Bernard's weekly Journal pieces September - December 2012

 

Five days to New Year but no time off for good behaviour

Thursday 27th December 2012

Email received on Christmas morning from one of the daughters’ friends:

“Thanks for your musical Christmas card. Lovely idea. Unfortunately prompted Mum to ask Dad why he never does anything attractive or original that other people will like: he couldn’t even pick up the correct turkey from M&S. I suggested one turkey’s much like another. Apparently it isn’t. Atmosphere frosty.”

Oops! That’s the risk of the family Christmas. It’s boot camp meets boarding school, Scout/Guide Camp or prison: a disparate collection of people forced to coexist in a confined space for several days somehow work out a modus vivendi: it’s I’m a Celebrity without (one would hope) the dodgy food-trials. Add to that the almost desperate expectation that everyone’s got to be happy and jolly, that it’s got to be the “best Christmas ever”, and the whole scenario’s a pressure-cooker.

We Traffords have reached the age of having grown-up, working children who (charmingly) still come home for Christmas: there aren’t grandchildren, so we don’t suffer the added stress of meeting stringent additional childish demands, nor of being woken up at 5am on Christmas morning by shrieks of excitement (or disappointment).  On the other hand, with twenty-somethings around the place the drinks bill is staggering.

I’ve never found it hard to satisfy the conflicting demands of visiting relatives for particular foodstuffs - though Mrs Trafford comments tartly at this point that I wouldn’t do as I contribute hardly any cooking, choosing to disappear in search of “a bottle of something to go with that”.

That’s unfair. As I try to finish typing this, we’re just commencing my annual Boxing Day breakfast routine of enthusiastically-created mountains of bubble-and-squeak (fried-up bacon and veg left-overs from Christmas Dinner) and then getting in a temper because no-one wants it as they’re still feeling stuffed and/or hungover.

My late mother-in-law was an easy Christmas guest, though her addiction to TV soaps could be challenging. It would take almost military planning to fit watching two Christmas editions each of Corrie and EastEnders around the other required activities. In later years, she’d sleep through large chunks of the episodes, in any case, but the rest of us would have to suffer (at high volume) the predictable misery at the climax of the Christmas soap.

You know what I mean: aggressive, desperately unhappy characters invariably wait till Christmas Dinner at The Vic or elsewhere before dropping their bombshell: “I’m leaving yer, babe. I never loved yer. We’ve been living a lie, and the kids aren’t yours anyway.” Segue the doom-laden drumbeat, and I’m ready to jump off a high building.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I gather Julian Fellowes chucked a dramatic hand-grenade into the midst of Downton on Christmas night, though for us it’s still on the TV recorder: writers can’t resist the big opportunity to spoil our day. I reckon they’re in league with the drinks manufacturers. After those TV emotional roller-coasters the most modest drinkers among us need a stiffener.

When you consider, all families on the brink of Christmas stir-craziness tend to drink more than usual. Even the normally teetotal Auntie Hilda will risk just a small glass of sweet sherry before lunch. And all those family strictures (“And, remember: don’t mention the time when…”) go straight out the window. We’re on tenterhooks: who’ll be the first to let fly with a devastating but dreadful misjudged home-truth?

Here’s my survival guide for coping with such situations. When you hear Uncle Bill start to say, “Frankly, I’ve never much cared for…”, drop that large plate of cold turkey onto a hard surface, create as much commotion as you can while clearing up, then suggest brightly, “How about a trip to the Sales?”

To be sure it will cost you a fortune. But it’ll save a lot of blood on the carpet.

Only five days to New Year – but, in families, no time off for good behaviour!

 

Half-baked idea is bound to fall flat once out of the oven

Thursday 20th December 2012

In Norton Juster’s charming children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, there’s a place called the Half-Bakery. It’s the place where all the half-baked ideas come from.

Our government’s own Half-Bakery is working overtime at present. Its latest product is some kind of scoring system for surgeons, a notion doomed to turn out flat as a pancake.

As with many ministerial bright wheezes, at first it sounds a reasonable idea. Surely any fool can measure how good a surgeon is? Just count how many patients die on the table: how long they survive afterwards; how frequently they’ve had the wrong leg chopped off; even how many hours surgeons work (me, I’d rather have one poking around in my brain at the start of the day, rather than at the end of an 10-hour shift, if neurosurgeons do them).Of course, it isn’t as simple as that. The surgeon’s job is to get the knife out and do the removal, the transplant, the reconnection – whatever. But the nursing care thereafter might be completely out of his or her hands, whether it’s brilliant or useless.

There was a story, allegedly in Australia, about a hospital that couldn’t understand why more patients died in intensive care on a Thursday afternoon than in all the rest of the week. Careful monitoring uncovered a simple answer. The Thursday afternoon cleaner had difficulty finding an electrical socket for her vacuum-cleaner: so she pulled out an innocuous-looking plug for the half-hour it took her to whip round the floor. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the power-supply for all the life-support machines down one side of the ward.

I’m not convinced the tale’s true, but it serves to illustrate my point. There’s more to the success of an operation than how good the guy with the knife is. To attempt to rank surgeons risks reducing what they do to a crazily simplistic measure. It’s like paying policemen only according to the arrests they make – rather than counting successful prosecutions, or crimes prevented, both of which would be much harder to measure.

Don’t get me started on paying teachers by results, a concept tried around 1900 and rapidly abandoned because teachers ended up teaching according to the formula that would get them the best rate of pay, completely ignoring the needs of the children in their charge.

That’s what always happens with any kind of scoring or league table. We’re told the public wants clear information: but information so simplistic conveys no useful information at all. It’s more politicians’ rubbish, reflecting both their intense dislike of professionals who know better than they do and their irresistible urge to bully them into line.

Besides, do we really need to choose our surgeon? Even the idea of a choice of hospital is a spurious one for many people up and down the country. In a city like Newcastle we probably can choose between hospitals (though many specialisms are now rationed and regionalised, so not all hospitals within 10 miles offer all treatments).

If I, a Jesmond-dweller, need an operation, why would I want to be offered treatment in Leeds, Truro or Paris as I’m told happens?  I’d rather hope my wife would want to visit me in hospital. We won’t want that kind of choice: we’ll want the nearest, expecting it to be as good as any.

All my working life politicians have been trying to bully professionals into line, insisting on applying a crude measure to any publicly-funded activity. It doesn’t work. It never has.  But still they try.

If I do need, say, a toe-operation, I won’t look up surgeon league tables. I’ll take the one I’m given at the earliest possible date and, once on the trolley, I’ll just issue a Basil Fawlty-style instruction: “It’s the left big toe. On the foot. You’ll find it just below the leg.” That should be enough to ensure good service.

Happy Christmas!

 

It's time we grew up and said no to this damaging rubbish

Thursday 13th December 2012

How often do we say, “It must never happen again?” Countless times, I guess. Well, it’s happened again.

