Thursday 26th December 2013

Alan Turing is pardoned. The Queen has used the splendidly medieval-sounding Royal Prerogative to pardon the great war-time code breaker of his 1952 conviction for homosexuality. That trial was followed by Turing’s undergoing so-called “chemical castration” and undoubtedly led to his eventual suicide.

Turing, a mathematical genius, led the Bletchley Park team that devised ways of cracking Hitler’s Enigma and (the second was far more complex) Lorenz codes. He developed the maths that enabled GPO research engineer Tommy Flowers to design and build the world’s first programmable computer, nicknamed Colossus.

So powerful, advanced and secret were those first Colossus machines that they were reportedly destroyed on Churchill’s orders. In truth, however, so vital were they to Britain’s and America’s pursuance of what was only later called the Cold War that they were moved from Bletchley Park to what became GCHQ and against the Soviets who had captured and started using Lorenz machines but never knew that they had been cracked. Thus, although Colossus was undoubtedly the first true computer, credit for the breakthrough was permitted to go elsewhere rather than compromise security.

My wife was born and grew up in Bletchley. Every day from age four to 18 she walked past Bletchley Park to Primary and then Grammar School: like everyone else in that busy commuter town (now swallowed up by greater Milton Keynes) she knew that the big and secretive site was all to do with the GPO and had done something “hush-hush” in the War. People didn’t ask, and no one told. Only a year ago, when we visited her parents’ grave in a quiet little churchyard, did we realise that their ashes are buried right by Bletchley Park’s back gate.

Now the wartime huts are being preserved and a full-scale museum has developed: in the museum of computing on the same site there’s even a working Colossus machine, recreated by volunteers employing some 18,000 old-fashioned valves scoured from all around the world. It’s a fascinating place.

This wasn’t intended to become a marketing exercise for an exhibition of the history of decryption! Truth to tell, the fascinating story of Bletchley Park and its code-breakers is forever overshadowed by the miserable fate of its leading light, Alan Turing. This posthumous pardon, announced by definition too late for the man himself to feel any benefit, reflects a rightly-felt collective guilt at the way society treated him. 

In terms of the injustice done to one man, this is a wrong righted, up to a point. But, as some members of the House of Lords have pointed out while the matter was debated, Turing was convicted according to law. The process was correct: it’s the law itself that was oppressive and manifestly unjust. So, while one man persecuted to his death is in a sense vindicated by this pardon, there are many others, some presumably still living, who suffered similar intolerance and prejudice enforced by law.

Oscar Wilde’s health was shattered by his period of imprisonment and hard labour following conviction for homosexuality. Nowadays his genius and wit are recognised and honoured: but he only made it into Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, in a panel of the Hubbard memorial window, in 1995, just 95 years after his death.

Given the climate in which they lived and worked some decades apart, Turing and Wilde alike were unwise in the different ways they conducted themselves. But they were both victims of a prejudiced and vengeful society. This pardon for Turing is a small if generous gesture: but it can do nothing actually to put right the wrongs done to so many by centuries of intolerance enforced by legislation.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this national admission of a wrong done (if not actually righted) ends the year in which Nelson Mandela died, that shining example of a man who suffered unspeakable prejudice but triumphed and set the world an example of forgiveness and reconciliation.


Thursday 19th December 2013

The Germans are taking over Christmas. It’s official: the media’s full of it. For a start, everyone’s buying Stollen, the richly-fruited, sugary, marzipan-filled cake that originated in Dresden. Forget all that Italian panettone: that’s so passé, mein Liebchen (what a marvellous mix of languages there!).

I have anecdotal evidence of this. I don’t like Stollen, finding it heavy, chewy and excessively sweet. My mum loves the stuff, though, so when we went to visit in November we took her a large one. To our surprise we found she already had a pile of two or three more in her larder. It’s always wise to be prepared, of course: but at 91 there is only so much she can wade through. So, if any more arrive for Christmas, she can always pile them up and use them as a footstool.

It’s not just Stollen. Nowadays the place to do your Christmas browsing is in a German market. Most major UK cities host them. Last Saturday we met up with our Yorkshire-based daughter in Leeds: a start at the German market was obligatory.

There are cheering aspects of German markets. I’m not particularly excited by all those Glühwein stalls: in my line of work I get enough mulled wine at carol services and Christmas concerts. I wasn’t even particularly impressed by the numerous sausage stalls: I can only take so much Wurst.

But I did wolf down a stormingly good Schnitzel, two big slices of breaded veal, with mushrooms and chips (forbidden fruit on my usually rigorous diet), all for £6. Washed down with some excellent German beer, that was a serious restorative. I even felt I could cope with Christmas shopping.

Another must-do in German markets is to browse round those candle-driven carved wooden carousels, angels rotating dizzily above the manger, and little wooden men in whose entrails you stick an incense cone so they smoke through their mouths. Charming, fun for the kids, essential parts of a traditional modern Christmas.

I’ve never lived in a city that has a German market. When I dwelt in the Midlands I reckoned Wolverhampton had come late to the European market thing: it only ever managed a Hungarian one. That was okay as long as you liked goulash: but somehow it lacked the magic. Newcastle doesn’t seem to go German, either: I like all that street food, but little of it suits the challenging Trafford diet.

Why do we reckon the Germans do Christmas better? Cologne Cathedral claims to house the bodies of the Three Kings, stolen from Constantinople in the early Middle Ages (relics were always big business): but that alone is not sufficient reason.

German children open their presents on Christmas Eve: that must save adults starting Christmas tired and headachy because the children have been up since 4.00 am. That would leave us feeling stronger on Christmas Day: we might even cope better with those depressing Christmas specials of Eastenders or Corrie (you know what I mean: at the height of the family Christmas, the bloke announces, “I’m leavin’ yer babe. I never loved yer, and the kids ain’t yours.” Dum, dum, der, der, der…) Where would we be without that dose of soap-injected misery amid the Christmas frivolity? I wonder if Germans suffer soaps, too.

Maybe the German climate helps. Continental Europe more readily provides the kind of crisp, cold weather traditional at Christmas. Perhaps that’s why they all wrap up warm, take to the streets and their own markets with friends and neighbours, sip scalding Glühwein and get into the Christmas spirit.

We shouldn’t worry. The traditional UK Christmas always was enriched by foreign imports. Yule logs, after all, came from the Norsemen: Good King Wenceslas, about whom we love to sing, was Czech; Santa arrives from Lapland; and Tchaikovsky’s magical Nutcracker ballet, surely an essential ingredient of Christmas, is Russian.

Thanks, I’ll take the lot. Meanwhile, Frohe Weihnachten.


Thursday 12th December 2012

Let’s get one thing straight. I never met Nelson Mandela. And, amid the media storm following his death, I feel as if I’m the only person who didn’t.

