Thursday 29th August 2014

When people leave a job I usually reckon they should do so quietly. In my line of work, my heart sinks when a retiring teacher seizes the opportunity of their leaving party to tell me publicly just what’s wrong with the school and the profession. In most cases they would do better just to leave it unsaid (as the best people generally do).

Exceptions exist to prove the rule, however, and just such a departure was taken last week by the outgoing United Nations Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay. A few days before quitting the post she’s held for six years, she took the UN Security Council to task for its failure to prevent conflicts around the world, telling it that “greater responsiveness by this Council would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives”.

She complained that selfish national interest had repeatedly taken precedence over human suffering and breaches of world peace. How right she was. Whether it’s in Africa, the Middle East, the Ukraine or any other region of the world where human misery is wantonly, willfully created, our international representatives fail us, the UN and humanity at large.

Right now we can’t achieve peace in the Ukraine because Russia and the West are keener on winning their particular battle of wills than protecting the innocent people caught in the middle, whether ethnic Ukrainians or Russian-speakers. Inevitably the roots of that dispute lie in decades of international bungling and territory-swaps.

The same ineptitude lies at the heart of most conflicts. Israel and Hamas are at war, the firepower used in both directions assuming mind-boggling proportions before this newest, fragile ceasefire was agreed. To much of the world Hamas is a terrorist organisation: to another swathe of world opinion, Israel is using its awesome weaponry irresponsibly.

The mess that is present-day Iraq has its origins in British interference over the last 150 years, complicated by the far-from-reputable oil-related entanglement by the Blair and Bush regimes with and then against Saddam Hussein.

Islamic State, threatening to destabilize the entire Middle East, built its powerbase in Syria. That on-going civil war also failed to attract decisive humanitarian intervention from the UN. The major powers blocked one another’s attempts: the US, Britain, Russia and China all at different times pursued their selfish interests instead of seeking peace.

What a mess.

Right-minded people everywhere deplore the repulsive acts of Islamic State, more than ever since that film emerged of a British Jihadist apparently beheading American journalist James Foley.

As it happens, those very excesses might yet serve to unite world opinion and governments against them. Closer to home for Brits, it’s arguable that the IRA was forced to participate in negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement only after such extreme terrorist episodes as the bombings of Enniskillen and Manchester’s Arndale Centre outraged even their own historical supporters.

Sadly, in global as in national politics, those who gain positions of influence tend to be pragmatists, cutters of deals and forgers of alliances, more than out-and-out men or women of principle. Nonetheless, perhaps the chaotic state of the world (and, let’s not forget the whole point of this, the dislocation, persecution and death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the world’s trouble-spots) may finally oblige countries’ leaders to rise above the dirty politics of selfish nationalistic deal-making and decide collectively, consensually, on what is right.

Until then, we’ll keep hearing empty words from politicians, those with vested interests ready to swear black is white if it suits them to do so.

The world’s dispossessed will continue to suffer. Closer to home, the Twittersphere is buzzing equally with hatred for British Jews on account of what’s been happening in Gaza, and with prejudice against British Muslims because of the horrific extremism of Islamic State.

While we wait for the politicians to do something, ordinary people should avoid stereotyping or scapegoating our minorities and cherish them instead.


Thursday 22nd August 2014

You heard it here first. Two weeks ago I complained about how newspapers constantly compile lists of things to do, resorts to visit, places to live and the like: then I shamelessly produced one of my own.

My timing was impeccable: last week the Oxford English Dictionary included, in its latest list of new words accepted into the English language, the term “listicle”, an article based on a list. Once again The Journal, and this columnist in particular, were ahead of the news.

We’re well into the silly season now, the month of August when the media, desperately short of news, either invent it or write articles about next to nothing.

My favourite silly season story so far has been a modest little Sunday Times report about an advance in robotics. It appears that small robots will soon be capable of carrying out menial tasks around hotels such as delivering newspapers to guests’ doors.

I was somewhat alarmed by this. You may think newpaper-delivery a fairly simple task, but I reckon it’s far from that. In my experience, the person delivering the newspaper to my hotel room door is required to crash open a nearby fire-door in order to disturb me before they are even close to my room.

Next, whether the paper is hung on the handle or laid on the floor outside, the deliverer is apparently trained to rattle my door to such an extent that they give the impression of being about to break down my door. As a result I wake up with a start around dawn, very much earlier than I would choose to: so nowadays I generally decline to place an order.

Designers of robotic tasks tend to underestimate such complexities. It’s not a question of simply leaving the paper: the personal-human, non-automated touch requires precisely such an additional disturbance and annoyance of the guest.

This goes to the heart of the problem of robotics. We both love and hate the personal elements of routine tasks and services. I dislike Hoovering: but I don’t want a ruthlessly efficient machine to vacuum without consideration and dispose insensitively of the papers I’ve piled untidily in a corner (a filing-system I tend to term “organized”).

I’m similarly nervous of the concept of a robotic lawnmower. I simply couldn’t trust it not to head off-piste involuntarily, shave the cat, dismember the tortoise or decapitate my prize perennial blooms.

Sci-fi guru Arthur C Clarke had it right some forty years ago when he wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey”. In that book (and subsequent Stanley Kubrick film) the on-board computer HAL achieves sentience, the Holy Grail of Artificial Intelligence, and deduces all too swiftly that the weak link in its space exploration programme is the human element.

We humans are so frail, prone to basing judgments on emotion instead of cold reason, that HAL’s only logical option is to remove the variable by killing the human crew. Surely, then, I’m right to distrust the robot cleaning my floor, cutting my lawn or delivering my newspaper: it won’t trust me either.

Clarke’s HAL is only the start.  The robots in the Terminator follow. I love the series. They’re intellectually undemanding, but the fights and chase sequences are great and I roar with laughter over the wooden acting style of veteran lead-man Arnold Schwarzenegger: it renders him an entirely credible killer-robot, the eponymous Terminator.

The rationale is the same: a computer system, Skynet, becomes self-aware and deduces that to protect itself it must destroy the human race, busting its digital gut to do so.

Be afraid, very afraid. We aren’t there yet but, for the time being, if someone must crash into my hotel room door while delivering my paper, I’d choose a bumbling human night-porter over a machine which, for all I know, could be harbouring murderous intent.

Mind you, I guess I wouldn’t be required to tip a robot ….


Thursday 14th August 2014

As promised last week, in keeping with the current newspaper fad for list of things for families to do, here are Trafford’s Top Tips for great days out in my beloved North Northumberland. Each visit is includes a recommended place to eat and/or drink.

 I’m not the Secret Diner. I’m dine enthusiastically but inexpertly, and usually do so in company and somewhat exuberantly (so, were I he, my cover would have been blown long since). Still, during these last weeks of continental-style weather we’ve combined walks, sun and sea with some great lunches. So here’s our randomly and unscientifically-complied list, made without anyone’s permission.

It started with a trip to Holy Island, with a friend visiting from London. We walked around the perimeter, through the sand dunes out to Castlehead Rocks Point where seals basked in the sun. We didn’t have time to visit the castle, but we found Pilgrims Coffee House It’s a Mecca for coffee enthusiasts, roasting its own Holy Grail blend. But for us the highlights were the homemade sandwiches, fresh salad, bottled Wylam beer and (I confess) homemade scones and cakes bought for later.