Of course, each time it’s a different set of characters involved, and a different branch of the media. But it seems to keep happening, and this time with truly tragic results rather than merely hurt and upset.

What am I talking about? You’ll have guessed. Two Australian radio presenters thought it would be amusing to phone King Edward VII’s Hospital in central London to ask how the Duchess of Cambridge was doing with her morning sickness. The female presenter (Mel Greig) put on a not-very-convincing posh aristocratic English voice and asked to be put through to the ward. She was given details of Kate’s condition that were recorded and then broadcast.

It might have been the usual thing, a joke that went a bit far, personal details broadcast live, and the usual amount of hurt, upset and public anger. But this went one stage worse. It appears that the nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, who put the call through to a colleague without querying it, felt so humiliated that she took her own life.

The radio presenters have been taken off the air until further notice: and the owner of the radio station, Australian media group Southern Cross Austereo, have been busily issuing unreserved apologies. Everyone agrees it’s a tragedy.

The presenters presumably never dreamed that their hoax phone call would be taken seriously and that they would actually get through to someone with medical responsibility for the Duchess. And then things just went on. That’s what happens with pranks. Then they can’t stop, and don’t want to. It’s a scoop, a radio adventure: in their excitement no one stops to consider the consequences.

I guess it happens everywhere. It certainly did here in the UK, though without fatal consequences. Remember Sachsgate in 2008? DJ radio presenter Russell Brand and his mate Jonathan Ross got carried away, thinking it hilarious to leave voice messages for veteran actor Andrew Sachs, then in his mid-70s. They were scurrilous, obscene and included talking about how Brand had slept with Sachs’s granddaughter. The actor, immortalised as the Spanish waiter Manuel in John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers series, was bewildered and bitterly hurt.

In his Tuesday column in this paper, Keith Hann begged, in effect, “Preserve us from prank phone calls masquerading as humour”. Amen to that prayer! Why did anyone ever think they were acceptable – or funny – in the first place?

Keith cited his parents’ love (and his hatred) of that old TV favourite Candid Camera. In the old days that was thought pretty harmless. By contrast the modern climate’s less innocuous, more vicious.

Mainstream television frequently involves humiliation. The Apprentice is a popular show: but the ritual bullying of candidates by Lord Sugar makes me cringe (okay, I know they’re on the programme by choice). What about I’m a Celebrity? Where’s the pleasure in watching C-list celebrities munch their way through grubs, locusts, ostrich testicles or other commodities chosen for their repulsiveness?

To my mind it’s public humiliation via television: but apparently it attracts an audience, as did (for several years, at least) the spectacle of Big Brother, where unpleasant people were confined together in order to knock spots off one another.

Professionally I’m an old git, generally expected to be out of touch with popular culture. But while we continue to make, watch and apparently enjoy shows that select and exploit victims for public consumption, these mistakes will be made, pranks will get out of hand, and real damage will be done.

I think it’s time we grew up and declined to partake of such damaging rubbish. We don’t need Leveson. We don’t need legislation: where people are hurt or damaged they have redress through the courts in any case.

What we do need is responsibility and generally more thoughtful broadcasting. Is that too much to ask?

 

Forget Royal babies, elephants and Joey - it's the silly season

Thursday 6th December 2012

Forget the Levison Enquiry: put to one side economic meltdown; overlook civil war and murder in Syria; ignore the apparent assassination of Russian whistle-blowers; and side-line the ex-HBOS boss who admitted selling off his shares just before his bank collapsed.

Since Monday there’s been only one story - Kate, Wills and the baby. The news broke very early in the pregnancy, so we must hope all goes well. Then newshounds will have plenty to chew on in the coming months. All being well, joyous royal stuff will keep filtering into the news alongside speculation about when that new baby will become king or queen. Not in my lifetime, for sure. It’s hard to foresee that infant being crowned before 2060. Politicians get younger and younger, while royalty gets ever older and goes on forever.

The happy announcement all but eclipsed other stories that had caught my interest over the weekend.

First, the story of Anne, Europe’s oldest elephant secretly filmed being beaten by her Romanian groom at Bobby Roberts’ Super Circus.  It seems Anne is now blissfully happy at Longleat Safari Park: they’ve built her a lean-to behind the rhino enclosure, and are reckoning to set up an elephants’ retirement home, with Anne as first resident. She likes the other pachyderms as neighbours, but is irritated by the pelicans (aren’t we all?).

The Sunday papers brought another arcane scoop. The army is to close down for four weeks over Christmas. Saving a fortune in fuel bills, they’re going to turn off the water, switch off the lights and work from home.

Quite how this will work out is puzzling. I guess our forces who aren’t actually fighting in Afghanistan can go for cross-country runs in their own time, without going into barracks. Snipers can do rifle practice with a cardboard target stuck on the garden fence. Fighter-pilots can borrow a farmer’s field for take-off and landing, as long as it’s not too flooded. And armoured regiments can practise driving their tanks and APVs on local roads.  Instead of the people-carrier they can use the Chieftain to pop into town for that last bit of Christmas shopping: parking could be a challenge – for other drivers, at any rate.

We normally see such daft stories only in August, when real news is on holiday: Kate’s announcement saved us from a silly season for news in December. Yet a certain underlying logic emerges. The army’s Christmas closure isn’t as stupid as it sounds. I’m told Swiss Army soldiers take their guns home on Friday and don’t turn up to guard the country again until Monday. It must work: who’s invaded Switzerland in the last couple of hundred years?

William Tell’s legendary apple-shooting skill can’t be the only deterrent: so civilised and well-organised a nation is Switzerland, incipient invaders must have always felt it would be rude to upset things out of office hours. Perhaps potential enemies will extend similar courtesy to Britain, a country that famously makes the most of the Christmas break.

That elephant retirement is intriguing too. Even in these difficult economic times, animal charities do better at fund-raising than any others. The richest charity in the UK is still, as far as I know, that famous Donkey Sanctuary: old, sick, hungry and homeless people apparently come further down donors’ priority-lists. So it should be a doddle to fund the future welfare of thick-skinned, shambling creatures that trumpet, eat a lot but do little else. Rather like those ageing royals.

Hang on! Why not extend the elephants’ retirement home for them? Then William and Kate could assume the throne early and media could feed on their glittering lifestyle. Two birds with one stone!

Okay, I’m indulging in fantasy. But why shouldn’t I? Everyone else is. How do you explain otherwise that other recent headline? Joey Barton, in Marseilles, announces that he’s too intelligent to be a serious footballer.

And you say it’s not the silly season?

 

Counting the hours of a downpour may be stuff of our future

Thursday 29th November 2012

Will it? Won’t it? That was the sole topic of conversation all of Monday. The afternoon saw the rain continue, and water levels rise. The first roads were closed, making it difficult for people to get home from work

The downpour continued through the evening. As I walked through Jesmond around 10.00 pm, there was a waterfall escaping off my hat and down my (fortunately waterproof) coat.