He’s been around throughout my life. I wasn’t always conscious of him, though. I was a country boy, neither politically nor globally aware. When protests against apartheid were first growing in the late 60s and early 70s, I was at school or university.

I’m not sure I understood or was sufficiently alert to develop any strong views: perhaps at the back of that also lay the kind of routine, unconscious racism of middle-class white Brits back then. After all, South Africa was another country: its people were different, and a long way away.

Even I grew up, eventually: I hope it’s impossible to work in education without confronting issues of human rights, equality, gender, class, culture and race. By the time I was becoming a parent myself in the mid-1980s, people like me were refusing to buy South African goods, joining in the consensual boycott even while the UK government declined to take a lead.

We rejoiced when Mandela was released. We celebrated when the first free elections took place in South Africa and Mandela became president. We’d already witnessed the collapse of Soviet communism: people-power, justice and democracy seemed to be triumphing and vindicated. Those were heady days.

In 1997 I took part in a symposium on education and democracy in Durban. It was my first visit to Africa: I even fitted in a trip to a game reserve, Umfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal. The wildlife was wonderful: but it couldn’t outdo the pervasive optimism and belief in the future.

To be sure, we avoided lawless areas: there was an edgy side to the new South Africa. But everyone looked to Mandela for a lead, believing passionately and implicitly in the peace and reconciliation that he preached. They were eager to follow him into a bright and harmonious future.

I wanted more people to experience that astonishing national mood. I led a school sports tour to South Africa in 2002, taking 90 boys and girls to play football, hockey and netball in the Johannesburg area and Cape Town.

There were many moving moments. The whole party, two coaches full, fell silent when we visited Soweto, and particular the Hector Pieterson memorial – that shrine to a twelve year-old boy shot dead by police during protests. The picture of his sister’s face contorted with grief as a young man carried the boy’s limp body beside her went viral in 1976 and swung world opinion against the apartheid regime.

In such townships as Soweto and, in Cape Town, Langa the black communities were powerfully positive even though they were still living in poverty: townships are scary places. We also heard well-off white families who hosted our pupils, and their white teachers, referring as everyone else did to “our father Mandela”, and speaking with total belief in the future.

All this was led by one man. So powerful an example was his, so free from desire for retribution or revenge, and so genuine in his thirst for peace, reconciliation and understanding, that his sheer force of positive personality was able to neutralise the extremists, the angry, the dangerous. Peter Hain MP, himself South African born, described Mandela to the BBC as “A beacon of light and liberty that shone across the world”.

President Obama quoted Mandela himself. When asked if he was a saint (which he was by most measures, surely), Mandela replied: “I’m not a saint – unless you think a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying”.

He never stopped trying, an example to all, young and old, of endurance and courage. That example will live on. The world’s a poorer place without him: but it is our privilege to have lived in his time.

No, I never met him. How I wish I had.

Thursday 5th December 2013

Well, I did it. I survived two Sundays without buying a national paper. The second weekend, I didn’t buy one on the Saturday either (I bought the Journal, obviously). Yet life carried on. In lots of ways it was better.

I’m increasingly maddened by the big weekend papers. First comes the chore of paying through the nose for a hundredweight of paper that needs a wheelbarrow to get it home: in recent months, we’ve been consigning it almost unread to the recycling bin.

Next, despite some good bits, I’m infuriated by the way such papers fill their pages with pure speculation. Not the kind of thing that would get them into trouble with libel lawyers, but the way every week we suffer yet another headline screaming at us that we’ll soon have driverless cars, or super-skyscrapers, or a rocket plane to take us from Heathrow to New York in 17½ minutes.

Next comes a full-colour diagram, with an artist’s impression of what this futuristic machinery will look like, brightly coloured arrows showing how they work. I suppose most of these things will come to pass, probably sooner than we expect. But in the meantime we don’t need silly fantasy pieces based entirely on conjecture. Besides, anyone my age recognises those designs as shameless rip-offs from that marvellous old 1950s and 60s comic strip, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

Next to raise my blood pressure is the obligatory weekly feature on Downton Abbey. Not what’s happened, of course: we all know that, and many remain unhappy that Julian (Lord) Fellowes overstepped the mark by writing in a rape. No, the papers are concerned with what might happen, and who will star, in Series Four.

Who will be the next transatlantic import? Which fading American diva will be the latest cynically (and improbably) drafted in to sell the next season more energetically across the Atlantic? Fellowes should stick to rewriting Shakespeare: even those tawdry plagiarisms can’t be worse than the turgid, overhyped misery of the last series of Downton.

In a wise aphorism Winston Churchill commented, “Politics is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.”

As ever, the grand old man hit the nail on the head. Unlike politics, the weekend papers don’t even bother to explain why their wild predictions don’t or won’t come true. They write science fiction without the science, news without foundation, bereft of context.

I found that Churchill quote in The Week. That admirable publication appears every Friday and comprises a skilfully selected round-up of news stories and comment from all the papers including the Washington Post. We’ve now made The Week our weekend news-source instead of the big nationals. We just didn’t need to read any more about houses we could never afford, holidays we wouldn’t want, jobs we couldn’t do and how to invest money we didn’t have.

As a result we felt our weekends were getting better. We reckoned we’d made a good joint policy decision and didn’t feel deprived of any useful information.

Well, hardly any. Admittedly when I got to work on the first Monday I learned Murdoch’s Sunday Times had included a “Parent Power” section which made my school look pretty good. The next weekend I missed the announcement that a piece I’d written was Highly Commended in The Times’s Christmas Carol Competition.

I’m not boasting: both are true.

Nonetheless I truly didn’t miss out: I read the school tables in a colleague’s copy, and friends phoned us about the carol. Meanwhile we’d enjoyed those two weekends not being ruled by those mountains of paper on the kitchen.

So did the resolution last? Sadly not. Sunday just didn’t feel quite like Sunday. So last weekend we fell back into the habit. And the papers were as annoying as ever.

Damn.

Thursday 28th November 2013

Here’s a headline for you: Bernard Buoyed up by Best Brew Boost.

Well, I was buoyed up on Tuesday when The Journal ran a piece (on page 3, no less) with the headline: New brew Bernard hopes to be everyone’s perfect cup. So exciting was this news that my neighbours had texted me about it long before I managed to open The Journal.

The background to this is that Pink Lane-based Colour Coffee have branded their new espresso blend… Bernard.

Why Bernard? Well, owners Anth and Jen Atkinson say, “Bernard sounds reliable, like someone who’d do a really good job”. That gets my vote: in fact, my wife thinks I should send copies of that statement to all my bosses, the governors (perhaps she thinks they needs reassurance).

It gets better. The coffee roasters say that their first coffee, named Bernard, is “good, but it’s not the most fruity”. That’s such a good line I’m thinking of having my gravestone engraved ready (so that some other fool doesn’t put something else on it): “Here lies Bernard Trafford: reliable, good but not too fruity”.