Our favourite beach is that below Bamburgh Castle. We park in the village and walk down that magnificent strand towards Seahouses. The family ritual involves lunch at the Olde Ship there, squeezing into the front bar crammed with maritime memorabilia (and old fishermen). We relish the smoked fish chowder: delicious kippers; a host of sandwiches; all washed down by a great selection of local ales. Next we pop round the corner to load up with fish at Swallows, who smoke better salmon than I’ve tasted anywhere else.

Our castle of choice is gaunt, ruinous Dunstanburgh on its windy headland, approachable from both north and south. The beach to the north simply demands lunch at The Ship Inn at Low-Newton-by-the-Sea. It was heaving on the hot day we found ourselves there: the queue for drinks was out of the door, but we still got served with their delicious home-brewed ales, various sandwiches and a ploughman’s with an amazing pork pie from a local farm.

On our subsequent visit we reached Dunstanburgh from the south, obliging us to lunch at Craster’s Jolly Fisherman. Despite a Sunday crowd, swelled by people escaping a sudden rain shower, the staff served food and drink with good humour and efficiency, even putting up with our summer guest, six-month-old Labrador puppy Bruno, fast asleep in front of the door: we’d worn him out.

A planned snack turned accidentally into some serious, sampling of glorious crab, fresh and smoked salmon sandwiches, and a bucket of mussels, followed by sticky toffee pudding. And after lunch our guest for that weekend was able to pop across the road to buy some of Robson’s famous Craster kippers to take home to Yorkshire.

On the hottest day of that late-July heatwave, we headed to the place voted a while ago as the most peaceful place in England, the astonishing College Valley on the north edge of the Cheviots. There we strolled past Hethpool Linn, a fine waterfall almost hidden by thick undergrowth and lost in its deep stony gorge. In one of the many deep pools we humans could swim a little while we taught young Bruno what puppies are supposed to do in the water: doggy-paddle!

One reason why the College Valley is so peaceful is, of course, that it’s remote. But you don’t have to drive far to find Milfield’s Red Lion Inn. Chef/landlord Iain Burn’s steak-and-ale pie reduces me almost to tears: but, while I’m fighting the flab (that ongoing battle won’t surprise you, having read this), I’m sticking to his imaginative specials such as pan-fried tuna on a bed of salade niçoise.

There’s so much on offer in the North East, and it’s all on our doorstep: I haven’t scratched the surface!

Get out and try it: and bon appetit!


Thursday 7th August 2014

It’s all about lists and league-tables nowadays. No sooner is summer here than newspapers are full of the top 25 seaside destinations: the best 50 country walks in Britain; the 15 most spectacular views; the 20 finest fish-and-chip shops in seaside towns; the UK’s 20 best ice-cream parlours; the 25 most satisfying ways or places to occupy your kids in the country or the water and give you some peace for at least one day during the school holidays; the 30 most eccentric forms of glamping in Europe (“Bored with canvas? Yurted out? Try sewing yourself inside the skin of a red deer stag and experience the true Scottish Highlands!”). The scope for bizarre rankings seems endless, and appears set to fill the weekend newspapers for at least the next month.

I guess we we’re expected to be grateful for the service such catalogues provide. Notwithstanding the presence of Google, endless TV travel programmes and even old-fashioned printed things like Rough Guides and maps, the papers are trying to help us find satisfying ways to fill our holidays and weekends. Otherwise we might spend all our precious time off vegetating in front of the box watching live cricket, cycling or Commonwealth games, enjoying wall-to-wall sport without breaking out into a sweat ourselves.

Or is it just a means of filling newspapers? After all, this litany of places to go and things to do follows the winter equivalent. Throughout the cold, dark months, in place of destinations we have catalogues of desirable places to live: the quietest; the liveliest; the best place to be old; to be young; to be merely bewildered (that’s the one for me); to get away from interminable newspaper lists of places to live in.

In their defence, I must confess that, as a Jesmond resident, I was pleased a few months back to see our neck of the Newcastle woods make it into one of those “most desirable” lists: if nothing else, it might help boost the value of local properties (including mine). But will appearing among the 100 Top Anyones or Anythings really make them more attractive as a personality, a commodity, an area to live (which is surely dependent on how one will make a living at the same time)?

For me the most alarming example to date has been “100 songs to love”. I only recognised one name, the Beach Boys’ hit Do It Again from 1969… and I couldn’t remember the tune of even that until my wife hummed it. Am I so completely out of touch? I asked the family. Yes, Dad, you are, came the reply, putting me firmly in my place.

You might argue that even this illustrious organ, The Journal, is not immune to the temptation to compile lists. The Editor created a fine riposte to that horrendous recent Guardian article which described the North East as “the UK’s Detroit” in the form of 100 Reasons Why the North East is Great. I’m right behind that initiative, still after six years slightly incredulous that I’m paid to live and work in a place like Newcastle with the ready escape to a place I love even more, North Northumberland.

Oops! The secret’s out. It is the place I love above all and, given the glorious summer weather we’ve enjoyed recently, one might be forgiven for asking why we Brits go abroad so often for summer holidays. True, Northumberland boasts fewer ancient Roman temples than Italy and Greece: it lacks the ancient Moorish cities of southern Spain, and lakes and mountains on the scale of the Alps and the Pyrenees.

But it possesses some of the most beautiful country and glorious coastlines I’ve ever encountered.

So buy the Journal next Thursday and read Trafford’s Top Trips in Northumberland: places to enjoy and admire in North Northumberland, accompanied by carefully researched advice on where to find food and drink.

Lovely jubbly,


Thursday 31st July 2014

Two things are certain in life, taxes and death. I pay a lot of tax: that reflects my pay grade as a senior professional. I live in a democracy. We elect a government: it sets the taxes. I may dislike the decisions Chancellor George Osborne makes about what proportion of my earnings I should hand over, but I live with them.

I don’t complain: really I don’t. I believe in the Welfare State and the need to defend ourselves: they can’t happen without people paying tax.

But recent news made me furious. A couple of weeks ago it emerged that the National Audit Office had taken HM Revenue and Customs to task for “a lack of rigour” in handling an IT project. Yes, another one of those!

The so-called Aspire IT project was costed at £4.1 billion in 2004. By the time the contract runs out it will have cost some £10.4b. NAO says that Capgemini and Fujitsu, contractor and subcontractor in the work, have already made a whacking £1.2b profit: more than double the forecast.

It gets worse. HMRC was supposed to take a share of the profits from that scheme, but government renegotiated in 2012:  instead of the £71m profit planned, HMRC has taken just £16m.

The system costs taxpayers £813m every year: NAO says that’s not value for money. Moreover, the deal expires in 2017, so time’s short to design and commission its replacement.

You couldn’t make it up: and it happens all the time. 100% overspends are commonplace in defence procurement. We proudly watched the Sovereign launch the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier the other week truly a triumph of engineering.

But we still have no aeroplanes to put on it yet. Moreover, while the estimate for the two aircraft carriers was £3.5b in 2007, the actual cost will exceed £6.2 billion.