Jesmond held its breath! The Town Moor was saturated. The underpass beneath the Great North Road was full to the top. Brandling Park became a lake which rose inexorably.

The thin line between survival and disaster, in flood terms, took the form of a blue Council pump transferring water from the flooded underpass into the sewers.

Come Tuesday morning it was still raining hard. Local radio reported road closures, mainly south of the river and in County Durham. Then the rain clouds rolled back. Blue sky appeared, and it became (briefly) a sunny morning.

So Jesmond escaped, though other parts of the region, and certainly other areas of the country, were less fortunate. Here we breathe again. In a day or two we might even put those sandbags back in store, until the next time.

An astonishingly wet summer and autumn, the wettest since whenever, has created a problem that never existed before: “once in a hundred year” floods have become regular occurrences. But for the Council’s modest pump chugging away day and night, I’m convinced the accumulating water would have swept through the rest of Jesmond once again. It was a damned close-run thing, as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo.

Over the last 50 years or so we’ve become accustomed to expecting the Council to do everything. We pay our Council Tax, business rates, water charges: we presume that “someone out there” will protect us from water coming in, taking it safely out and away. Are all bets off now? In the new world order, must people whose houses are prone to flooding concede that they simply can’t be insured?

That’s hard to accept. It’s not the way we feel things should run. Yet up and down the country now councils have no money: Newcastle reckons it cannot even empty the dustbins every week, let alone provide millions for improved drainage. According to a Jesmond residents’ meeting, the Freemen are unwilling to discuss doing something about drainage on the Town Moor which they own: are they being mean? Or is the scale of work required simply beyond the means of any local organisation or council in these straitened times?

I don’t have any easy answers. In fact, I’m annonyingly asking the questions and then leaving them hanging. I’m sure we should demand some kind of response from the Freemen with regard to the water that runs off the Town Moor. And we need full and honest technical information from the Council, and from Northumbrian Water, as to what can and cannot be achieved. But what else?

Whether this year’s rain is a one-off event in weather terms, or whether it reflects changing patterns of climate that will continue to drop rain and snow on us in quantities hitherto undreamed of, we currently have no idea. Only time will tell.

In the meantime we have to come to terms with it. Certainly those of us who can will be obliged to install flood prevention measures: barriers, non-return valves on our sewage outlets and the like. We’ll need to pay close attention to weather forecasts and flood warnings in a way we never used to. We must keep the sandbags readily available to put in place. And maybe, just maybe, we are going to have to spend more nights as I have done this week, listening to the rain falling, counting the hours of continuous downpour and wondering, worrying, whether the flood will come.

That, alas, might truly be the world we inhabit now.

It's shades of grey on my head that have captured my interest

Thursday 22nd November 2012

We are not alone. No, I’m not quoting one of those lines from old science fiction films: I’m celebrating the satisfying announcement by researchers at Warwick University that it’s not only humans who suffer from midlife crises. Our near-relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, do the same.

I thought it was just me! I can’t deny I’m now middle-aged. My midlife crisis has not brought about any particular periods of misery, but has wrought dramatic changes.

When my wife and I passed 50 we went wild carrying out improvements on a country cottage we’d bought some years before. Shortly after, I changed job, moving from the Midlands (where we’d lived for 27 years) to Newcastle. And I bought a sports car: nothing grand, just a second-hand Mercedes, somewhat battered and ageing like its owner, almost worthless in monetary terms but possessed of awesome power and a soft top (also like its owner?).

Occasionally my daughters query how many midlife crises I need. I assure them I’ve stopped now.

Returning to those chimpanzees and gorillas, researchers sent out questionnaires to zoo keepers who knew their charges well and could accurately judge their state of mind and sense of well-being. So far, so good. But until we can actually communicate directly with the creatures, I don’t see how we can claim really to know how they’re feeling.

We cannot comprehend precisely how the female chimp feels when she reckons her figure’s starting to sag, all the weight heading south to the hips: nor can we judge whether an anxious-looking middle-aged gorilla is asking her mate whether her bum looks big draped in that banana frond.

Besides, what’s the primate equivalent of middle-aged hair-dyeing or Ferrari-purchase? Do gorillas actually worry about turning grey? Since a large gorilla is called a Silverback, does additional grey hair strengthen his position as a  patriarch?

Hair colour raises questions for me. My hair is brownish, and I like to think that my more recent grey tints add a hint of gravitas. I’m the youngest of five children, and one of my motivations for getting on in life (so my therapist assures me) has been an urge to be taken seriously. So I’ve tended to welcome a modicum of grey hair as helping.

I don’t reckon animals get fat in middle age in the way we humans do. Suddenly our trousers don’t fit, we can’t see our knees anymore because of the protruding stomach, and the doc starts to give us reproachful looks. I touch on this subject with some feeling: in late August (after a self-indulgent summer) my family ganged up and made me agree to take myself in hand and lose weight. The good news is that I’ve lost over a stone and the pounds are still coming off, if slowly.

The bad news is that it’s a miserable process. Even though I’m now allowed a drink again, every unit is counted: I wade through mountainous salads and eschew chips. It’s not a fancy diet: I just try to do the commonsense thing of not eating or drinking too much.

Confess I feel better, and the morning run’s easier with the equivalent of seven fewer bags of sugar flopping around the waistline (that’s a scary comparison). I have a smug sense of virtuousness: but this is not something to be enjoyed, merely endured, grim satisfaction in the achievement but little pleasure in the process.

But there’s joy for me in that research. If this middle-aged man is forced to grow up and start being sensible about intake, lifestyle, exercise and health, it cheers me to know that the chimp and gorilla communities go through the same. They, like me, can empathise with the man who went to the doctor and asked how he could live to be 100. “Give up smoking, drink and women,” came the reply.

“Then will I live to be 100?”

“No,” replied the doctor. “But it’ll feel like it.”

 

If only we would shut up for a minute, we might make progress

Thursday 15th November 2012

Amid the gloom and turmoil of BBC implosion, heads rolling, others ducking, diving and blaming one another and no one coming out of it with credit, it was good to hear on Monday’s Today programme a clip from a news broadcast from 90 (yes, 90) years ago:  “There isn’t any more news to report, so here’s some music.” There followed an attractive piece of 18th Century piano music.

How refreshing! Instead of wringing the last drop of misery from whatever dominated the news at the time, the BBC was happy in 1922 to cleanse the palate with a spot of Bach.  It wouldn’t happen nowadays.

To be fair, you wouldn’t expect it to. News is truly 24/7, a non-stop procession of events, analysis, dissection, comment, criticism and blame. Moreover, having brought events up to the present, we introduce experts and insiders to give us their informed view of what dire consequences will ensue and what should be done next.