Why am I getting so excited about this? Regular readers will recall that, back in March 2013, I complained that the name Bernard was always being applied to ludicrous characters in fiction. This time last year I was laughing at a school production of Alan Ayckbourn’s hilarious Christmas comedy, Season’s Greetings: but who was the hapless middle-aged nobody who insisted on mounting awful puppet shows that the family didn’t want to watch at Christmas? Uncle Bernard, of course.

Bridget Jones’s cousin Bernard is the only one who, like her, turns up to a garden party erroneously costumed in fancy dress. And screenwriter Richard Curtis so detests the name Bernard (because he once lost a girlfriend to a Bernard) that there’s always some hapless, hopeless character in all his films (though I confess I haven’t checked out his latest one).

Add to that the history of children’s literature, including David McKee’s marvellous book Not Now Bernard (a phrase that echoes around my family whenever we are all together), and you can understand why I have a chip on my shoulder. So I am seizing (or abusing) the opportunity afforded by this column to say a big hurrah to the Pink Lane Coffee Shop for its deep wisdom. I want to congratulate its owners on choosing such a sensible name.

After all, those of us who like a good espresso and enjoy trying different beans now and then don’t need a lot more of the trendy names given arbitrarily to coffee beans, or even the extraordinarily esoteric genuine designations of their origin. I can’t remember whether the one I like is Blue Mountain Java or High Roast Sumatra. My sense of geography’s rubbish in any case and, frankly, I just get confused. No, I’m with these geniuses in Pink Lane. Go for a sensible name like Bernard. A plain, simple, solid name.

You might have seen in Keith Hann’s column last week just how confused the poor man is about his first name, those his parents nearly gave him and even those by which he might have been christened if born a girl.

I have no such hang-ups. The name, I’ve always been assured, is of Germanic origin. It comes from “Bernhardt”, meaning hard as a bear. How cool is that? I feel I can prowl the mean streets of Tyneside alone and unafraid, untouchable, a cross between Jack Reacher and The Terminator. Don’t mess with me. I’m hard as a bear. These hands are…

Sorry. I got carried away for a moment. These hands are not, in truth, the deadly weapons I was in danger of claiming. They’re not even good at typing.

Nonetheless, I’m a proud and happy Bernard. Like the coffee, I’m reliable, good and certainly not too fruity.

So, would-be Bernard-knockers, kindly just remember that!

 

Thursday 21st November 2013

It was the writer L P Hartley (author of The Go-Between) who said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”.

On this week’s form, he could equally have said, “The South is a foreign country”. I’ve never been a fan of Scottish independence (though you might argue that’s none of my business anyway): but I begin to think now that the Scottish Nationals have a point and even wonder if we should declare independence for the North East.

I’d include Yorkshire in that regional grouping. I like Yorkshire. After all, there’s that wise Yorkshire expression: “The world’s all mad except thee and me: and I’m not too sure about thee”. But the South? It doesn’t understand us up here, it doesn’t want to, and it doesn’t give a damn about being so ignorant.

Why am I so grumpy? I was outraged earlier this week when I read that an Ofsted inspector in a school in the south had criticised a teacher for having a northern accent. But don’t worry: this isn’t an education story. It’s a tale of prejudice and breathtaking arrogance. The school then set the teacher an official target to “sound less Cumbrian”.

Less Cumbrian? Not every Northerner can have a Geordie accent! The South loves the odd token Geordie: think Ant and Dec, Kevin Whately and Jimmy Nail. Not to mention the guy who used to do the commentary on Big Brother. So, in its patronising way, the South will allow the quaint Tyneside accent: but otherwise North is just unacceptable.

So what’s the masterplan? Must Estuary/Essex English cover the entire country? Will we all end up speaking through our noses, going up at the end of sentences and ending them with “innit”? Whatever happened to pride in, let alone love of, the rich diversity of accents, vowel sounds and even funny words, the regional dialects that make Britain and its linguistic heritage so fascinating?

As for setting the teacher the loss of a regional accent as a performance target, so that any salary adjustment depends on it, words fail me. Well, not quite: I can always find some words!

Performance targets and statistics are, of course, the obsession of governments, always southern-based. On Tuesday’s Radio 4 Today programme an NHS spokeswoman revealed the astonishing research finding that survival and recovery rates improve when the level of nursing is higher. Amazing! No one will be surprised that in response government will henceforth require hospitals to publish details of nursing levels in their wards.

What nonsense! First, nursing needs according to circumstances. If I find myself in intensive care following a heart attack, I’ll hope for a high level of staffing. If I’m having a bunion done, I won’t expect or need so much. Thus for nursing-level league tables to be meaningful they would have to be documents of mind-boggling complexity.

But they won’t be, will they? They’ll amount to simplistic twaddle on the basis of which I might be encouraged to choose between two or three hospitals in urban Tyne and Wear for my treatment (though not for specialist treatment: that’s been rationalised into regional centres). But if I live in the depths of the country I’ll still need to go to the nearest facility or face a 100-mile round trip, or both. Moreover, funding will pay not more nurses but additional administrative bean-counters to produce the worthless figures government demands.

Same old story. This government promised it wouldn’t follow Blair and Brown’s bunch in demanding statistics and endless paper trails. But such kneejerk reactions are endemic to politicians. They can’t resist more daft lists, more useless tables. Meanwhile, on the ground, there’s no sign that anything’s any better.

The world’s gone mad. The maddest part is in the South. Enough is enough.

Let’s stay up here, safe in the North, build our walls high, declare UDI and let the South go hang.

 

Thursday 14th November 2013

Last weekend saw Remembrance Sunday: I had a Remembrance to remember!

I was visiting my parents (now in their nineties) in Wells, Somerset. My Dad’s a stalwart of the Royal British Legion: I offered to get him around Sunday’s various Remembrance events in that fine little cathedral city.

Bright, glorious morning sunshine added a golden lustre to Wells’s magnificent medieval cathedral. I ferried Dad not to the cathedral but to St Cuthbert’s parish church. There we joined the Mayor and Corporation for a service, the Last Post, silence and wreath-laying at the city’s war memorial, a ceremonial echoed in towns and villages across Britain.

Representatives of the armed forces, cadets, scouts, brownies and St John’s Ambulance lined up for the march-past. The mayor took his station at the saluting post, and a few of us bundled my Dad (as local British Legion president) on to the podium beside him.

Dad was due next at the Harry Patch memorial, unveiled two years ago. Harry Patch is nowadays described as the last surviving fighting Tommy, dying at the age of 111 in 2009. The memorial commemorates not only him but “all the brave young men lost in the Great War”.