I’m not telling you anything new: but brought together such cases make uncomfortable reading. As a taxpayer I’m furious that my tax and national insurance are collected so inefficiently and expensively. I get the annual demand to complete a tax return efficiently, stringent penalties threatened even while the deadline is months off. No such requirement of government, apparently. 

This isn’t a party-political point. A Labour government commissioned the aircraft carriers: the coalition has overseen the grotesque overspend. It’s not ruling parties that make such a mess, it is government per se.

I read about the tax fiasco during the spat between France and Britain over what the French called UK links to Russian oligarchs, and we Brits described as the French running arms to Russia. In fact, both governments have been allowing arms deals, France unashamedly selling Putin warships while Britain’s kidded itself that all the smaller weapons exported weren’t actually for use by the Russian armed forces. Mmm.

This isn’t a failure of particular ministers, or of individual parties: it’s a demonstration of the catastrophic uselessness of governments. They’re useless at procurement: and I’m unconvinced of the value of the common solution of importing people from the private sector.

Arms embargoes are tricky. What happens to manufacturers of weapons technology, and their employees, if we forbid them to sell their wares to countries we don’t like? Are we prepared to compensate them? Who would pay? The taxpayer, of course.

I offer no clever solutions. But politicians should be slower to criticise inefficiency and shortcomings in public services (the NHS, education, social services) when they fall so woefully short themselves. Humility would be preferable to the hectoring, bullying certainty that we normally endure.

I’m a passionate democrat: but I’m having to agree with Winston Churchill’s view of democracy as “a damned bad system… but nobody has thought of a better.”

All this reminds me of something I saw scrawled on a wall at university in 1974. “Don’t vote,” it read. “It only encourages them.”

In principle I disagree. But sometimes I fear the writer had a point. 


Thursday 24th July 2014

School’s out! By today I suspect every child in Britain will finally be on holiday from school. Length of holidays and pattern of the school year vary from area to area, even (crazily, from a parent’s viewpoint) from school to school. But this is the time of year when everyone gets that blessed holiday.

 

I know how talk about school holidays annoys people. Children, of course, think their teachers are just stacked up and locked away in a cupboard until September. Parents have a less narrow but no more charitable view. They grind their teeth in fury as they struggle to balance childcare with jobs, imagining teachers sunning themselves on the beach or sipping pina coladas by the pool.

 

For teachers themselves, the truth lies somewhere in between, but it’s an argument they cannot win. I won’t attempt a defence, merely noting that I know how hard teachers work; how much they’re metaphorically and sometimes physically on their knees by the end of the school year; and how great is their need to recharge their batteries before the onslaught resumes in August, September or whenever it comes.

 

For one national figure the holiday from school started earlier than expected and will go on longer. Two weeks ago today I attended a conference in London, the grandly-titled “Education Reform Summit”. I heard Education Secretary Michael Gove in top gear, giving no hint of  letting up on his drive to reform the entire school system. A civil servant commented to me, in glorious understatement, “Michael’s in determined mood”.

 

Reshuffles are pretty brutal things. The educational world was surprised by his departure. In staff-rooms up and down the country teachers were celebrating: Gove had done a great deal to annoy and alienate them.

 

But it wasn’t only the teacher vote that Prime Minister David Cameron feared losing at next year’s election. A poll had apparently demonstrated to Cameron’s election guru Linton Crosby that, while 57% of the electorate knew who Michael Gove was, 55% disliked him. That made him, I guess, an electoral liability: and the reshuffle was undoubtedly all about the election.

 

I’ve been in the education business for 36 years now, and I can’t remember another Education Secretary stirring up quite such strong feelings. Certainly there have been some hopeless and tactless characters whose sheer ineptitude roused education professionals to fury. Gove’s undoubted passion and single-minded determination (obsession?) to change things aroused powerful sentiments, for and against.

 

When dealing with him, people were obliged to take sides. Not all were against: many fellow reformers have lined up to deplore his departure, vowing to keep reform going. That might be a good thing. 

 

In the end, though, I’m tired of watching education used as a political football, bounced in different directions according to both the agenda of the party in government and the personal whim (and, absurdly, school-day subject preferences) of individual Secretaries of State. It’s time that politics in general and education politics in particular grew up and worked on a basis of professional dialogue, courteous discourse and a search for consensus.

 

I’m not exactly a radical, nor even a rebel, so to find my views characterised as “anti-standards” or part of  “The Blob”, as they have been by ministers and even Tony Blair, is pretty daft. Will Gove’s successor Nicky Morgan be less confrontational? Monday’s Journal cited her promising to be nice to teachers. We’ll see.

 

Meanwhile, everyone gets a break from it for a few weeks, and I’ll avoid mentioning education in this column!

 

But I’ll end with a cautionary tale from a primary school colleague (it’s best read aloud).  A little boy was complaining about a fellow pupil’s bad language. “He used the R word, Miss”, he said.

 

Slightly confused, the teacher responded: “Just remind me what the R word might be, Tommy”.

 

The little boy looked slightly abashed and then muttered, “Miss, he called me an a**ehole”.

 

Thursday 17th July 2014

Something very special happened last week. Not unique, but certainly unusual, and sufficiently remarkable for me to devote this week’s column to, and to pay tribute to 2 special people. I'm talking about my parents who, last week, celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.

People frequently ask the secret of such a long marriage. Dad and Mum answer in unison: “Don't fall out, and live a long time." Sometimes they add, with the wisdom of age, "And if you argue, don't let the disagreement continue to the next day."

They had wanted to get married in June 1944, but, as Dad put it, something else got in the way. It was, of course, the invasion of Normandy.

He was a young army doctor working at Woking War Hospital, a former railway orphanage taken over by the Forces, where he proposed to my mother, a young nurse. Fast-tracked through medical school, a necessity in wartime, he was 23, she a year younger.

In June 1944 all forces leave was cancelled. I guess everyone knew that “the balloon was about to go up”, and there was no way Dad could obtain leave. Indeed, even after the first wave of the D-Day landings was accomplished and the liberation of Europe clearly underway way (I understand it was by 8th July, their eventual wedding day), permission was granted only grudgingly. Dad was instructed to leave a phone number where he could be reached in case there was a crisis. In a moment of, for him, unusual rebellion, he had the good sense to lodge with his superiors a blank sheet of paper in a sealed envelope.

Then there was the difficulty of finding a Best Man. Dad’s elder brother had been serving in Egypt since 1941 and didn’t come home till 1946. His oldest school friend had been dropped off the front of a landing-craft on D Day, commanding a tank which, fitted with a breathing tube, had slowly chugged up to the beach. (He made it, but a lasting and powerful addiction to red wine might reasonably be put down to that nerve-wracking landing). So, following what was then common practice, Dad recalls, he just had to find a fellow doctor who had a decent suit, having previously passed the same selection test himself on several occasions.

 They finally managed a modest honeymoon, enjoying a few days’ peace in Wallingford on Thames, just a few stops up the railway line from Woking.

After the end of the war, and a couple of years in the army of occupation, Dad became a country GP. They now live in quiet retirement in the medieval city of Wells, just a few miles from where he practised for all those years.