In our insatiable thirst for news, we demand – at least, we’re given, which may not be the same thing – news before it even happens. Whenever a politician is about to make a pronouncement, we’re forewarned: “In a speech at the Mansion House tonight, the Prime Minister will tell bankers that ….” Don’t bother. We already know.

It’s not only politicians and businesses who do it. Television creates its own news. BBC or Channel 4 News announces one day the revelation that will be explained by their investigative journalists during Panorama or Dispatches the next. Last Sunday we read in the papers about the emerging background to the murder of UK businessman Neil Heywood in China: but we had to wait till Monday evening to see the full story on TV.

It’s the world we live in now. Broadcasts cannot be silent for a moment: and, while pundits keep predicting the death of newspapers, millions are still printed every day.

It’s a treadmill we can’t get off. We’re so used to noise and words that few of us can bear a gap. Silence is golden, they say: it can certainly be an effective ploy in a meeting to allow a reflective pause to descend before bringing matters to a conclusion. But most of us don’t do that: I certainly don’t (that’s a peculiarly headteacher-ish malady). There’s a silence, so we feel obliged to fill it.

“For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” wrote Alexander Pope in An Essay on Criticism. It’s worth quoting also our national treasure, playwright Alan Bennett (currently in the news for having a pop at that other national treasure, The National Trust, in his latest play, People). In one of his published diaries Bennett writes a heartfelt entry: after one of those days of solid writing that seemed all labour and little inspiration, he feared he’d merely increased the number of words in the world, but added nothing of value. How different is poetry, he exclaimed, where less says always so much more.

I often refer to that passage - then ruin it by explaining at length!

As a society, and as individuals, we fear silence. Yet last Sunday morning at 11.00 am was in striking contrast. I found myself in London, when the capital fell almost silent for two minutes on Remembrance Day. It was moving to discover we are still prepared to pause just once in a year, for that best of reasons. It made me ponder how rarely we do so at other times.

So having written this, and filled up another page (pace Alan Bennett) I’ll stop. And next time there’s nothing to say or write, I’ll try to remember not to fill that silence and, instead, play a little Bach.

Will I? It would be good for the soul. But I fear I’m unlikely to resist the temptation. I’ll rush in, sound off - and the precious moment will be lost.

 

Effects of climate change shake the Big Apple to its core

Thursday 8th November 2012

As the east coast of America gradually puts itself right, and as the whole of that great nation re-elects its president, those Brits who have been affected by Hurricane Sandy are starting to sort their lives out, too.

Two weeks ago one of my teacher daughters was on a week-long study tour in Washington and New York: she flew back three to four days before Sandy struck, avoiding any drama.

By contrast, some friends from London flew into New York before the hurricane, and weren’t due to fly back until well after: while their travel was unaffected, their Facebook pages are full of pictures of them in New York but unable to enjoy its sights.

So there they are, pictured by the “closed” sign outside the Empire State Building: with the Statue of Liberty in the background, closed due to hurricane; at the entrance to Ground Zero, closed by flooding. They must have been fed up: for most of their visit New York was there, but closed: they couldn’t even experience the Marathon, since that was cancelled.

Hurricane Sandy impinged on my professional life. In school we had to deal with a party of 23 students and three staff stranded in New York by the super-storm. They were on a week-long art trip to the Big Apple, due to take in the sights and sounds as well as such fantastic galleries as the Guggenheim. They should have flown home last week: in the event, we had to send a bus to meet them at Heathrow on Tuesday, a full seven days late.

Naturally there were anxieties. Parents, short of information at times, were worrying about how their children were coping. Teenagers aren’t always the best communicators: and phone signals, like electrical power, were intermittent at best in New York last week.

Mums and dads were naturally fearful about their children’s safety when they saw horrendous news pictures. Once reassured that they were safe in a youth hostel far from the flooding, they next became anxious about whether they were getting fed. Were they running out of money? And what about clean clothes?

Some of our students learned a new life skill: using a launderette! The party’s leaders had to negotiate their hostel rooms on a night-by-night basis. They were fortunate the New York Marathon didn’t happen: the expected influx of runners didn’t materialise.

Things looked up. While we wired money from the UK to pay the mounting bills, our boys and girls enjoyed convivial meals at Hard Rock Café. They watched “War Horse” on Broadway, seats available through cancellations.  Sunday’s a free day in NY, so they also got into a host of additional art galleries without having to pay.

So it wasn’t a big deal then, was it? Just a (tropical) storm in a teacup?

Er, no! A massive hurricane striking one of the world’s biggest, most powerful cities challenges many preconceptions. Americans, proud of their resilience, coped valiantly: but there was too much damage, too much water, too much disruption for life to carry on as normal. The death toll passed 110. Power supplies crashed and the subway was out of action. There was something, well, shocking about the temporary closure of the Big Apple.

For my students, now safely home, it will be an experience they’ll remember and perhaps recount to their grandchildren one day! They were there, they pulled together, they maintained good humour and comradeship: and they prevailed. They were remarkably cheerful, if tired, when they got back.

But they may take global travel less for granted in future. And perhaps we all need to reconsider our too-often dismissive attitude to climate change. Crazy weather used to be rare, unheard-of in a major metropolis.  Not now:  Sandy-hit New York might make us rather more climate-aware.

For Brits visiting New York, then, no harm done. But perhaps we are all a little wiser as a result.

 

Is it time to turn the page for good on risqué calendars?

Thursday 1st November 2012

I came across an intriguing newspaper event this week. The Mail on Sunday startlingly filled its Page 3 with pictures of naked women.  Now, before you decide that civilisation is finally collapsing, let me explain. It was giving publicity to a Good Cause by announcing the launch of the 2013 calendar published by Garrison Girls, the charity run by military wives with the aim of raising £5m to help current and past servicemen and women suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Actually, this isn’t a new story. The charity has a solid track-record: they’ve been selling calendars since 2009, following the Calendar Girls idea of coy, suggestive and faintly humorous nude pictures. Whereas the WI’s pioneer women hid the naughty bits behind cunningly positioned pastries, the somewhat younger and arguably more photogenic Garrison Girls show more flesh while creating patriotic drapery effects with a Union Flag or Naval Ensign.

The Mail on Sunday was helping to promote an excellent cause, and the calendars are in good taste: so that’s all right, then.

Or is it? I don’t for a moment criticise Garrison Girls for doing it, from the very best of motives. But I wonder if there’s something a bit sick about a society where, to raise money for people in desperate need and deeply deserving of our help, young married women have to get their kit off.

It must take guts to do it: so is it like a dare? That’s the same, I guess, as being sponsored to run a marathon. The psychology goes like this. “This will take a load of training, effort and pain: so in recognition of that harsh fact, I’m asking you to give money to my chosen charity.” It’s a kind of vicarious recompense for all that hurting and commitment, and makes the runner feel even better.