There’s a particular challenge in a Somerset march-past: the local regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry, marches at a sprightly pace. The column passed the Mayor at speed, led by a corps of drums, and there followed a somewhat undignified race to the next episode.

Dad puffed up the hill as quickly as his pacemaker would allow, reaching the memorial as the Last Post began. Fortunately they didn’t ask Dad to do the oration (“They shall grow not old …”): he probably didn’t have the breath to do it at that moment.  But he laid the wreath with appropriate dignity.

Even then it wasn’t over. I dashed off to collect my hire car, bundled Dad in and hurtled up to the city’s cemetery. There the Legion has erected a recent plaque to commemorate the 25 war graves (including those of two VCs) in the graveyard. One more Last Post, a final silence, one last wreath.

One thing struck me powerfully. It was the first time in my life I’d seen my Dad in his medals. I’m not sure why. He wasn’t a combatant in World War II: on the contrary, he was busy saving lives as a doctor fast-tracked through medical school at the start of the war and, for the last two years or so, working in a war hospital as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Perhaps when I was a child he was less interested in medals, the concept of sacrifice or old comrades. Perhaps he was just busy being a village doctor and a father. But now I can see how fiercely proud he is not of what he did, but of everyone else’s efforts, and of the sacrifices made. He was visibly moved each time we stood in silence, laid a wreath, or heard the Last Post sound.

But Remembrance isn’t exclusively about the old. It’s not only about my Dad’s generation, let alone that of his father who fought in the trenches. It has relevance to the young, too.

Young soldiers are currently giving their lives in Afghanistan. And we shouldn’t for a moment think children don’t appreciate what Remembrance is about. Once again this year I was moved by my school’s Remembrance Ceremony and, above all, by the reaction of the school’s hall full of 11-18 year olds.

In many ways the young empathise more readily than people of my generation. And I sometimes think that they reach out to people of my Dad’s age all the better.

Through Remembrance, all of us (particularly the young) renew our determination to view war only as a desperate last resort, and even then as a catastrophic manifestation of failure in the human spirit.

So we should.

Thursday 7th November 2013

A recent survey suggested that 54 is the age at which men feel they’ve managed to leave all their insecurities behind. I find this persuasive.

I’m just a few (only a few, honest!) years beyond that figure and I guess I’m feeling about as personally and emotionally secure as I’ve ever done. Even the fact that I’m the youngest of five children has ceased to keep driving me to try to prove myself – or, at least, to be taken seriously. I’m pretty fulfilled and content.

I hope (I really do hope) that doesn’t make me complacent, smug or even just boring. I still get angry about injustices in the world, suffer agonies of doubt and self-recrimination when things go wrong at work and, like any parent, I still worry about my children even though they’re well-qualified professionals firmly established in the world of work.

Part of that self-confidence lies in a sense of having, well, survived. My wife and I have completed 32 years of marriage: we’re not smug, but still rejoice in real happiness in each other’s company, making the most of the recent bright weather in the hills of Northumberland, sharing a meal and good bottle of wine and, above all, enjoying time with our family.

That mixture of contentment and confidence was perhaps key to our celebration with our teacher daughters of last week’s half-term (please don’t go on about teachers’ holidays again!): we did it in a markedly eccentric way.

When the rest of the country was celebrating Hallowe’en, we had Christmas dinner. Christmas? Yes. One of the daughters is booked to spend Christmas in Australia: that reservation apparently required us parents to provide colossal amounts of Yuletide food, drink and cheer at an alternative time.

Some people might have played down this oddness: we made the most of it. Johnson’s butchers in Wooler were happy to get us a turkey for the end of October: a good, solid fowl it was. We’d cooked Christmas puddings in September rather than in November, so we had just about all the trimmings including smoked salmon (wonderful stuff from Swallows of Seahouses) and chestnuts that, by long tradition, we forgot to roast.

We had to make concessions. The Christmas cake was peculiar. It tasted as delicious as a Christmas cake should, marzipan, royal icing and all: but I remain unconvinced that sugar Hallowe’en novelties in the shape of sugar pumpkins, eyeballs and severed fingers were strictly necessary.

On Christmas Day we’re known to appear at the Red Lion in Milfield for a pint. The friendly landlord offered a free one for each of the girls if they turned up wearing the Santa onesies they’ve donned in the past: sadly they concluded that running the gauntlet of pensioners’ bingo in the pub at the same time was a bridge too far.

Proximity to Bonfire Night led me to buy one of those all-in-one-box firework displays to let off after our Christmas pud. Amid three mainly bright, dry (if blustery) days, how did I manage to time the display for the middle of a deluge? Having wasted all my matches trying to light the damned thing, eventually I had to go indoors to the log-burner, seize a flaming brand in the tongs, run out into the downpour and press it to the fuse: notwithstanding the tempest the display looked pretty good.

So was it really Christmas? No. Was it like Christmas? Well, we had just about as many laughs, piled on the usual excess calories and, in the end, enjoyed just another of those hilarious and heart-warming family gatherings that mean a great deal to us.

It was, in truth, an eccentric piece of behaviour. But you know what? We didn’t really care. We were having fun.

Does all that stem from our long-acquired, middle-aged contentment? Could you even call it love?

Not sure I’d dare. The kids would be horrified.

 

Thursday 31st October 2013

It’s tempting to misquote Oscar Wilde: there’s only one thing worse than government leaving energy policy to the providers, and that’s having government running it. At the Labour Party Conference, Ed Miliband promised a Labour government would peg energy prices. Tories lambasted them for interfering with competition, the only guarantee of keeping prices down.

By contrast the coalition will legislate - to ensure competition. David Cameron blames the previous administration for allowing six big energy companies to dominate, weakening competition. Two different sledgehammers, then, to crack the same nut?

It seems small really is beautiful. BBC2’s unlikely autumn hit, Iceland Foods: Life in the Freezer Cabinet, features the Journal’s own Tuesday columnist, Keith Hann, Iceland’s hilariously outspoken PR man. More important, it’s an inside look at a firm that is, compared to the big supermarkets, a relative minnow, capturing just 2.2% of the market.

Viewers have come to love Malcolm Walker, cheeky chappie and Iceland’s founder, and admire the sheer energy and bloody-minded determination of his staff. New customers may will beat a path to Iceland just because they’ve fallen for its esprit de corps.

Remember, it’s only a couple of years since the firm achieved a courageous £1.5bn management buyout. To us ordinary individuals that sounds huge: in corporate terms it’s enterprise on a modest scale. Nonetheless, such ambition appeals to all of us. Oh, and it turns out there wasn’t any horse in the burgers.

How different is the sprawling modus operandi of government! Take HS2. After decades of dithering by successive administrations, the grand plan will be phenomenally expensive and take until 2025 to complete. It won’t even connect to the North East or Edinburgh: not, at least, until some decades in the future. Meanwhile we’re required to feel grateful that it will reach Leeds via Birmingham: when I last looked those cities weren’t even on the way to the North East.

