could easily construct a case against them, citing them as the organisers even of an unofficial event. In our litigation-hungry, ambulance-chasing culture, someone has to pay.

Full marks, then, to Mrs Smart and her team at Churcham Farm for having the courage to perpetuate that fine tradition. And good luck to them. But as to whether it’s a triumph for common sense or for madness, given the lunacy of the entire enterprise, the jury’s still out.


Less lunacy, more loyalty - or they will all be sunk

Thursday 23rd May 2013

“Unhand me, thou greybeard swivel-eyed loon!”

A misquotation from Coleridge’s classic Rime of the Ancient Mariner, perhaps? Almost: but it’s modern-day politicians, leading Tories, who are busy denying that a similar term was used to describe rogue party members. Now David Cameron is trying to heal the rift.

Dave might well wonder what’s going on in his party right now. As yet another backbencher, frontbencher, backwoodsman or constituency chairman steps up to stab him in the back, he could quote Shakespeare instead and exclaim, “Et tu, Brute”.

In the Bard’s telling of the infamous assassination of Caesar by his friends, the victim goes on to say, “Then fall, Caesar”. And he does. Dead as a doornail.

So is the PM about to fall? Actually, he’s pretty secure for now, given that both the opposition and his coalition partners appear every bit as chaotic as his own party. He’s the one in the driving-seat, so he’ll survive - at least until the next election.

But what on earth is going on? At Westminster it seems the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Like or loathe its policies, the government’s trying to get to grips with the economic situation (they’ve been trying for a long time, you might say). You’d think that a ruling party could count on its own supporters to, well, support.

This one can’t. Out of nowhere (or nowhere significant) comes a powerful movement, inspired mainly by panic stemming from the growing success of the bullish Nigel Farage and UKIP, to bounce the PM into a referendum and, if possible, pull him and us out of Europe altogether.

Cameron and his lieutenants have previously dubbed UKIP a bunch of fruit-cakes and nutters: now the nutters are rather closer to home. As if their strident demands with regard to Europe weren’t enough, there are now additional, even shriller calls to defeat the vote on gay marriage. Yes, intolerant Little England is out in force.

But that’s not what I’m writing about: people are entitled to their opinions and it’s a free country – well, quite an expensive one, but you know what I mean.

I’m simply gobsmacked by the complete lack of loyalty in the Tory party. Given the on-going financial gloom; given the fact that Cameron is only occupying Number 10 by forming a fragile coalition with an unwilling partner; and given it’s all so damned difficult; I just wonder what possesses even some of Cameron’s frontbenchers, let alone Tory grandees, to undermine their leader with such determination.

Lord Lawson (no longer Fatty Lawson) didn’t do a lot for the economy when he was Chancellor all those years ago. It was Ken Clark who followed him, put the golden rules in place and produced the brief economic miracle for which Gordon Brown later claimed credit. Yet Lawson was out there last week, trumpeting like a dinosaur. Next came Education Secretary (and, by all accounts, would-be leader) Michael Gove, having his two pennyworth about getting out of Europe.

What a lousy example the party of government sets to the rest of us. How can the guy run a party, let alone the country, when the people around him so wilfully rock the boat?  I don’t think our political leaders should be surrounded by nodding yes-men, all kept on message: indeed, I remember the early years of the Blair government when MPs were issued with pagers to ensure precisely that.  I couldn’t contain my scorn.

But you’d think the leader who took them into power might be able to count on a modicum of loyalty: loyalty is one of the more vital human qualities, and the lack of it particularly distasteful to behold.  Cameron might be forgiven for hoping Tories would stand by him as he tries to steer the ship of state through choppy seas. By contrast, they seem all set to chuck him overboard.

And what then?

Et tu, Boris.


Snoopers dig deep to access goldmine of personal details

Thursday 16th May 13

My customary trawl through the weekend papers revealed the predictable collection of shock horror stories including a Sunday Times headline: “Switch On and You Become a Goldmine”.

Did you know there are companies out there trawling our mobile phone data? Just turn on in a busy place and they’ll be monitoring your phone use: following the websites you visit (they sell that information); seeing who you phone (they can map out your “social networks” – what real people call friends and family); linking your phone to your personal data (they discover your age and gender). Your phone even tells them where you live, within a hundred yards or so.

Even after Leveson and the newspaper phone-hacking scandal, who’s really surprised? It’s only the logical extension of what already happens online. When I buy something on line (to my wife’s despair), it’s recorded and analysed so that, next time I log on, I’m offered all manner of similar products. From its millions of customers Amazon accumulates a mindboggling quantity of data to drive its commercial engine.