Sometimes I suspect there’s not much pain, but a lot of thrill – for example, when people get sponsored to do a parachute jump. Mind you, I’m so terrified of heights that even the offer of a million pounds to my favourite good cause (or to my personal bank account – there’s a thought!) wouldn’t get me out of the plane when the moment came.

If Garrison Girls are right that we, the general public, will shell out more for their calendar than we would stuff in a collecting tin at Morrisons’ check-out, are we then rewarding the courage of the volunteer, amateur models who bare all? Or are we buying something we don’t particularly want or need because we feel sorry for them (for the models, or for the PTSD sufferers?)?

Please don’t tell me they’ll raise more because blokes will flick from one month to another, nudge their mates and say, “Phwoaar! Look at that one!”

I’m pretty sure I’m not a prude (though I find myself saying that a lot nowadays, so maybe I’m becoming one). But I can’t help feeling there’s something wrong, somewhere, if attractive young women make money – even altruistically – by showing their bodies. The pictures aren’t art, even if they’re arty. They’re not porn, of course not: but they are provocative, sexy.

At a time when even supreme athletes like Jessica Ennis struggle to gain the recognition or media coverage that their male counterparts enjoy: while women still have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as men to get top jobs; while we struggle to deal with the damage done to countless women and girls by serial predators and sex-offenders (think TV celebrities, think Oldham); while women are still trafficked illegally into this country and enslaved by a booming sex-trade; and while easily available online  pornography risks training adolescent boys to see girls as objects to be used and abused;  when all that still pertains, I think there must be better ways of raising money, however good the cause.

I’m going to give to Garrison Girls’ charity, because it’s important: but I’ll decline to buy the calendar.

 

Do any of our leaders and role models have an ounce of integrity?

Thursday 25th October 2012

Leadership. It’s quite a buzz-word nowadays. At the recent party conferences, all eyes were on their leaders. Their qualities are crucial if they are to win elections for their parties. If they lose, they’ll carry the can.

When things go wrong in industry, in large corporations, in banks, in the Health Service, at the BBC, blame is laid at the door of leadership.

Who helps train and encourage those leaders in turn? Who provides them with a role model? Someone who’s been in the front line, at the sharp end: and who’s able to draw on hard-won experience to inspire, build confidence and courage and make tough decisions when necessary.

Look to the Armed Forces. I’ve lost count of the number of brigadiers and generals whom I’ve heard speak on leadership. They invariably impress. They’re superbly trained: they’ve honed their skills in the toughest environments. I once witnessed a senior officer recall planning a hostage rescue with Tony Blair, then PM. He could do it, he affirmed. Then he asked Blair, “How many body bags are you prepared to accept as the cost?” In the event, casualties were minimal.

I used to view such retired senior officers as experienced, rugged, decisive. It seemed logical to assume they were also fair-minded and honourable.

Alas, the latter qualities have been exploded by recent revelations that the old top brass is on the make. Generals, brigadiers, admirals, some now life peers, have been filmed by undercover reporters boasting about how they can lobby politicians and, for a whacking fee, secure lucrative government contracts for their clients.

Naively, perhaps, I’d assumed these old warhorses had integrity as well as moral strength. Now the snouts of some very big military names have been discovered as deeply in the trough as those of the other fat cats (can cats have snouts?). We’ve fulminated against the dirt, corruption and insensitivity of bankers and others who gambled with our economy. We were amazed to find how deep-seated was the lack of integrity among the leaders of institutions that should have been protecting and developing the prosperity of our nation.

Nonetheless it’s somehow particularly shocking to learn that the old solid-as-a-rock military has gone the same way. We like to picture, even caricature, those retired generals: straight as a ramrod; immaculate in mess kit; handlebar moustaches quivering; medals clanking on their chests; first to write in moral outrage to The Times (from “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”) about some perceived shortcoming, indecency or dishonour in public life; slightly absurd – but ready as ever to give their lives for Queen and country;.

If that image was attractive, it’s been shattered. The casual arrogance of those guys trapped on film (you’d have thought they’d be cleverer) was repulsive. 

What now? As one icon of integrity after another seems to be blasted to pieces, one wonders where any of us can look for moral leadership, let alone for role models for the young. Everything, it seems, is negotiable, open to a bung or a deal. Even where it isn’t strictly illegal, such behaviour is dirty, dishonourable and dishonest: but the perpetrators are macho and boastful about it.

Money-men, politicians, churchmen, Jimmy Savile: one after another individuals or groups turn out to be bent, grasping or plain evil. Are there really no role models left?

Maybe we need to stop looking so hard. In the end, solutions for most problems are found close to home. The best role models remain the adults in children’s lives: mums, dads or others; those who give their time and love unstintingly; make mistakes but admit them; and do their best to hold homes and families together, even in tough times.

As for these senior officers, they’ve only gone the way of so many others before them. They couldn’t resist the smell of money and power, forgetting right and wrong.

Nowadays you might say it’s just generally bad behaviour.

 

Decency, reason and courage to speak can beat the bigots

Thursday 18th October 2012

This is hard to write. The world was outraged last week to hear of the Taliban’s attempted assassination of a 14-year-old Pakistani girl. When the Taliban, having taken over the Swat Valley, closed girls’ schools – banning them from receiving any education – Malala Yousafzai, then eleven, spoke out. Her voice was an anonymous blog. When her identity was revealed by her contemporaries, she bravely carried on.

She’s lived with continuing threats - personally and against both her education and that of others. In January 2009 she blogged about her sense of desperation when, at the end of term, the principal failed to announce the start-date for next term. She feared, of course, that school wouldn’t reopen after the holiday. Some of her peers left Swat with their families, moving to other cities in order to continue their education. Malala went home sad, convinced the Taliban would enforce their ban on girls’ education.

For three more years she’s battled. She’s been honoured and decorated for her courage. She’s an inspiration not just to her schoolmates, not only to young women in her region or country, but globally. She has been campaigning fearlessly for a woman’s right to education.

And the Taliban response? To send a hit-man into her school last week with the spurious justification that she was going against the edicts of Islam by “promoting secularism”. So reckless was the gunman, when he boarded her school bus, that he also wounded two other girls. Worse still, the Taliban have announced that, if she recovers from this attack (her survival still in doubt), they will target her again. Such is their callousness and disregard for these girls, their dignity and their fundamental right to an education.

Any decent human being must be angered by this. I don’t know if I’m more affected than others: for someone who’s been educating the young for 34 years, this goes diametrically against everything I believe in and work for.

A century ago in Britain, women were campaigning for the vote. Suffragettes were branded whores. It was argued that women’s brains weren’t big enough to cope with the complexities of voting. But the West finally moved, painfully slowly, beyond entrenched, selfish and blind male arguments that justify sexism, intolerance and prejudice.