Now HS2 is the coalition’s Grand Plan, Labour’s become hostile to its own brainchild. Like nuclear power, HS2 has turned into yet another all-or-nothing battle. Meanwhile, a high-speed East Coast link between London and Edinburgh, would be more direct, more manageable than tunnelling under the Chilterns, and save battles with the moneyed and political classes who live there. But that’s just too simple.

Next it was Lib Dem Nick Clegg scoring an own goal: in contradiction of coalition policy, he came out against the freedoms given to Free Schools.

Government’s flagship education policy claims small is beautiful: schools should have autonomy; parents and community groups should be empowered to set up schools to meet local needs; and Westminster should keep its distance.

Clegg claims to support free schools’ autonomy, but perversely insists that they follow national rules on qualified teachers and curriculum. “Full accountability and guarantees for parents”, he insisted.

A colleague commented, Nick doesn’t know which side of the fence to fall off. Ironically, he’s less out of kilter with government policy than critics suggested. Okay, free schools aren’t bound by the National Curriculum, but must still prepare children for the same tests and exams as every other school (including independents). Above all, they’re still monitored and kept in line by OFSTED, the most powerful, inexorable engine of government control and driver of conformity ever conceived.

The truth is that this coalition government is no less controlling than its predecessor. Meanwhile, as Labour tries to wobble its way towards occupying the middle ground, it seems Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems are lurching to the Left, seeking some unclaimed territory there and apparently becoming as addicted to government prescription as the two larger parties

Finally, as I warned last week, I shall wait to see whether the financial giants who own the formerly little Coop bank will indeed keep to the Cooperative ethos and ethics. I’d love to be surprised and find they do: but I expect to be disappointed.

I’m not sure they’ll care.

 

The big is beautiful myth has finally exploded

Thursday 24th October 2013

Big is beautiful. That’s what they used to say. It was a business term: a firm that isn’t growing is going backwards, shrinking. One must get bigger, acquire, constantly expand.

Events this week have finally exploded the big/beautiful myth for me. Take the Cooperative Bank (I take it very personally). Nearly 15 years ago my wife and I concluded that we should opt for ethical banking and moved to the Coop.

It’s tiresome sorting out all those standing orders and direct debits. Nonetheless, long before the credit crunch and all that reckless lending (no, of course we didn’t see them coming), we wanted to put our money in a bank that was up-front about its ethical policies. You might call it an empty gesture, since we’ve always owed more than we’ve saved: but we felt good about it.

I don’t know much about banking, but I frequently get angry when I read what bankers have got up to. We Coop members are now to lose control of our bank, retaining only 30% ownership while US-based hedge funds take control of the other 70%. I’m beyond cross: I’m depressed.

The media’s pointing the blame at the bank’s own management. But hold on: just a few years ago, the smaller independent banks such as the Coop were leaned on by government to buy bits of the toxic big banks, now broken up. This year the Coop failed to buy some 600 Lloyds branches. That botched attempt revealed a £1.5b deficit: I don’t know if government played any part in that.

Even now the Coop is less deeply enmired than other banks were during the credit crunch. There will be no taxpayers’ money to bail it out. But two huge American hedge funds have seized control instead of allowing the bank to float its way out of trouble through share sales.

Those effective owners say they’ll maintain the bank’s ethical stance. It’ll start that way, I’m sure. But a few years down the line? I’m not convinced ethical policies have much to do with megabucks: big is more frequently ugly.

Government too likes to think big. After more than a decade of dithering by the Blair/Brown governments, the coalition is investing massively in nuclear power. Not with its own funds, though: the French and the Chinese are supplying the dosh. As so often, government is doing too much, too late.

The North East is home to one of the few sensible commentators on nuclear power, Times columnist Matt (Viscount) Ridley. This week he pointed out how costly and slow the colossal new reactor at Hinckley Point, Somerset, will be.

Ridley, who understands both the science and the economics, observes that quicker, smaller alternatives could be prefabricated in factories, using British technology, and be up and running much more quickly. But government’s own cumbersome regulations and foot-dragging inefficiency make that a non-viable option, attractive as it might seem to most of us.

To guarantee our energy supplies for the future David Cameron has committed us to £8 a year on our fuel bills for ever, covering the cost (to foreign investors) of building the new plant and guaranteeing the supplier an enormously high unit rate for the power produced.

In Monday’s Journal interview, Matt Ridley described himself as “A free-market anti-capitalist”. That very Rational Optimist (read his book) is right: “If you’re in favour of the free market you’re not in favour of big business. You’re not in favour of monopoly, you’re in favour of competition … I see the free market as a genuinely liberal corrective against the tendency of both government and business to become too monopolistic and too cosy.”

Perversely, this administration keeps talking about “small government”: yet it’s too cosy with acquisitive multi-national companies while contrarily over-regulating and controlling. And it can’t even sort out energy prices.

Next time I’ll try to explain why smaller is so much more beautiful.

 

iPhone seizure causes panic

Thursday 17th October 2013

I had a nasty experience on Monday. My iPhone seized up. Its screen froze. I couldn’t even turn it off. That’s not exciting in itself: such things happen all the time.

Computers drive us mad when the internet goes down or the programme locks. We curse the machine, kick it, and possibly turn it off and on again, the universal remedy.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when this happened: but I was, and I was shocked by my reaction. I went into something of a panic. I realised at that moment that vast swathes of my life are nowadays tied up in that little piece of intricate machinery.

All my emails are there, both work and personal. It’s only a couple of weeks since I joined Twitter, so without the phone I couldn’t keep up with the tweets coming in, let alone contribute 140-character gems to the sum of human wisdom. I couldn’t check the weather, or the state of the Stock Exchange to track the worth of the Trafford family’s one pathetic ISA. I couldn’t check texts, Whatsapps, Skype or Facetime from the family. Okay, I admit it: I was also unable to keep up with the games of Words (a form of online Scrabble) that I’m engaged in.

Oh, and I couldn’t call anyone, either!

It made me think. People of my age tend to scorn the way young people appear welded to their mobile phones. They can’t be without them for a minute. We oldies assume they’re wasting their time on social networks, worthless but all-absorbing. They store all their music on them. They play video games whose names I can’t remember, and they probably watch videos – as well as enjoying instant access to YouTube where they can download inane clips of people’s pets doing peculiar things at any moment, day or night.

Of course I mock them: I’m an old git and I know better! Now I have to confess further. I do have some music on my phone, and even a full-length video-recording of a musical I wrote and staged in 2012.

In truth, I don’t watch or listen to the latter items much: but they’re still there. All my fascinations and obsessions are contained within my iPhone. It really is a part of me, and I simply hadn’t recognised the fact, nor how dependent I am on the machine, until its use was denied me for a few hours.