Returning to phones, there are other uses for what’s rather grandly called “geolocation”. The Metropolitan Police were approached. Just think how they could trace the phones of suspected villains and track their networks. And, now that legitimate protests and criminal riots alike are organised via Twitter or Facebook, police could pinpoint the ringleaders and discover their plans.

Scary. Our whole lives open to view. But then, they have been for years.

Still, we’re not completely unprotected. A powerful civil liberties campaign group, Big Brother Watch, fights to prevent companies (or governments) snooping on us. And Parliament itself stood up for our privacy last year when it refused to pass the Communications Data Bill, nicknamed the Snoopers’ Charter.

Nonetheless we shouldn’t count on organisations to protect us. In this Wi-Fi-driven world, where a message can reach billions in billiseconds, let’s not kid ourselves that digital communication is ever secure or secret.

Internet trolling hit the news last summer when police prosecuted sad individuals tweeting vicious messages about Olympic athletes who came a cropper. Then Lord McAlpine threatened to sue the trigger-happy Twitterers who falsely accused him of being a child abuser in the manner of Jimmy Savile. Such people thought they could air their nasty views freely: they learned they couldn’t.

Just last month, 17-year-old Paris Brown lost her £15,000-a-year job as Kent’s Police Youth Commissioner before she’d even started. Two years earlier she’d sent offensive homophobic, racist, angry tweets. They resurfaced. Her digital past returned to haunt her.

That’s the point. It always returns. That’s the world we inhabit now. In the old days, people sometimes thought it hilarious to photocopy their bottom at the office Christmas party. Nowadays that photocopier’s a scanner and, for all you know, your rosy cheeks could go viral via the internet and reach millions. And stay out there in the Cloud for anyone to retrieve.

We have a choice. Be paralysed by fear: or simply be careful. Realistic.

Sensible people are cautious about what they say: the rash and thoughtless shoot their mouths off and get themselves into trouble. The digital revolution hasn’t changed that: except the audience is bigger, and the fallout massively more damaging.

I don’t want snooping companies tracking my phone or selling my personal data. I have firewalls and virus protection on my laptop to prevent spyware from digging into my files - in theory. I do what I reasonably can to protect my technology: but I’d be daft entirely to trust my phone or the internet.

Governments are paranoid: they want to spy on us. Villains are cunning: they want to invade our phones and computers. We have to live with that hard fact.

And then just get on with our lives. Be sensible. Mind what we say: think before emailing, tweeting or texting something we wouldn’t want complete strangers to read.


An uplifting tale of the heroes who step up to the plate

Thursday 9th May 2013

It was American Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who got himself in a tangle about “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”. Silly man: of course we can’t know what we don’t know about. But here’s a useful rule to live by: always expect the unexpected. Maybe it overlaps with the Scouts’ motto: be prepared.

The Bank Holiday weekend brought some surprises. That dreadful boating tragedy in Padstow, Cornwall, could have been worse but for the heroic intervention of someone who, like a movie stuntman, boarded the runaway speedboat and brought it to a halt.

Closer to home, North Northumberland (where the Traffords found themselves) was astonishingly dry. Sunday hit 19° on Bamburgh beach, a temperature rarely achieved there since British summers seem to have been abolished.

To be sure, it blew a hooligan of a gale for most of the three days. Saturday saw us going next door for a big birthday party, the borrowed marquee strengthened by concrete blocks and large pieces of timber as the wind tore at the fabric and tried (without success) to carry the whole thing away.

My old mates and I were playing jazz at the bash. To annoy the vicar we decided to play, New-Orleans-style, the old hymn tune, Just a Closer Walk with Thee (we didn’t succeed in irritating him: he seemed to like it). As we lifted off into the last chorus there was a commotion: one of the guests fell to the ground, apparently suffering some kind of seizure.

It quickly became clear that this was serious. The elderly victim’s heart had stopped.

I can tell this story because there’s a happy ending: the patient is still in hospital but sitting up in bed and recovering. But I think I need to tell the story, because my fellow guests and I witnessed the saving of a life. First to reach the victim was a nurse who was among the guests: second, a retired pathologist.

Next to help was a young woman who’d recently completed a CPR course. She did mouth-to-mouth while the fourth life-saver, a strong, fit young man, took over the physical labour of compression as they attempted together to re-start the victim’s heart.