Thus it was to Somerset that the family journeyed to celebrate this momentous event. All five children were there, my eldest brother travelling from Australia. There were grandchildren, but not all of them, because they're too many. And there were great-grandchildren, though only the youngest, because the older ones were necessarily at school (wouldn’t want to be jailed by the former Education Secretary!).

As we laughed and reminisced, Dad recounted stories from his days in General Practice. He finished his little speech with a favourite one. He was called to the house of a titled lady. She’d moved to the village reluctantly to be close to a daughter who, scandalising the family, had run off with, and borne three children by, a bricklayer. Her butler said her ladyship was ill, and feeling very low.

Dad found her in bed, with a nearly empty whisky bottle beside her. She was indeed miserable, complaining about everyone and everything, at odds with her life, dissatisfied and blaming everyone but herself.

"Perhaps," suggested Dad gently, “The alcohol is a problem. Maybe I should come back later."

"Of course, Doctor," she replied with aristocratic dignity. "By all means return when you're sober!"


 10th July 2014

Now then! That’s not some kind of admonition, as it might be in any other part of the country: right here in Yorkshire (where I’m writing this) that’s the normal greeting. Yorkshire’s been doing a lot of greeting this past weekend.

We stayed with our Yorkshire-based daughter in Otley, an attractive Yorkshire town in Wharfedale, just 10 miles from Le Grand Départ which kicked off formally at Harewood House on the north edge of Leeds.

Otley, like the rest of Yorkshire is gripped by Tour fever. All the pubs have been renamed, rejoicing in such names as La Toison (The Fleece), La Rose et la Couronne (The Rose and Crown) and, that commonest pub name, Le Lion Rouge. Yellow-sprayed bikes adorn almost every corner and building.

We walked all of 100 yards from our daughter’s house to watch the race hurtle through Otley. Two hours before the first rider appeared, the so-called caravan started: countless police cars and motorbikes; tour officials; endless sponsors’ vehicles. Producers of allegedly healthy exercise-drinks fielded large trucks grotesquely disguised as giant bottles of squash: we all wondered how they would ever get up those twisty passes up in the Dales.

The crowd was suitably partisan, reserving its biggest cheer for the Yorkshire Tea truck whose free sample tea-bags flung to the crowd were probably the most scrambled for. A plastic cow was quite sought-after, too: I didn’t understand its significance.

The riders received an enormous cheer: we saw them for all of 10 seconds, the breakaway group first and then, half a minute later, the peloton. Multiple motorbikes followed - and that was it.

The party continued long into the night. Yorkshire was determined to have fun. I’ve never seen so much street food on sale, barbecues and pizza vans outside every pub (there are a lot of pubs in Otley!).

It started again on Sunday, the riders kicking off in York and returning to explore some more of the Dales. We didn’t bother to cut up to La Côte de Blubberhouses. We knew the road would be closed: translation of “la route est fermée” is rendered in Yorkshire as “a reet bluddy nuisance”.

Our more adventurous younger daughter joined the tented village and mini-festival above Buttertubs Pass. Perhaps the most spectacular sections of televised race on Saturday, people crowded the roadside to see it. After the peloton had snaked up that long climb, the spectators walked or cycled the four miles back to where they had left their cars and then joined the traffic jams (amazingly, uncomplainingly) to get home.

Yorkshire certainly enjoyed the Tour: but did the Tour enjoy Yorkshire?  Our sense, and subsequent reports, suggest it did. Though the first two days in Yorkshire were classed as “flat”, anyone who has cycled the Dales (certainly not me) knows how tough they are. The spirit of the Tour seemed to be as strong and competitive as ever: and Yorkshire, with the support of the young Royals at the start, the PM at the finish and what appeared a genuine national pride in winning the contract to host Le Grand Départ, showed again that we can do these things really well.

Even the loss of Mark Cavendish through that nasty crash in the last kilometre didn’t dampen the passion for cycling (still evident in the following days, with hundreds or thousands of cyclists, including my younger daughter, out riding sections of the route).

We Brits are good at cycling: and, since 2012, we’ve certainly proved we host events well. Dare we hope ever to have a major Tour of Britain again? Start in Yorkshire, and head north? Sparsely-populated Northumberland might attract smaller crowds: but it would be thrilling to see the peloton crossing County Durham; climbing up out of Rothbury to Hadrian’s Wall; tackling Allendale and Alston before heading across to real mountains in the Lakes, Scotland and Wales.

It’s a thought, isn’t it?


Thursday 3rd July 2014

 When I met Manju, back in 2003, she was 12. She’d been rescued from a Rajasthan stone quarry where she’d spent her entire life. A bonded labourer, as were her parents and her grandparents, she’d received no education, never seen a book, nor a flower.

A third-generation slave in the 21st century? Impossible? Sadly not: until 2003 Manju had been one of a million bonded child-labourers in India, one of an estimated 60 million Indian children working full-time, for a pittance, instead of receiving an education.

Booked to speak at a conference in New Delhi, I visited Mukti Ashram, a refuge for children rescued from slavery, with a fellow headteacher whose school had a link with it. Welcomed with chai and spring rolls, we looked around the newly-built boys’ boarding house, inspected the garden, tended by the children, and saw the workshop where they learn trades and skills after their rescue.

As darkness fell, the mosquitos bit and the rats started eating the straw on the office roof, we sat outside while the children told their stories. They arrive at the Ashram severely damaged: the unconditional love and care they receive work miracles. It was bizarre to hear such happy confident children describe the terrible things done to them in the past. When rehabilitated so they can cope with school, the children go home to their villages, if they have families to return to.

There’s always a danger of children who return to their still-poor families being dragged back into slavery. So the Ashram focusses on empowering them. They’re helped to understand both the wrongs that have been done to them and the socio-economic circumstances that got them into that position.

They’re highly articulate about poverty, about the desperation that leads whole families into the hands of money-lenders and exploitative employers. They act out dramas about their own histories. They chant such refrains as “education for liberation: liberation for education” and “give tiny hands toys and books, not tools”.

Manju said she wants to be a politician: eleven years on, perhaps she is one. I’m writing about it here because those children who have become too articulate, too eloquent, too empowered to be dragged back into slavery can teach us all something.

They’re strong because they have a voice and know how to use it. Back in 2003 I felt I was meeting children who could, and will, change India. By now, they probably are.

I was reminded of that 2003 experience when, at the beginning of this year, I went to see the film 12 Years a Slave, the harrowing tale of a 19th Century black American kidnapped and sold into slavery. That was illegal, even in a country that still permitted slavery: but the victim had no voice. He could not protest because no one would hear, except unprincipled owners and his fellow slaves.

Silence, the muting of opposition, allows terrible wrongs to happen even in our modern world. Take the Operation Yew Tree investigations and subsequent trials. On Monday Rolf Harris was convicted of sexual assaults from 40 years ago. TV news showed old pictures of him with Jimmy Saville. Still we ask: how did they get away with it?

Their victims, particularly the young, had no voice. Some were too frightened or intimidated: others thought no one would listen. Those who did speak out were ignored, frequently threatened into silence by the hierarchy that should have protected them.