It was only a very few hours. In the early evening I toiled through the rain to Eldon Square and the Apple Store, conveniently open until 8pm. The rain was an additional annoyance: I couldn’t check the weather on the phone.

A helpful young assistant, having first assured me they couldn’t fit me in for a technical support appointment till Wednesday, took pity on me and showed me how to override the screen, turn it off and reset it. Any idiot can do it. Even this idiot can do it - now.

The perennial IT solution worked. Turn it off, turn it on again: problem solved.

So now I’m back on the Worldwide Web, tweeting like fury, checking and sending emails, texting and messaging, checking the weather and FTSE 100, even occasionally phoning people.

Dependent, did I hear you say? I want to deny it, naturally. I’m made of much sterner stuff.

But the episode gave me pause for thought. Smartphones are extraordinary pieces of technology. They have genuinely changed our lives: so much so that we can never get away from them. Through that technology work and social life alike can pursue us to the pub, to the restaurant, the theatre, the concert hall, the beach – wherever. And they do. An employer’s and workaholic’s dream, smartphones now really do own our lives. We can’t live without them.

Hmm. Maybe in future I won’t be quite so rude about kids and their phones after all.

 

Thursday 10th October 2013

Regular readers will know my political stance is wishy-washy, whereas my attitude to international military action (proposals to bomb Libya or heavy-handed responses to terrorism) is strongly negative. I’m not quite a pacifist, but am quite sure we shouldn’t try, along with the USA, to act as some kind of international policeman.

That’s clear, then, except that recent international news has challenged my position. News broke on Sunday that US Navy SEALS (I’m resisting the temptation to comment on the marvellous animal training that entailed) snatched a suspected Al-Qaeda leader in Tripoli on Saturday and whisked him away to a nearby US warship. The Libyan government is outraged, accusing America of kidnapping a Libyan citizen, though they accept that he’s a wanted man.

The Americans have been after Anu Anas al-Libi for 15 years, linking his name to the twin 1998 US Embassy bombings in East Africa. The Americans are cock-a-hoop: Secretary of State John Kerry reminded the world that “The United States of America will never stop in the effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.” He claims that the US acted legally: reactions around the world are mixed.

Having grabbed their suspect, I very much hope the Americans will put him on trial and let the law take its course: echoes of torture (waterboarding) and detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay make us western liberals nervous about that aspect.

Nevertheless, and rather to my surprise, I find myself supportive of what the Americans have done. It sticks in the craw that known terrorists can live in peace in one country having caused murder and mayhem in another. The arm of international justice should be longer than that.

But it’s hard to stretch that arm. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai of has criticised NATO for “failing to bring stability”, despite having troops in his country for more than a decade. After great suffering and loss of life, the country is still not secure. He says NATO should have fought the Taliban in their safe havens in Pakistan.  But you can’t simply start fighting a war on another country’s turf: or, rather, you can’t finish it.

A neat snatch is cleaner than most other attempts at counter-terrorism. Those who remember the first Gulf War will recall early descriptions of “smart bombs” which could hit a metre-wide target. I can still picture a news report which claimed that even an underground bunker could be destroyed by missiles that could be minutely directed down a ventilation shaft.

Military experts started using such expressions as “surgical strike”, as if there could ever be a clean kind of war. Smart bombs then: drones now. The latter are used to eliminate terrorist cells: as a result, cases of collateral damage, and the deaths of innocent victims including children, are legion.

What’s the moral of all this? That’s tricky, and my ambivalent moral stance was made no easier by watching Monday evening’s Panorama about Malala Yousafzai, the girl shot by the Taliban just a year ago for publicly asserting the right of girls to go to school. Watching the programme reminded me of the fierce anger I felt then. Seeking to deny education to women is more than sexism, more than male domination: it’s a particularly evil kind of enslavement. A year ago I wrote that I’d like to obliterate the Taliban, to destroy them utterly.

But, if my wise were granted, it would be mere vengeance which (as everyone knows) is a wild kind of justice, and not justice at all.

So there’s no clear moral to this tale of mine. We must accept there are no easy answers. Each of us must find our way individually through the moral labyrinth: and never, but never, allow politicians to posture and claim to have any kind of simple or clinical solution.

Kidding ourselves that such things exist is the most dangerous course of all.

 

Thursday 3rd October 2013

September 13th was Roald Dahl’s 96th birthday – or would have been, had he lived that long. Primary schools up and down the country marked it, as did my Junior School, though a couple of weeks later (only because the actual date was so close to the start of term). For once, I got organised and turned up dressed as Willy Wonka.

That’s not as easy you might think. Fortunately the drama department had found me a top hat and a walking cane, and I could find something like a frock coat at home. Nonetheless, when I arrived at Junior School assembly I immediately spotted several other Willy Wonkas, both staff and children, all more convincingly apparelled than I was. The children, at any rate, clearly had parents who were both organised and creative: I’d had to fend for myself.

Why is there all this fuss about Roald Dahl? I think it’s worth dwelling on him for a moment – devoting this column to him, indeed. I first came across his name in the 1970s as the author and front man of Tales of the Unexpected. These gave rise to a long-running TV series, still to be found on YouTube. Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected were in keeping with other books he wrote of strange and macabre short stories, usually with a clever twist at the end.

Those were for adults, though. The children’s stories that made Dahl so famous came too late for my childhood. Nor did I read more than the BFG to my children (though that one left me with a yearning ever since to eat a snozzcumber). Once James and the Giant Peach, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Matilda and The Witches were famous, my (then) little girls were reading for themselves. I had to sneak in when they were asleep and borrow them to read for myself.

It’s easy to see why Dahl’s appeal is so strong and so lasting. He had the courage to take children into dangerous, dark and scary places. Without patronising he got on the side of kids and conspired with them against the stupidity and wickedness of grown-ups.

In many ways he was following a long tradition. The original Grimm’s Fairy Tales, much grimmer (excuse the pun) than many sanitised versions published nowadays, are genuinely bloodthirsty, horrific and macabre. Children have always loved them. Dahl continued that line, taking his readers into terrifying zones but somehow he never did so never inappropriately. He was clever, calculated, naughty, outrageous, hilarious, disturbing. All the things a good writer should be.

He wrote with great honesty, too. His two autobiographies, Boy and Flying Solo, deal with his early life: he doesn’t pull any punches. One of my favourite revelations, however, refers to his adult life. He’s forthright about how difficult it is to be a writer, admitting that the grind, all that correcting and revising, never ceases, while desperation starts to set in when the ideas refuse to come. In a moment of disarming openness he admits that’s probably why writers like him are very grumpy and drink just a little too much whisky….