The Taliban’s view of women and assumption of their right to subjugate them is a hundred years out of date. They remain wilfully in a dark age of ignorance and oppression, wickedly twisting religious doctrine to their own exploitive, abusive ends.

I burn with indignation on Malala’s behalf. In anger, I wish we could sweep the Taliban from the face of the earth. They have no right to live, one feels, let alone to terrorise ordinary people with their despotic, intolerant, cruel and entirely sexist form of rule.

This human reaction challenges my own principles. I never believed we should invade Afghanistan: despite our troops’ heroism and sacrifice, which I never decry, I hold the war wrong-headed and unwinnable. Nonetheless I loathe the Taliban: I wish I could destroy such a detestable foe.

Faced with such contradiction, I might be tempted to despair - but for one thing. While I continue to pray that their murder attempt fails and that Malala recovers, it cheers me that a 14-year-old girl can prove such a threat to the evil-doers. Those testosterone-fuelled bigots who pervert religious teachings to justify their sick desire for control and sexual domination are scared stiff. They’re terrified of an articulate girl whose mild and entirely reasonable statements shake the very foundations of their tyranny.

While there are people like Malala, brave and honest enough to speak for justice and human rights, even under threat of death, no tyranny, no despotism can be entirely secure. The Taliban are afraid: they should be. Because we can still hope that human decency, reason and the courage to speak out will eventually defeat them.

Malala leads the way.

 

Boris can only play the maverick because he is out on his own

Thursday 11th October 2012

Boris bounces bullishly into Birmingham. That’s a splendidly alliterative first sentence: it’s also a fact. London Mayor Boris Johnson wowed the Tory faithful at the Party Conference: inevitably, the media is fuller than ever of speculation about the threat he poses to David Cameron’s leadership.

It’s easy to explain Boris’s popularity. First of all, he’s fun. He’s larger than life, with a huge personality, a sense of humour, and of mischief. He’s a laugh, obviously conceals a keen intellect under the buffoon exterior, and revels in it. It’s hard not to like him: he’s a weird kind of outrageous, up-market man of the people. And, let’s be honest, he’s charismatic when far too few politicians are.

He’s a good communicator, as one would expect from someone who previously made his living as a journalist. Yes, he’s had some kind of career before going into politics, another thing that makes him less grey than so many of the MPs he effortlessly eclipses.

As for the clowning, how many public figures could make a hit from getting stuck on the zip-wire at the Olympics? David Cameron commented (not ungenerously) that only Boris could turn a prat-fall into a PR coup. That’s the nature of the man.

The other inescapable truth about Boris is that he seems to be doing a good job for London. Diehard left-wingers will always loath him and what he stands for, because that’s the nature of entrenched politics. Similarly those on the right love him unquestioningly for his Torydom.

But those in the middle, those who may have been sceptical of the blond bombshell’s ability to run our capital city, have been pleasantly surprised. You could attribute his first election win to ennui and dissatisfaction with Ken Livingstone: his re-election suggests that people really looked at this track record and decided they like what’s being done.

Then came the Olympics, a triumph in every respect, transforming the country’s mood, at least for a while. Boris was at its heart, playing his part cleverly: no pomposity, no grabbing the credit. On the contrary, he’s attributed the success to London and its people. While most politicians invariably use the first person singular, Boris describes about how “we” (or even “you”) achieved it all. There’s a sharp mind under the knockabout buffoonery.

So is he a threat to the Conservative leadership? Not yet. Of course George Osborne’s unpopular. No one’s going to love a Chancellor during a period of austerity, whether or not they agree with his policies. When we’re hurting we cannot like the person who inflicts our pain. Thus David Cameron inevitably shares that blame.

But, while the Tory administration is deeply unpopular, something bound to happen given the challenge facing any incoming government in 2010, one interesting statistic stands out. In the kind of polls regularly published by the Sunday papers Cameron is still seen as the most credible PM. He has gravitas, confidence, presence, an air of authority and competence, and a degree of charisma. While Labour’s proposed policies might enjoy greater voter support, the same polls suggest that Ed Milliband doesn’t inspire anything like the personal confidence that Cameron does.

So where does that leave Boris? Not out in the cold: but in a sense he can only play the maverick because he is out on his own, blessed with a powerful executive role as Mayor. He can challenge and mock Cameron about London’s airport capacity, for example, because he’s not bound by the usual government constraints of collective responsibility. And he’s not charged with curing the country’s economic ills.

Would Boris measure up as Cameron’s successor, in either government or opposition? We may yet be able to judge. But for now he has all the fun with little of the responsibility.

Still, he’s provided the only entertainment so far in a lacklustre season of party conferences. So, whatever our personal politics, we can certainly thank Boris for a few laughs!

 

Asian adventure has helped me to understand turmoil

Thursday 4th  October 2012

I guess it’s a miracle of modern travel (and possibly a sign of madness) that last week I could fly to China on Thursday and get back by Sunday teatime, spending two days there. The reason was a school-to-school link: as always, travel broadens the mind far beyond cementing a relationship between institutions.

My school is twinning in China with Tangshan No 1 High School. Tangshan’s a modest city by Chinese standards, with just 9 million inhabitants. It’s a coal and steel city, growing at an enormous speed and very prosperous – but is more famous for its tragic earthquake of 1976 which killed in excess of 300,000 people.

Tangshan No 1 High School is 110 years old this year, and I was invited to its birthday party. It’s relatively small by Chinese standards, just 4,500 children aged 15-18! A formal ceremony was held in the school hall. On the stage there were four or five rows of seats for dignitaries, resembling news footage of the Chinese People’s Congress.

As an honoured guest I was in the second row: the front row was filled entirely by politicians, local and regional, from the Governor downwards. The school’s Principal squeezed on the end of that front row!

Among the endless speeches, I gave the vote of thanks from the international guests. The local party chairman commented to the principal, “He wrote that himself. It wasn’t the usual rubbish written by a secretary”. Praise indeed!

There was a lot of bowing and deference, respect both touching and faintly amusing: status and protocol are immensely important in that egalitarian country, hierarchy always visible and rigidly maintained.

Guests were taken to visit the famous Eastern Tombs, the vast necropolis of the Qing emperors, their wives and their concubines built deep underground, with halls and terraces above on a scale reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City. The Qing emperors spent staggering sums on their memorials: but these aren’t ancient monuments from thousands of years ago, akin to the Egyptian Pyramids. On the contrary, while they’re a World Heritage Site, they date only from the 18th Century onwards.

Naturally the grandest tombs were reserved for the emperors, though the concubines of some were buried beside them. But one woman’s tomb rivalled that of the emperors. The honoured imperial consort Cixi rose to the highest level because she had the good fortune to bear the emperor a son. She was buried amid mountains of gold and silver.

The extraordinary thing is that she died in 1908. Industrialisation was at its height: Europe was on the verge of war; the telephone and electric power were already commonplace. Yet the Chinese emperors lived in a medieval time-warp, their rituals, even the funeral rites, unchanged for centuries.