Still old cases emerge from children’s homes: and in 21st Century Britain we keep hearing of abuses in care homes and of hospitals where whistle-blowers are persecuted.

Those in positions of power can abuse that power by denying a voice to those dependent on them. Operation Yew Tree teaches us that celebrity is also a power that can be misused.  Rolf Harris’s guilt robs happy memories from those who grew up with his cuddly TV shows.

His victims live not with dreams, but with nightmares.


Thursday 26th June 2014 

I’ve always had a love of contradictory headlines. You know the kind of thing: “Judge hits out at violence” or “Magistrate acts on indecent shows”.

I’m afraid there’s one for me today: “Columnist takes hard line on extremism”.

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about this for a few weeks, but can’t put it off any more. When a hard-line (sorry to use the word again), government-directed court in Egypt sentences honest, hardworking and, yes, impartial journalists to seven years in jail for peddling a line that the government doesn’t like, we should worry.

We may not be surprised that things are so confused in that country: this is the second government since another extreme and despotic regime, (that of President Hosni Mubarak), was overthrown. An extreme, military-backed regime has deposed what had also been an extreme government run by the Muslim Brotherhood: the journalists, in appearing critical of the government line, are immediately accused of supporting the previous, now outlawed, regime. Such an abuse of justice is, at the very least, both shocking and alarming.

Distressing stories are continually emerging in the UK of Muslim families left aghast and horrified because their teenage sons have been seduced into joining what they see as Jihad in Syria and possibly Iraq. I use the word seduced advisedly: others have employed the term brainwashed.

Perhaps it is indeed as strong as that. Since time immemorial skilful preachers and agitators have preyed on resentment and weakness, particularly among the young. They persuade them that great injustices are being done to them and their kind and incite them to extreme acts in whatever cause they espouse. There’s nothing new under the sun, of course: but the current wave of Islamic extremism in Africa and in the Middle East is especially potent, dangerous and unpleasant.

The father of one of those boys (they are only boys, merely 18 years of age) is forthright in blaming the mosque his son attended in Coventry. He’s convinced the indoctrination happened in classes after the prayers. An imam interviewed on radio refuted the accusation unequivocally.

How do we find the truth? I’m not convinced I can answer that: but I am sure of what we need to do.

We must all be stronger about speaking out against extremism. I’ve written the same in connection with the much milder hints of xenophobia and racism emerging during UKIP’s worryingly successful election campaign in May. How do we deal with the man in the pub, the Farrage-like face of the guy who holds jovial court and then slips in the unacceptable opinion, the racist or homophobic jibe added quietly with a mischievous smile? Do we take him on? Do we criticise his intolerant view? Generally, because we’re easy-going, especially in that relaxed situation, we don’t. We let it go.

Yet we let intolerant views spread at our peril. The evidence of that is being seen right now. We all need to stand up against extremism. Certainly if extremism is spreading amongst the Muslim community, I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims are as moderate as the rest of us Brits, and don’t want it. All of us need to speak out against it together, speaking as one moderate nation. Simply keeping our heads down won’t work.

Faced with rising extremism we remain silent at our peril. I’ve quoted before Martin Niemöller’s poem about the way intellectuals allowed the rise of Hitler and the crushing of dissent to happen:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out:

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out:
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out:
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me: and there was no one left to speak for me.


Thursday 19th June 2014

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The older the get the more I quote that old saw; age and experience bring caution, I guess. By contrast, there’s been a lot of rushing in recently on the subject of British Values.

This followed the so-called Trojan Horse episode where inspectors were sent in to a number of Birmingham schools which appeared to be turning into exclusively Islamic schools, allegedly part of a plot to promote extremist views, segregating boys and girls and disadvantaging the latter. That’s not something we’d expect in 21st-Century England.

Some of the schools inspected were judged as failing to provide a good and balanced education. But was there tangible evidence of a coherent plot to “Islamicise” them? That’s doubtful. In fact, there is precious little clarity about the whole story.

In response, the government’s proposing to prescribe British values as an obligatory part of the school curriculum. That’s nonsense.

Good schools and the teachers in them are driven by values: at their best they’re not frightened to share them, although the pressure to be open and inclusive and to avoid appearing to push one particular creed has sometimes caused schools, like the rest of society, to back off and risk becoming value-free.

But, though teachers and schools model values, they don’t necessarily teach them as topics: I’m not convinced you can actually build values into the curriculum, as lessons taught in the classroom.

That leaves us in something of a mess: it was left to the Prime Minister to attempt to give a lead. His first few utterances have defined British values around tolerance and democracy. I’d hope those are indeed key British values: but they’re values to which any civilised country would aspire, not exclusive or distinctive to us.

You might argue that a race doesn’t show its true character until put to the test. What Winston Churchill referred to as “their finest hour” was the quiet, undemonstrative heroism of the Battle of Britain pilots who prevented what had seemed an almost certain invasion by Hitler’s troops in 1941.

Indeed, the bulldog spirit, the sense of people tightening their belts, pulling together and maintaining determination and courage during dark days was the hallmark of wartime Britain and of D Day whose 70th anniversary we’ve just celebrated. You might say we Brits had “a good war”, real shared values coming to the fore.

In easier times we get morally flabby and lazy. To be sure, the economic crisis brought privation and difficulty: but it’s not the same as being at war, facing death, invasion, subjugation.

Comedian Jeremy Hardy, on BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz, claimed as an overriding British quality that inevitable answer to any query about our health: “Mustn’t grumble”.

That relates to the unreasoning, unquenchable optimism gripping the country right now. Although England started its World Cup campaign by losing the first match, we retain hope. We cling to folk-memories of 1966 (football); 2003 (rugby); the Ashes (2005); Andy Murray (2013 and…?).  Brief glimmers of sporting success rekindle our hopes before we revert to the more familiar British role backing the team that promises much but ultimately disappoints.

Maybe that’s our greatest British quality again, our unique mix of resignation and patience: another kind of tolerance, the tolerance of disappointment.

We Brits don’t like to make excessive displays of patriotism. We don’t salute our flag and put our hand on our hearts American-style. We more readily complain, grouse and avoid too much disappointment by never getting our hopes up too much.

We shouldn’t try so hard with this business of British values. They’re difficult to define and, when we try to, we mess them up. Let’s not allow our fear of extremism to render us extreme in our turn when we demand tolerance and diversity.

Tolerance is about living and letting live: not about telling other people how they should live their lives.


Thursday 12th June 2014


Monday evening saw us in Bigg Market witnessing the start of the Blaydon Run. It’s a 9.3K event, which I make just under six miles in old money. That’s out of our league. We reckon on a maximum of three miles as we puff around our regular routes: our circuit of the Town Moor barely tops two.


So we were there purely as spectators. I’d like to claim we were supporting a great Geordie tradition, but that’s not entirely true. The Blaydon Run is just one of many modern 10K events around the country. But the song from which it derives its inspiration is truly a Geordie institution. “I went to Blaydon Races, ‘twas on the 9th June: 1862 on a summer’s afternoon.”


Of course, the characters in Geordie Ridley’s song weren’t running to Blaydon: they were on a bus to the races from Balmbra’s, heading along Collingwood Street, past Armstrong’s factory: just going down to the railway bridge a wheel flew off the bus, injuring several who were taken to Dr Gibbs’ surgery.