Kids want danger. They can’t have it in real life: indeed, modern childhood allows less off it than previous generations enjoyed, when they would play out freely and rampage happily across fields and meadows. Dahl, like the best writers, takes them instead into the murky and hazardous recesses of his imagination, with magical results.

I’m delighted schools mark Roald Dahl Day. He’s an essential part of childhood: it wouldn’t be the same without him.

Nonetheless, I’m relieved choosing a costume is over for another year! I had one disarming moment. Striding purposefully to work through Jesmond, conspicuous in top hat, walking cane, frock-coat and enormous bright bow tie, I’m sure I heard a passer-by say just a little too loudly, “He looks a reet Wonka!”

At least, I hope that’s what he said.

 

Bluffing a way through conference

Thursday 26th September 2013

I thought I’d arrived.  Now I’m not so sure. I’ll explain.

Next week I’m in London at an education conference. Only a bunch of headmasters (note the gender-specific term) could pigheadedly meet every year concurrently with the Tory Party Conference. We don’t compete for conference venues: it’s just that, if my educational bash comes up with any exciting stories, the Press will be too focused on covering that annual political blood-letting to devote column inches to our collective educational wisdom.

Some months ago I agreed to take part in a panel discussion at the event. It’s meant to give us heads a chance to hit back at the mainstream Press: on the panel with me will be the education editors of four national dailies plus one freelancer.

This is where my perplexity begins. In the conference blurb, the professional journalists are credited with the papers they write for. By contrast I was initially described as “inside columnist”: a recent email changed my status to “maverick freelance”.

Maverick freelance? At first I rather fancied the description: it makes me sound a wild child, a bit edgy and dangerous. How ridiculous! When all’s said and done, I’m just a greying man in a greyer suit, in his 24th year of school headship. I’m not even freelance: I have a full-time job and merely happen to write a column in The Journal (a fact of which no one at the overwhelmingly Southern conference will be aware) and the odd piece for education magazines.

Worryingly, the audience of head teachers will expect me, the only one of their number on the panel, to bat for the profession and take on the journalists.

What? Confront five hard-bitten Fleet Street hacks, all on my own? It’s not a fair contest. They’ll have a go at out-of-touch heads, lazy teachers, obese kids, dumbing down, lowering standards; all the headlines that sell their newspapers.

By contrast it’s my role to be balanced and calm. I’ll reply, “It’s not as simple as that. Education is a very complex business…” The journalists will scoff, the audience fall asleep. I’m panicking already.

Fortunately I received unexpected help last week from my fellow Journal columnist, Keith Hann, who sent me an inscribed copy of his brand-new book, “The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera”. Whether or not you’re an opera fan, I recommend you pay £6.99 for this excellent little book.

Keith’s Bluffer’s Guide, in common with the best of that series, is a small masterpiece. It gives would-be opera bluffers concise, hilarious nuggets of information to equip them for sounding as if they know what they are talking about, and guide them through potential conversations and pitfalls.

Of course, the whole point about Bluffer’s Guides is that, once you’ve mastered the thumbnail-sketch kind of overview they provide, you’re not really bluffing any more. On page 100 of his pocket-sized book, Keith comes clean on the nature of bluffing: “What you do now with this information is up to you, but here’s a suggestion: be confident about your new-found knowledge, see how far it takes you, but above all have fun using it. You are now a bona fide expert in the art of bluffing about the world’s most arcane and enigmatic musical art form.”

Keith has a passion for his subject, insisting opera represents one of the highest pinnacles of human civilisation. He argues: “Taking the opposite view is the first step on the road that leads to smashing stained glass windows, defacing icons or directing artillery at 1500-year-old giant Buddhas”.

That’s his style: the man’s a genius. So I’ve decided. I won’t attempt to be an expert with all those journalists next week: that would be boring for them and for the audience. I won’t be a maverick, either.

I’ll be a bluffer. Emulating Keith in bluffer mode, I’ll try to be funny, concise, knowledgeable, mischievous, coruscating: and bamboozle those journalists too.

 

Prejudice is still everywhere

Thursday 19th September 2013

Top conductor Vasily Petrenko is keeping a low profile at present. In fact, he’s in the dog-house: I suspect he’s sleeping on the sofa at home for the time being.

The Russian-born conductor, musical director of both the Oslo Philharmonic and Britain’s National Youth Orchestras, made tactless comments about women conductors. He claimed orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them” and “a cute girl on the podium can make one's thoughts drift towards something else”.

That brief statement leaves a whole load of unanswered questions. Is it only possible for a “cute girl” to make it to a leadership position, then? Is that just so all the blokes can claim (as happens all too often in so many walks of life) that the girl (I prefer to say woman, actually) got the top job only because she was good-looking?

My impression of professional musicians is they’re too busy playing difficult music to a high standard to pay much attention to the conductor’s gender or appearance: indeed, the musicians’ canon is full of funny stories about how they don’t even have time to look at the conductor! On my rare appearances as an amateur orchestral trumpeter I’m concentrating so hard on hitting the right notes in the correct place that, notwithstanding all those statistics about how frequently men are supposed to have an erotic thought, the middle of a symphony performance would be the last time I’d be at leisure to do so.

Mr Petrenko’s contrite. He’s apologised, saying that he was describing the county of his birth, not present-day Western Europe. His wife’s a choral conductor: he might have a lot of humble pie to eat before he’s fully forgiven.

A marvellous rebuttal of his absurd statement was furnished by the very season of BBC Proms in which he featured prominently. American woman conductor Marin Alsop took the podium for the legendary Last Night of the Proms, the first woman ever to do so. She’s not a cute girl: she’s an experienced musician doing not just a professional job but an inspirational one. She’d received rave reviews for her interpretation of Brahms’s choral masterpiece A German Requiem a couple of weeks before the Last Night.

She put her stamp on the Last Night itself, creating one of the best ever. There was laughter and knockabout silliness, as there should be: but there were wonderful performances, too, crafted, thoughtful and sensitive.

In the conductor’s Last Night speech she didn’t mention Petrenko by name, but she chided him gently by implication, also taking the musical establishment to task for the fact that she was indeed the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms. Bouquets and accolades for Ms Alsop, then: and a resounding raspberry for Mr Petrenko.

Let’s not kid ourselves: prejudice isn’t confined to classical music. It’s still everywhere. We rightly criticise the glass ceiling: but entrenched attitudes still conspire not merely to keep it in place but to double and triple-glaze it.

For example, it’s been a good summer for cricket, with England retaining the Ashes. England’s women, I mean. On their day of victory they received almost two minutes’ coverage on the TV news… before a rather longer report about the men’s 20/20 match that followed. So the girls were only the warm-up act after all.