You can’t take it with you: but Cixi did her best to. She didn’t keep it long, because in the chaos of 1928 China, a warlord in need of funds blew the tombs open and grabbed any treasure he could lay his hands on. So whatever afterlife Cixi was saving hers for, she lost it.

Europe too boasts plenty of spectacular 18th and 19th century mausoleums, but part of me nonetheless felt revulsion at the sheer vainglory of the mindset that created the tombs.

In China, to know is to understand more. If, in 1908, an emperor’s favourite concubine had the power to fix herself a burial reminiscent of the Pharaohs, we can perhaps understand how inevitable was the revolution.

I’m no supporter of Communism, nor of the wrongs still perpetrated in its name in China. But I certainly understand more now about the turmoil China went through to become a modern country. When I’m there, and engage with its charming and hospitable people, I feel it’s genuinely and sincerely trying to get there. There’s just a lot of baggage to get rid of first.

That’s something I’m learning to respect before I sit in judgement.

 

Thrasher’s outburst is just another nail in the coffin of public respect for MPs

Thursday 27th September 2012

We all have bad days. When I’ve had one, I’m less than charming company at home. I’m not proud of my grumpier or more miserable episodes.

But I don’t (I think) take it out on people who work with me, nor on people I encounter on the way home – such as public servants just doing their jobs.

But then I’m not an MP, nor a Party Chief Whip to boot.

I’m talking about the guy they nickname “Thrasher”, presumably because he’s a whip. Party whips are rarely marked for their understated charm or quiet courtesy: they’re the bruisers used by party leaders to keep MPs in line. And we know that process can be pretty brutal.

Andrew Mitchell is reported to have sworn at a police officer who directed him away from the main Downing Street gates, insisting he used a smaller pedestrian exit. Friends and supporters immediately lined up to say what a good chap Thrasher is. They used adjectives like “robust”, admiring him for the direct way he gets the job done. Robust? Direct? Mussolini got the Italian trains to run on time, but his particular style of “robustness” didn’t render fascist dictatorship acceptable.

Mr Mitchell’s outburst came after a “long and extremely frustrating day”. But however tough his day had been, no matter how it helps the PM to have a bully-boy as Commons enforcer, his behaviour was inexcusable.

Is it worse that he abused a police officer? I’m not sure. It’s ironic, however, that his victim was someone charged with guaranteeing his safety and that of all the government housed in Downing Street: the ingratitude alone is churlish.

Whatever was said at the Downing Street gate, the manner in which it was said is enough to damn Mr Mitchell. His apology was diminished by his attempt at mitigation: “I didn’t use the words attributed to me”.

Sadly it’s only another nail in the coffin of public respect for MPs. Mitchell’s sheer disdain of those further down the ladder led him to behave like that: the excuse of a bad day or a loss of temper is no excuse at all. A similar arrogance led MPs into the expenses row only a few years ago.

I believe there are many sincere, committed MPs who genuinely work for the good of their country and its people. Trouble is, too many of a different sort give them all a bad name. Last week’s incident will further erode public respect for Parliament. And yet another blow to its credibility is something our creaking democracy could do without.

Mr Mitchell denies using the word “plebs”. Given that we may never be sure, it would be unkind of me to echo the view of some newspaper commentators that his choice of language betrayed a spoilt, toffee-nosed, rich snob.

But it’s not important where he came from to reach his present exalted position. Simple human decency demands that, the higher you’ve risen, the more you respect those below you in the pecking order.

Remember the simple gesture that perhaps most endeared Diana, Princess of Wales, to ordinary people? When HIV/AIDS first became understood, with resultant panic and homophobia on a national or global scale, Diana visited an AIDS clinic and was photographed holding the hand of a sufferer.

She put herself in no danger: you can’t catch HIV by hand contact. But her gesture was potent, stepping down from the pedestal of royalty to reach out to an outcast, a lonely patient frightened by a poorly understood illness and rejected by society because of it.

I retain my hope in people and in human decency because Diana’s example wasn’t unique. The world’s full of good people from every kind of background who readily abandon status and treat others with respect and kindness.

We’re all born equal, even if things don’t continue that way.  What a shame a leading politician forgot that so readily. 

 

Democracy in action but no solutions for our changing weather

Thursday 20th September 2012

Monday evening brought me a new experience: local democracy at work. The City Council asked my school to host a meeting for the residents of South Jesmond to discuss the summer floods. Three local councillors were on hand: council staff greeted residents and ensured smooth running. There were three technical experts, and one from Northumbrian Water. This was no tokenism: they were the guys who try to get our waste water and sewage away safely.

Feelings were running high. Some of us had experienced considerable inconvenience as a result of the floods: but, if your place of work is flooded, you can at least walk away at the end of the day.

Residents who’d been seriously flooded, however, are still living with the consequential misery. I can empathise a little, having dealt with water in my basement bedroom. But some residents were talking about four feet of floodwater wrecking their homes. They’ve been to hell and back. And they’re dealing with both the aftermath and the knowledge that it’s likely to happen again.

Mind-boggling statistics were provided. There’s a legal requirement that drains should be capable of taking away water from a 1 in 30 storm. In fact, Newcastle’s drains will cope with a 1 in 40. But the storms of July and August were 1 in 75 or 1 in 100.

What does all that mean? If only it meant that such storms occurred once in 75 or 100 years! In the event, two happened in the space of six weeks. When a month’s rainfall is dumped on already sodden ground in the space of a couple of hours, our hundred-year-old sewage and drainage system hasn’t a hope of getting the water away. Overloaded drains back up and what the professionals charmingly term “surcharge” occurs. Surcharge is the polite word for what arrives in your home when it all blows back up out of the drains and toilets, something suffered by many Jesmond residents this past summer.

People came up with all sorts of ideas about how things might be improved, and plenty of understandable complaints. The professionals were calm, measured and could make no promises, equally understandably – though, to some frustrated residents, it appeared they constantly found five reasons why nothing could change.

It was democracy in action. Local councillors and professional service managers made themselves available to answer questions, even face criticism, from residents who’ve had a lousy time. They didn’t pretend there were easy answers, because there aren’t any. You can’t simply create a brand new sewage system in an area built up a century ago. And, don’t forget, there is no money: that’s the financial climate we live in.

No easy answers, but there was guidance from the Council on setting up small-scale resident groups with similar concerns and interests, clubbing together to get consultants’ help (without wasting money on them), making a difference in small, localised ways which will together combine to make a difference on a larger scale. That really can happen, and should do.

So my faith in local democracy was restored to a large extent: it was a tough evening, yet impressive for its honesty, robustness and realism.