Dr Gibbs is commemorated on a blue plaque beside the Assembly Rooms. And the Toon faithful still sing the Blaydon Races at St James’s Park, so the Blaydon Run seems as good as any other way to keep the song alive as well as giving some fiercely competitive-looking amateur athletes an excuse for yet another race.


I guess we all love institutions and traditions. It is right that, since last Friday, we’ve been commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D Day landings, the largest amphibian and airborne invasion ever accomplished by humankind and the start of the historic liberation of Europe.


Simultaneously another national institution, Dame Vera Lynn, entered the Top 20 album chart at the age of 97 with her splendidly-titled “Vera Lynn: National Treasure – the ultimate collection”. Nothing over the top there, then. Still, having kept the nation’s spirits up during the war, and had the good sense still to be around on D Day’s 70th birthday, her inclusion in that celebration is both inevitable and welcome.


Not all institutions have to be ancient, however. Take, for example, TV’s hit series Game of Thrones: I’m told it’s now the most watched series in America. And it’s popular here. It’s set in an imaginary world rather like mediaeval Europe with added ice age, dragons, black magic and undead soldiers. Almost every episode is enlivened by a bloody murder and at least one raunchy nude scene which is not quite obscene but cheeky enough to make it a post-watershed show.


Genuinely daft but exciting escapism, it doesn’t pretend to any moral message (despite an alarming number of stiff upper lips displayed in the many battles). I’m hooked: my wife detests it.


Someone’s cashing in on the series’ status as an institution: he’s the author. George R Martin published the first volume in 1996: he’s currently writing flat out in order to satisfy production company HBO’s filming schedule. Now he’s auctioning roles in the stories to raise funds for two favourite charities. If you pay $20,000, you can become a character in a future book. Moreover (here’s the great bit), he guarantees you an untimely and unpleasant fictional death.


It’s an original take on charity auctions. I wonder what it would cost to become the literary lover of GoT’s beauteous Queen Daenerys, leader of an army of 8,000 eunuchs and mother of three dragons?


She’s beyond my financial reach, I fear. And, now I’ve mentioned her yet again, my wife, who’s becoming afraid that I’m obsessed with her, will send me on a run to take my mind off her.


But I won’t run all the way to Blaydon: not even with the sounds of the old song ringing in my ear will I ever manage another six-miler. Besides, I fear it may take many more miles than six to make me forget the lovely Daenerys entirely.


Thursday 5th June 2014

“I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.” So wrote the Beatles in their 1964 hit (on the album, A Hard Day’s Night).

An incurable romantic, perhaps, I still believe that money cannot buy love. It can certainly buy (or at least, cause) a great deal of hatred and bitterness. Almost every week I seem to read of a billionaire caught up in a vicious legal battle with a former partner. Is it about custody of the kids? Or their responsibilities to the employees on one of their vast estates? Of course not. It’s solely about the money, and who will get what share of the dosh.

When such conflicts go to court, at least lawyers can pose the amusing question. “Tell me, Ms X, what was it about the ageing, fat, balding multi-millionaire that initially attracted you?”

No, I’ll maintain my starry-eyed belief that, while money might buy a lot of things including possibly a semblance of love, it can’t buy the real thing.

But, my goodness, what a lot of other things money can buy. It can buy people, lock, stock and barrel, including their principles and integrity.

It now appears money can even buy you the right to host the football World Cup. Naturally I need to be careful what I write. In response to allegations that Qatar fixed the decision for 2022, a FIFA representative urged caution. It’s important, he said, not to jump to any rash conclusions until we’ve seen all the evidence. Quite right. Still, The Sunday Times printed just 12 pages of evidence, surely enough to cast a little doubt on the integrity of the process.

It’s not the first time. And I fear it won’t be the last. Recent reports suggest that FIFA is riddled with corruption. The International Olympic Committee has had its troubles too. That bizarre self-appointing, self-replicating organisation has lost some 10% of its members to scandal in the last three years. Nonetheless, things seem quiet for the IOC at the moment, perhaps because London won the 2012 Games fairly and squarely, and went on to make a huge success of them. 

As for FIFA, how did the committee decide against the unequivocal advice of experts to award the gig to a country that barely plays football and where temperatures are so high that playing outside an air-conditioned enclosed stadium (environmental impact?) would constitute a serious health risk to players and spectators alike?

With so much big money about, there will always be people sufficiently grasping and venal to bury principles in return for large wodges of cash.

It’s tragic. People love sport. Football is followed with passion all over the world. London 2012 showed just how excited a country (and the world) can become about competitive sport played in the best of spirits at the very highest level.

Those of us who pay to enjoy such things don’t resent the price of a ticket:  except when our favourite football club is being run to make money for the owner rather than for the sake of the game; or when a global competition is fixed not for the love and glory of the sport but for the gain of a greedy few.

This is only the latest scandal: I hope it will bring about some kind of redress, but I’m sure it won’t lead to prosecutions of corrupt officials or delegates. These jet-setting, glamorous high-fliers seem to exist above mere morality or legality: yet they are as grubby and mean-spirited as the next crook.

In such cases, I guess sport-lovers could hurt the pockets of these fat cats in turn by declining to support or watch the competition. But collectively we won’t, of course.

The reason these events are so huge is that people worldwide love sport, especially Olympics and football. Sadly, it’s on that positive fact, our affection for them, that the crooks thrive.


 

Taking parents to court over holidays is a step too far

Thursday 29th May 2014 

Sometimes it's refreshing to be told off. Like in yesterday's Journal where readers were lambasted by my fellow columnist Keith Hann, rightly outraged that 66% of people couldn't be bothered to vote last week. Lots of us are disillusioned with politics and politicians: I am, for one. But that’s no excuse for not voting.

 There’s an imperative here. When people apparently think too little of our democratic freedoms (so very obviously absent from other parts of the world) to be bothered, frankly, to get off their arses and maintain their stake in our democracy, I find myself becoming authoritarian. Perhaps the Australians have it right: maybe we should require everyone to vote by law, with penalties if they don't.

But then I sound like the kind of nutters who I warn could end up running our country if we don't exercise our democratic duty.

Just as I was coming to terms with the bizarre fact that the multi-cultural, ethnically diverse West Midlands, my former home, has voted Ukip into government, I received a blow from my other bête noire, Education Secretary Michael Gove.

No, it's not about him telling us what English literature syllabuses should contain (surely material for another column!). My current concern is with his plan to take to court – that is, effectively to criminalise – parents who take their children on holiday in term-time.

Previously, schools were permitted to grant up to ten days’ leave a year for family holidays where there were "special circumstances". Now circumstances have to be "exceptional". Headteachers, under pressure from government to improve attendance figures (and simultaneously hit myriad other benchmarks), are increasingly reluctant to give such permissions. Their reluctance is laudable. But I regard legal penalties as draconian.

If parents don't gain the school's permission they face a maximum fine of £60 per child per parent, a figure doubled if they don't pay within a week: those who refuse to pay face court action, a fine of up to £2,500 and possible jail term of up to 3 months.