The Great North Run did better. The élite men and women alike had great finishes: Mo Farah’s failure to pip Kenenisa Bekele at the post made the more exciting conclusion, but due credit was given to female athlete Priscah Jeptoo who beat the favourites and, at 65 minutes 45 seconds, came close to Paula Radcliffe’s course record. Well done GNR, the BBC and the North East!

As for Vasily Petrenko, all I can say is that I wish him many uncomfortable nights on the sofa. His wife shouldn’t relent until he’s truly learned his lesson.

 

Thursday 12th September 2013

I find I’m gradually gaining additional attributes that qualify me as an old git. Inevitable, perhaps, at my age. Worse than that (and underlining the point), I don’t fear or resent the fact any more. I’m content to be out of step and permanently grumpy about what I see as unnecessary and irritating change.

Most recently I’ve been let down, betrayed even, by that guardian angel of our great language, The Oxford English Dictionary. Nowadays it seems streams of invented or wrongly-used terms are added to its hallowed pages, such errors being admitted by the OED as “current usage”.

In truth I’m asking more of the OED than it can possibly offer. Its purpose has never been to preserve some perceived pure version of the English language. On the contrary, it’s a handbook of English “as she is spoke”.

In Britain we have no equivalent to the Académie Française. That historic institution sees itself as protecting the French language. For years it wouldn’t accept the word “computer”, insisting on the correct French term, “ordinateur”. I don’t know what its official line is now: but on a recent visit to France we talked about computers, even if pronounced with a French accent.

Back home, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that even teachers of English now consider it acceptable to indiscriminately split infinitives (putting an adverb after the word “to”, as I’ve just done). It’s something I still cannot bring myself to do: even that demonstration above caused me almost physical pain.

This decline in English gets worse. Not long ago we mocked Nick Clegg for describing about voters who “literally live in another galaxy”. Looking for alien voters seemed a desperate remedy even for him. Now, alas, we can no longer criticise Clegg’s incorrect use of the word “literally”. The online OED has accepted that the word can be used, even where something isn’t actually, precisely true, “for emphasis or to explain strong feeling”.

My sense of outrage isn’t merely a product of age and intolerance. My English-teacher daughter shares it. “My goodness”, she said. “That’s worse than hopefully”. That particular adverb is one we all tend to misuse. We’ll say, for example, “Hopefully we’ll arrive in time,” when we should say that we hope to get there on schedule. Hopefully means literally that, at the very moment, we have hope in our hearts. But if literally doesn’t mean literally anymore, who knows what hopefully now conveys?

Does it really matter? Not that much. I prefer to see English as a dynamic, constantly-changing thing, much as I dislike sloppiness and laziness in its use.

In fact, nowadays I reserve my chief disdain for newly-invented but daft new words. It appears that “twerk” has now been recognised and included in the online OED. If, like me, you didn’t know what twerking was, you will have been as bemused yet underwhelmed as I was by reports of a raunchy demonstration of twerking by a young actress (Miley Cyrus) of whom I had never heard.

She apparently rose to fame in a kids’ TV programme that was also previously unknown to me (Hannah Montana). That show was about nicely scrubbed, virtuous high-school girls: I suspect there was widespread use of the colour pink. But Ms Cyrus has now reinvented herself as a Bad Girl and started behaving outrageously – recently twerking in a sexually suggestive manner with a male singing star twice her age.

Still as bewildered as I was? I’m told twerking is a highly sexual dance, full of squatting, popping and jiggling, so lewdly energetic that I put my back out just reading about it.

Of this I’m sure: twerking is not for me and, if being up to date means understanding it (let alone learning to do it), I’m happy to stay old-fashioned.

Meanwhile you hopefully enjoyed reading this column. If you did, I’m literally over the moon.

 

Why should Britain have the right to attack Syria?

Thursday 5th September 2013

Poor old David Cameron. He’s had a tough few days. On Syria he started out well, talking tough and denouncing human rights abuses, above all the regime’s appalling chemical weapons attack on its own people. Roundly, unequivocally and rightly he condemned Bashar al-Assad’s inhuman and despicable behaviour.

But then he insisted we should retaliate. Why? Why Britain? What gives us the right as a single nation, or even as an alliance with America and France, to appoint ourselves judge, jury and executioner?

Moreover, whom should we bomb, and how? We’ve had so-called smart bombs and sophisticated missiles for three decades: yet, whenever they are employed, the innocent are inevitably maimed or killed. There’s no such thing as a clinical strike. War obliterates homes, destroys families indiscriminately and blights the lives of young and old alike. We rush to military action at our peril.

Accordingly, while I’m not a pacifist I believe in avoiding war at almost any cost. So I take a different view from some commentators of last week’s Commons vote. Yes, I want Assad and his government punished, humiliated, overthrown, but that reaction stems mostly from anger. It’s a desire for retribution.

Yet vengeance is not mine to deliver. Nor is it the preserve of a single country or a small group acting as policemen for the world. They have no such authority. If justice is to be served on Assad, it should be done by his own people or, failing that, by the international community.

The United Nations should act. But the UN is something of a misnomer. It’s a depressingly divided body, one axis forming to block the diplomatic (or bellicose) efforts of another: meanwhile the humanitarian crisis grows exponentially. Nonetheless the UN, a council of all nations, is the only body with the legitimate authority to take action against a rogue country.

So what happened in the Commons last week? Was it a humiliating defeat for the PM? Did Parliament show him that he can’t throw his weight around and simply demand its unquestioning support? Maybe. He was hasty in pushing for a vote: perhaps that haste was indeed punished.

I think two things happened in the Mother of Parliaments last week. First, Cameron’s advisers underestimated the fear that still remains in Britain of creating another Iraq or Afghanistan, of getting in deeper than we can manage and being unable to extricate ourselves.

Moreover, memories of the Iraq invasion are long: in 2003 Tony Blair drove a vote through, brooking no refusal and insisting with his spin-doctors that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In the event he had no such thing. He was a wicked dictator, and Iraq is better off without him. But the reason given for invading Iraq was false and our action thus without justification.


A decade later Parliament was last week unsurprisingly nervous of committing itself unilaterally to military action, fearing for both our forces and the long-term consequences.

More important, perhaps, Parliament refused to be browbeaten by a dominant executive. MPs of all parties declined to be herded by their whips into the lobbies. Mindful of the fact that they represent constituencies, politicians did their job and voted according to their understanding, their consciences, and their world view. That’s what we elect and pay them to do.

Because it’s such a vexed and complex question, the vote was inevitably close. Opinion polls around the country are similarly tight. The people’s representatives voted largely in line with the views of the electorate, resolving only narrowly that Britain should not go to war with Syria. That’s how a true democracy should work.

Last week our parliamentary democracy was tested. Whether or not you agree with its decision, and whether you share or are infuriated by my view, the system proved fit for purpose.

There may have been egg on Mr Cameron’s face, but the vote was a triumph for democracy.