Realism’s surely needed. Climate change is happening. When weather experts talk about ‘extreme weather events’ they make them sound rather harmless: Newcastle’s extreme weather event on 28th June saw the sky turn green-black, rain fall genuinely like stair-rods and so much water forced down drains that heavy cast iron manhole covers were blown into the air and geezers erupted from the sewers to a height of several metres. YouTube footage resembled a Hollywood disaster movie.

Similar storms will recur, and not just every hundred years. The test for us - for a developed civilised society, for Newcastle as a city and for Jesmond as an area - is how we can prepare for it and limit its disastrous effects. That’s a sobering thought.

After Fifty Shades’ mummy-porn here comes granny-porn

Thursday 13th September 2012

Class war in Downton Abbey:  Benedict Cumberbatch’s stiff upper lip softening in Parade’s End; apparently we can’t get enough of costume dramas, on screen or in a book. But the trouble with the old original stuff (unlike those more modern confections) is, well, that it’s old and original. Above all, there’s no real sex.

So, somewhere in the office of a literary agent or publisher, it’s been decided that Jane Austen, the doyenne of period literature, must be “sexed up”. I’m not sure who’ll do it. Maybe, now there are no dossiers on weapons of mass destruction to sex up, they’ll engage the febrile imaginations of out-of-work political advisors.

Look, I’m not a prude. At least, I don’t think I am. I don’t mind portrayals of sex or violence, as long as they’re not forced on people (such as children) for whom they’re inappropriate. I’m not a fan of censorship, either: adults can make their own decisions about what they buy, read or watch.

There are two things wrong with the whole concept of “updating” Jane Austen, though. First, her novels are fine as they are. If there’s a market for period stories with raunchy sex in them, let someone write or film them. Austen wrote according to the style of her time, actually quite adventurously: let’s enjoy her in that context. Updating Pride and Prejudice is like repainting Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling with all those scantily-clad female figures in little black Gucci numbers and killer heels (or bondage gear, I guess), while God and the (male) saints sport Armani suits and shades.

I don’t regard Jane Austen’s or Michelangelo’s work as inviolate, not to be tampered with. I just don’t see the point.

Second, I’m insulted – as all the reading public should be. This proposal implies we’re too stupid, too easily bored or too short of thrills to enjoy the book as written. When, in Pride and Prejudice, the air-headed Lydia runs off with Mr Wickham, it’s the end of the world for the Bennett family. Having eloped, she’s no longer marriageable: so Wickham must be made to marry her, to make an honest woman of her.

We know they went to bed: we don’t need anatomical details. For that, in laughable detail, buy Fifty Shades of Grey. They’re calling Fifty Shades mummy-porn: preserve us from turning Jane Austen into great-granny porn!

I studied Mansfield Park for O level English Literature, back in the 1970s. Even her greatest fan would agree that, when Austen wrote Mansfield Park, she wasn’t at her best. Nonetheless it’s still an attractive piece of period writing, immersing us in that extraordinary aristocratic world through the eyes of a poor relation adopted and patronised by wealthy, snobbish nobility.

But, when they filmed it a few years ago, did the scandal (another illicit liaison) become any more believable on screen by virtue of Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford going at it hammer and tongs on a regency sofa? The sequence was absurd, and about as appropriate as Where’s Wally? popping up in the background of the Mona Lisa. Austen knew what people got up to: in her day they just didn’t spell it out.

While writing a book’s comparatively painless now, with the help of computers, it’s probably never been harder to find anything new or original to say, because it’s all been said already. Yet, with varying degrees of success, novelists and film-makers are creating still inventing intriguing new stories in periods and settings ranging from Ancient Greece to future galaxies.

That’s the great thing about fiction: it lets human imagination flow freely. So don’t re-write Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. They did it well on their terms in their own time. If you don’t like them, find a writer you do - or get on and write your own. But don’t mess with them: they deserve better than that.

And so do their readers.

 

I like to think I'm not pompous though my family would disagree

Thursday 6th September 2012

It all started with the cat. Or, before that, with the kipper. I’d better explain.

We decided to cook a pair of those fantastic kippers from Swallows in Seahouses, a fish-merchant that proudly proclaims it’s one of Rick Stein’s food heroes – and deservedly.

Kippers are delicious, but they don’t half make the house smell after you’ve cooked them. So we opened the kitchen windows wide while we went into the other room to watch the Paralympics.

I heard a noise and realised it must be the cat that had got into the kitchen, probably attracted by the kipper smell. And that was odd, because we don’t have a cat. But next door’s sometimes appears in search of company (or kippers), and it’s my job to chase it out. Not that I’ve got anything against cats, but something about them sets off an allergic reaction in my wife which leaves her feeling like a Russian democracy protestor caught in Putin’s police teargas.

I dutifully tried to eject the intruding feline, which just wouldn’t be thrown out. I’d half got hold of it in front of me when it reversed between my legs. This did nothing for my centre of gravity and, barefooted as I was, I fell base over tip and broke my big toe.

The upshot of this is that, yet again, my personal fitness programme is at a standstill because I can’t run, and only walk with a pronounced limp. And, just at a time of year when we headteachers like to stride about the school confidently encouraging staff and students alike to get stuck in and make a strong start, I’m hobbling about trying to ignore the sniggers and calls of, “Oi! Hopalong!”

 

The youngest of five children, I’ve always been reckoned the clumsy one. My childhood was full of scrapes, falls and bumps, grazes, plasters and bandages. And then there were the injuries that kids never tell their parents about, so they’re not banned from having a bike, lighting bonfires, climbing trees or using sharp knives. My hand-eye coordination was so poor, it’s a wonder (and probably a mistake) that I took up playing the church organ, where you have to use your feet as well as your hands. Suffice to say I rarely play nowadays.

 

By some miracle I never broke a bone until I was 17 when, in the school theatre, I helpfully turned off the working lights at the back of the stage and felt my way forward through to the auditorium. You’ve guessed it. I stepped off the front of the stage into a void and broke my arm.

Some twenty years ago, already headmastering, I hit my wheeze for keeping fit was cycling. This did me well for a decade, though during the 1990s in the West Midlands, where we lived then, traffic became increasingly heavy, and I started to get fed up with being knocked off my bike, let alone coping with all the near-misses.

Now it’s confession time. I like to think I’m not pompous (though my family would disagree). But I did accidentally stray into pomposity the last time I was knocked off a bike. A white van had clipped my back wheel and I hit the tarmac hard. I was lying on a backboard in the ambulance, waiting for my wife to arrive – not to see me but to rescue the bike, which was quite a good one and which I didn’t want chucked in the hedge for just anyone to pick up. Someone had called the police, too, and they were checking details.

“So the name’s Bernard Trafford?” I confirmed that it was. “Doctor?” came the next question.

I was impressed that he could tell a man with a PhD from the cut of his jib, even on a stretcher. “Yes,” I replied. “How could you tell?

He looked puzzled. “No, sir. I meant, can you give me the name of your doctor?”