Now, I know poor attendance in schools still represents a serious brake on improvement in standards for some schools in challenging settings. It’s true that children who aren't in school (unless home-educated) are missing out.

But lumping together the need to confront families who don't value or support their children's learning with the demonization of parents who for whatever reason need to take holidays during term is crazy. It’s yet another example of the scattergun policy-making too often adopted by governments.

It's also hugely illiberal. It is, in effect, government telling parents, "You don't know your business. We do. We’re telling you how to bring up your kids.” At bottom, it’s actually not so different from the suggestion that we should force people to vote.

Of course it's generally better for children if parents don’t take them out of school for a holiday. It's good for us to vote.

Lots of other things are good for us, too: for example, taking regular exercise; eating five portions of fruit and veg a day; talking to our partners instead of reading emails in bed; not smoking in cars.

But they don't have to be made legal requirements: though some probably are (or soon will be).

This isn’t just the nanny state becoming over-zealous. It's more like a Stasi state. It's North Korea without the silly hair. I frequently describe myself as a wishy-washy liberal (small l, non-partisan). But right now even we wishy-washies need to stand up for liberal values.

If we don't, and if too many can't be bothered to vote, we may find ever more freedoms disappearing, and illiberal legislation starting to constrain our lives, because government’s latest wheezes are "good for us".

Dictatorships have always started that way; the state of emergency, suspension of freedoms, press censorship, imposed "until normality is resumed."

As we all know, under those circumstances normality never returns.


 

Working with European neighbours can build new friendships

Thursday 22nd May 2014

Visiting my parents down in Somerset last weekend, we fell to reminiscing. With two people well into their nineties, the memories go back a long way: we ended up talking about my great-uncle Bill.

Bill was the son of the Scottish headmaster of the English School of Genoa in Italy. He was charming, excitable, gesticulated furiously with his hands whenever speaking (in comic-book Italian style) and was, my parents say, one of the funniest, most entertaining people they’ve known.

We’re not sure how they met, but he married my Dad’s Aunt Elsa, his father’s sister. Bill was by then a kind of land agent, based in Rome, among his clients the deposed and exiled King Alfonso of Spain. The young couple lived a good life, loving Italy and the Italians.

As outsiders integrated into the Italy of the 1930s, Elsa and Bill arguably had a perfect view of the distortion of a nation’s ethos by an intolerant nationalist message. Their experiences, as my great-aunt described the rise of fascism changing people, can shine a light on our times too.

Elsa would recount how people took to the streets of Rome in their thousands to see Hitler greeted by Benito Mussolini. As his open car passed by Bill, ever the joker, dramatically plunged his hand into his jacket pocket. Immediately surrounded by several enormous security men, he pulled out a colourful handkerchief with a disarming smile and blew his nose loudly.

In 1941 Mussolini declared war. Bill and Elsa boarded the ship taking all the British diplomatic and other personnel out of Italy. Apart from a few possessions they left with friends, they lost everything.

The Foreign Office posted Bill to South America. His job was to hang around in Montevideo and pick up information in the manner of a Graham Greene character. Clearly he was a spy.

Their daughter Hazel had been to a European finishing school, and spoke several languages. She spent the rest of the war training SOE agents who would be dropped into occupied Europe. Frustratingly, like most who worked in wartime intelligence, she never said a word about what she got up to.

After the war they returned to Italy, Bill now working for the Diplomatic Service, vetting applications from Italian families to emigrate to Australia.

Always the life and soul of the party, Bill was somewhat fond of a drink. Elsa described how she went home for a few weeks, leaving him strict instructions to walk the dog every day. On her return to Rome she took the dog out: it trotted straight to the nearest bar and sat down, clearly expecting to wait.

What an extraordinary set of adventures, and what a colourful character at the centre of them! Sadly, I never knew Bill: he died when I was a baby. My Mum still says, “Bill was the perfect gentleman. Even if he was too drunk to stand he would always raise his hat to a lady!”

I think I’d have got on with Bill! Sure, he was fun. More important, he and Elsa (whom I remember as a very old lady) bestrode the decades and the politics to build a lifelong love of another culture, fostering friendships across Europe.

That seems to me a much healthier attitude than the xenophobia dominating today’s European elections, Euro-sceptics in all parties winning too much air-time for their blinkered views.  I don’t defend European bureaucracy, sprawling, interfering and inefficient (much like our UK administration, then?).  But we shouldn’t confuse justifiable dislike of Europe’s officialdom with unthinking distrust of its peoples.

On the contrary, we need to work with our European neighbours to overcome differences and build friendships.

If Bill and Elsa could do that through a world war, by comparison the anti-Europe lobby shames us Brits. It threatens to take us up a blind alley. Doing us no favours, such narrow-mindedness makes all of us the poorer.


Thursday 15th May 2014

It’s been a week of news guaranteed to raise blood pressures! First, that Guardian piece comparing the North East to Detroit. I needn’t leap onto my white charger and ride to its rescue here. Plenty have done so already, the Journal leading the way.


I was struck by the oddness of the comparison. I’ve only been to Detroit once. Even in 1987 it had its tough and crime-ridden areas: but it boasted a gleaming city centre and was still churning out millions of cars per year.


Had I visited the North East back then, I might have been shocked by the contrast. Shipbuilding, steelmaking and coalmining were all in terminal decline. Indeed, the infamous Guardian article reproduced that famous 1987 picture of Margaret Thatcher walking through the desolation that had been the Head Wrightson steelworks in Thornaby.


Nowadays it’s Detroit in meltdown. Last year the city declared itself bankrupt. The scenes of desolation that once characterised the North East now to be seen in Detroit, replicated on a significantly greater scale.


By contrast, investment and confidence are returning to the North East. Regeneration and development are underway. Moreover, through the worst times as well as the better, our region has always been sustained to some extent by the sheer belief, energy and optimism of its people.


A thirty-year difference separates the two regions: besides, the Detroit comment was merely a throwaway remark from one observer quoted in the article, rather than a serious comment. It still became a headline.


The second piece of news designed to infuriate was the story of Gary Barlow and his Take That colleagues who set up a “tax-efficient” investment scheme for the music industry that inevitably lost money. A judge has decided that it was a scheme for tax avoidance and has ordered them to repay millions.


Some observers are outraged: but I can’t see any reason to demand the return of Gary’s OBE (awarded for charitable work). It’s the world we live in: and he and his colleagues will presumably pay up.


Consider a version of the verb “to be”, updated for our times:


I am rich.


You are blessed with a smart accountant and pay no tax.


He/she is a tax-evader.


I promise, hand on heart, that I don’t get cross about the tax I pay: there’s no point. I certainly fulminate against the way governments misuse the tax citizens like me pay. But I accept the fact that, the more I earn, the more I have to pay in tax.


Seriously high earners pay a lot: the top 1% contribute some 30% of the government’s tax income, so let’s not go wild and start claiming they all cheat. Most pay: but, if you soak them too far, they won’t use their wealth to create jobs, and they won’t invest. If you tax even the wealthy to a level that is seen not as a legitimate burden but as unjust, people are motivated to avoid it.