The four worked methodically for several minutes to save the life that was so clearly in their hands. Meanwhile another guest had leapt into a car and dashed down to the centre of Milfield, where there’s a defibrillator. A doctor, randomly enjoying a meal in the Red Lion, spotted the activity around the machine and insisted on coming to help, arriving just before the first paramedic. Last came the ambulance itself: even in remote North Northumberland it must have come in less than 20 minutes.

Once assured that the life had been saved, people relaxed and the party resumed, though perhaps in a subdued tone. As relief kicked in, people started to joke, a natural human response. It was unanimously agreed that my trumpet-playing must have brought on the attack. The irony of the tune we’d been playing wasn’t missed either.

What impressed me was how people who possessed the required knowledge simply swung into action. They spotted what needed doing and stepped up to the plate, calmly and purposefully. In an entirely different context, the hero of the Cornish boating disaster also saw what was necessary and had the skills to do it.

The moral of the story? I’m one of those people who often wonder if they ought to do some first aid training but don’t get around to it. Though, in my day job, I ensure others are trained, in effect I’m not really operating at the sharp end.

But these things can happen anywhere, as I witnessed last Saturday. Thank heaven the right people were there. But maybe the episode will make a few more of us think again and get ourselves trained.

Just in case: just so we can deal with the unexpected when it occurs.


As those party guests did. Triumphantly.Our search for a bargain comes with a human cost

Thursday 2nd May 2013

My heart aches for the 382 people who died in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when a clothing factory collapsed. According to the BBC website, eight people, along with two factory owners, face charges of “negligence, illegal construction and persuading workers to enter the building in Savar – a day after visible cracks appeared”.

You cannot but feel angry, picturing the owners’ mind-set: “Who cares if there’s a crack in the building? Get in and get to work!” Reckless irresponsibility; cheap, shoddy building; cutting corners so as to make more bucks.

As with so many disasters far from home, we empathise with the victims, shake our heads in sorrow at the wickedness of the world, and then get on with our daily lives.

Except that such factories have a link directly into our own lives. We buy the goods they produce.

One major UK firm that sources clothing from that factory is the high-street retailer, Primark. Primark says it will pay compensation and offer food aid to the victims who worked for its supplier. It’s putting in place immediate and long-term help for victims of the disaster, and will provide for children who have lost their parents.

Full marks to Primark, then, which says it “accepts all its responsibilities in this disaster”.

In 2011 Primark won an apology from the BBC after a Panorama investigation wrongly accused it of buying garments from factories employing child labour. Video footage used was proved to have been falsified. Primark was vindicated: but the battle cost it in PR terms. You might be tempted to say it’s moved very quickly in this case to prove itself a responsible purchaser.

Nonetheless a protest was held outside Primark’s flagship store in London on Saturday. Why? Because people are concerned about the whole nature of Primark’s business: it buys clothes cheaply-made overseas to sell at irresistibly low prices in its stores.

Why shouldn’t it, though? We buy its goods in vast quantities. Against the backdrop of economic gloom, Primark’s booming. Look at the enormous enlargement, just completed, of its Northumberland Street store in Newcastle, a skilful building project that was fascinating to watch as it progressed without the store ever closing.

Shoppers are flocking to Primark. I’m not too grand to shop there: why should I be? Proud of losing weight (okay, I won’t go on about it again), I went there recently to buy a cheap belt for my now-baggy suit trousers. Hoping for a bit of summer, I also bought a ten-pound pair of beach shoes - great value.

Does the UK shopper have a responsibility, though, for workers such as those in Bangladesh? UK firms should surely ensure that their suppliers aren’t employing illegal (child or slave) labour: but can we expect them to go and check that all the factories they use satisfy building regulations? I doubt it.

This issue causes me unease: since the Dhaka disaster I’ve wrestled with it anew. It’s too easy to say we shouldn’t buy cheap garments or even, as Keith Hann suggested in Tuesday’s column, revive a domestic UK clothing industry: but, if we didn’t buy from those factories in the developing world, how would those workers earn their meagre living? They need our trade, though it would be good to see a clothing equivalent of the Fairtrade label in commodities like tea, coffee and cocoa that guarantees producers a fair price.

Nonetheless, while we incessantly shop around for the lowest price, the smartest bargain, all of us in the prosperous West play a part in pinning down the wages and living standards in the countries that supply us. Our low prices here have a human cost over there.

Tragedies such as Dhaka may bring a few dodgy factory owners to justice: they won’t change the world. But they pose uncomfortable questions for all of us, and we should at least be prepared to debate them.