As for those among the super-rich who find one loophole after another, it’s time their shameless swindling was stopped. Those who live abroad to evade UK tax deserve our contempt. Government should change laws if necessary to prevent pan-national mega-companies paying derisory amounts in tax. But HMRC, so impotent against the big tax-fiddlers, shouldn’t be seeking direct access to the bank accounts of ordinary people: that’s an abuse of power.


Still, let’s not become shrill or bitter. Those who pay tax should calm down and cough up: it’s better for the blood pressure.


And those who constantly want to squeeze those lucky enough to be in well-paid jobs would do well to remember what happens if you kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Tax paid readily might make for less desolation and more hope, not just here in the North East but throughout our nation.


Thursday 8th May 2014


Please stop moaning about Jamaica Inn. The BBC aired its much-publicised new dramatization of Daphne du Maurier’s classic thriller over Easter, though I didn’t get around to watching it till last weekend. After episode 1 the newspapers, in the forms of both critics and outraged readers’ letters, fulminated against the appalling soundtrack: they claimed it consisted of incoherent and inaudible mumbling.


The BBC, nowadays so battered it’s lost all its fight, rolled over and apologised, claiming a fault with the broadcast quality on the first night and promising to improve it. Most people reckoned the next two were little better: and all this after DG Lord Hall promised to put an end to mumbling.


I don’t buy this. I’ve complained before about TV shows so dark I can’t see anything and, indeed, about dialogue I can’t follow. Neither was true of Jamaica Inn. Given it’s a period tale of smugglers and wreckers centred on a sinister pub in the middle of Bodmin Moor, you’d expect a lot to happen at night or in cellars, and it did. But the high definition pictures were stunning, even in the darkest scenes. Progress there, then.


Was the dialogue truly inaudible? I don’t think so. To my mind it was as good as, or no worse than, most modern drama. Besides, I wonder whether the most vociferous complainants have ever been to Cornwall: that’s how they talk there.


I’m a West-Countryman by birth, growing up in rural Somerset and later Devon. Devonians barely regard Somerset as real West Country: but the Cornish …


Cross the Tamar and you’re in a foreign country. Indeed, government recently accorded the Cornish official minority status along with the Welsh, Irish and Scots. I suspect Cornishmen and women really do spend time in pubs muttering into their pints (pronounced points), generally mithering about the English.

 

If the BBC got anything wrong about the dialogue in Jamaica Inn, it was this. It was too authentic. I could understand every word, because hearing the voices take me back to my youth. That there wasn’t anything wrong with the soundtrack was demonstrated by the evil Mr Davey, the vicar who turned out to be the mastermind behind the wrecking operation (I hope that doesn’t count as a spoiler). An educated, if seriously demented, parson, he spoke clearly and we could hear every word, even when he was about to dismember heroine Mary Yelland on top of a rocky tor.


Besides, regional settings are nowadays cool TV. Why is ITV’s Geordie detective Vera so popular, apart from rendering Whitley Bay as clearly dangerous a place to live as Midsomer? People all over the country (not just Geordies) love to watch her bumbling around calling people pet until she stumbles on the solution to the crime.


Mind you, while the accents are authentically North Eastern, the dialect is played down. No one says, in answer to Vera’s probing, “Ah divvent knaa”: viewers in Essex wouldn’t understand it.


I suspect the recent series of Shetland (which was hard to hear at times) similarly understated the real Shetland dialect, opting for a generic Scottish island accent instead. In any case, Shetland could never be a runaway success: it’s merely a pale imitation of the Scandinavian crime dramas currently in vogue. Clearly for a show to be a smash hit, nowadays dialogue has to be not just inaudible but incomprehensible, actually in a foreign language.


If Scandi’s now so cool, stop knocking Jamaica Inn. Instead, do your homework. Now the West Country is open again, join the traffic jams, go down there for a summer holiday and learn the accent. Or just switch on the subtitles and stop moaning.


By the way, if you find yourself on the Cornish coast and see a light flickering mysteriously, tread carefully. It’s probably a trap set for unwary tourists by a crazed homicidal parson.


Or couldn’t you follow that bit?



 

Kneejerk reactions unwelcome in the wake of teacher’s murder

Thursday 1st May 2014

You never know what’s just around the corner. Sometimes it’s a pleasant surprise. Too often, perhaps, it’s something horrendous. On Monday I got home from work to learn of the horrifying murder of 61-year-old teacher of Spanish, Anne Maguire, stabbed to death at her work in Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds. She’d taught for 40 years. A 15-year-old boy, one of her pupils, is in custody.


As I walked home I’d been pondering this week’s column. The idea I’d developed was usurped by this tragedy. How can I, a lifelong teacher, not comment? Yet how can I find anything new or different to say?


Murder, the ultimate act of violence, is a terrible crime. Somehow it appears still worse when the victim is someone whose life and vocation is to work for others. We’re outraged when doctors or nurses are killed in war zones or by terrorist activity. When a pupil turns on a teacher there is a similarly shocking sense of wrong.


We demand answers. Will we find that the young murderer was known to various agencies, that there was an awareness of risk but the school hadn’t been informed? Or was it a one-off, crazed event in the life of a troubled teenager? Whatever stories may emerge or mistakes be uncovered, they won’t bring back a much-loved and valued teacher.


So are teachers nowadays generally at risk of assault and murder? Are schools becoming war zones? I’m certain they aren’t: and teachers’ leaders have lined up to reassure the public. To be sure, we know that poor behaviour in schools is the major inhibitor of rising standards. And teacher unions at Easter highlighted the cyber-bullying of teachers committed by some pupils and even parents.


But neither problem, however serious, equates to the taking of a life. Do we therefore need rafts of additional security in schools? Do more schools than the few already doing it need to have US-style security at the door and metal detectors to trap pupils bringing weapons in? I don’t think so.


A leading campaigner against knife crime, a mother driven to make changes by the loss of her own son in a stabbing, was interviewed by Radio 4 on Monday. She said that schools need to stop denying the fact that knives are now routinely part of school life. I hesitate to disagree with someone in her position, but I believe I must.

The media have been quick to reassure us that murders in UK schools are incredibly rare. The last school homicide was the so-called Dunblane massacre of 1992 when a 43-year-old gunman, Thomas Hamilton, killed 16 children and one teacher at Dunblane Primary School.

After Dunblane, and other less grievous events, schools unsurprisingly looked to their security. Some, particularly those in urban settings, are now surrounded by large fences and security gates. Sadly, such reinforcement often appears to set a barrier between a school and the community of which it is surely an integral part. Fortunately, the widespread replacement of old school buildings with new has created opportunities for architects to focus access on a single secure entrance without creating the impression of a prison.


A sensible level of school security is something we must take seriously: we must live with it as we do at airports. But let’s keep this in proportion. Schools are safe places. Outrages such as Dunblane or that of last Monday remain extraordinarily rare. My sense, in these early days after the event, is that kneejerk reactions won’t be welcomed. Media or politicians’ demands for pupil searches, metal detectors and heavy security would bring undesirable consequences, seriously eroding the trust between teachers and pupils that’s vital to a happy, well-balanced school.


Better to avoid extreme responses, and concentrate on this very real human tragedy. That really is an incalculable loss, a terrible bereavement and something that demands the thoughts and prayers of all of us.