Monday 3 January 2011
Nel mezzo del cammin. Dante meant that he was thirty-five when he started his great journey. But what about these days? When Dante said it he was thinking of the Book of Genesis, which said that in the ideal world (of the Book of Genesis) a man should normally make threescore and ten. But how many of them did in Dante’s time, or in the time of the Book of Genesis for that matter? Even poor Signor Alighieri only had twenty-one years to go after his mezzo.
I’m not over-optimistic. My father got caught cold by cancer in his early fifties, and I remember passing a dull train journey, shortly after his death, by making pointless calculations. I came up with a start, however, on working out that, if I were to live as long as he had, I was already two weeks into the second half of my life. I was twenty-six.
But now I had reached an unarguable mezzo, in the form of a half-century, however unimpressively nudged and nurdled. True, I had no great prospect of the ton; drink, diabetes and divorce had considerably lengthened the odds. But, I thought, these days my chances are as good as Dante’s: I might just match his twenty-one.
It was in the faint hope of shortening those odds that I donned woolly jumper and (ludicrously virginal) walking boots and yomped off through the Oxfordshire countryside with my trusty Ordnance Survey map. For some time I’d had my eye on the village of Sutton Courtenay, with its inviting PH promising two-pennorth of wassail which, five miles in, I could just about do with.
But before reaching the PH, my attention was arrested by the village church. It takes a lot to divert my attention from a PH, but a proper church with a proper churchyard will do it. And so I entered, and did my bit of looking around the tombstones, calculating ages, and who was related to whom, and how the power relationships might have worked in the village, and so on and so on (as in Coming Up For Air by George Orwell).
I was just about to leave and slake the noble thirst which had been so piously whetted, when I tripped. My usage of my gleaming walking boots had been too sparing to walk them in properly, and it was hardly surprising that I lost my footing on a tussock. Down I went, putting out both arms to break my fall, in stupid defiance of experience, which has provided me with four broken bones in this way. However, this time I was lucky, if you can call it that given what followed. I fell into unresisting earth, and kept on falling. And lost the plot for a while.
I awoke to find myself covered in mud. Which was fine, I reflected, as far as my hitherto pristine walking boots were concerned. But once I realised how far north the infestation had stretched, I was less chuffed. However, my attention was swiftly diverted by the clench of a bony hand on my shoulder.
“Aaaaarrrgghhh!!!”, I shouted, being related by blood or marriage to several people who watched horror films. My apprehensions were swiftly dispelled by the reply “Get up, you silly sod”. I swivelled round on the more functional of my elbows.
No, it wasn’t a skeleton. But almost. The figure was enormous, or at least looked so from my recumbent position. There was still some flesh on the bones. And the grip on my shoulder seemed strangely ill-coordinated. The spectre was obviously no real physical threat. Relaxing somewhat, I remembered my obvious lines: “Wh-wh-who are y-y-you?”
“You know damn well who I am,” said the towering figure. “Who the fuck did you expect to meet in a graveyard in Sutton bleeding Courtenay? Sorry, that should be ‘whom’. Except that it shouldn’t, because ‘whom’ would sound barbarous. Unless you’re some kind of linguistic pedant? ” And here the figure took on a frightening aspect for the first time.
“No,” I said tremulously. “I mean would you prefer to be Mr. Blair or Mr. Orwell?”
“George will do,” he replied. “It took me long enough to get used to it, after all. And I understand that the name Blair has…a bit of an overtone, these days.”
“Well, what do you think?” I said. “A pint or two at the George & Dragon?”
“We’ll deal with the dragons first, if you don’t mind. Besides, I found it difficult enough to cope with ordinary working people in pubs back in the day, what with being an Etonian and all. How I’d cope with the sort of people in there these days I can’t begin to imagine.”
“So what do you suggest?”
“Let’s get straight down there,” he said. “You need to see what’s what.” He produced, from within some interstice in his decayed graveclothes, a pouch of tobacco, and rolled himself a cigarette. “If we’d gone to the pub, you’d soon have found out what’s what,” I said to myself.
“You know damn well where,” he said. “Just need to sort out the transport.”
I indicated, by a gesture of abandonment and impotence, that I was in his hands.
“And so we’re off to Hell,” said he, “by transethereal steamer!”
“The baddest guys these days,” I told him, “get there in a Beamer.”
“And, just to warn you, George,” I said, “I can’t do terza rima!”
“That’s because your generation is thick as mince,” he said. “I never got an Oxford First, but I’d still read two-thirds of English Literature by the time I was eight. And I may not have read anything they told me to at Eton, but I sure read a hell of a lot of other stuff. Terza rima? Cyril Connolly and I used to do that as a displacement activity.”
“Touché,” I conceded.
Saturday 1 January 2011
And it’s not that I don’t sympathise with their working conditions. We aspire to be more of a free-booting, vibrant, devil-take-the-hindmost American-style society, while forgetting that the US imprisons (per capita) five times as many of its citizens as we do. And we won’t build the prisons for that, so the ones we have are all heaving. And money must be saved, which inevitably means staffing reductions. We hear that last night, at Ford Open Prison, there were only two prison officers and four support staff on duty.
Was that enough? Well, it was clearly enough to prevent a large-scale prison break-out, which is the bare minimum the public requires from prison management. But was anyone surprised to hear that, in a very lightly policed “open” prison, the inmates managed to smuggle in a certain amount of booze for a pennyworth of wassail on New Year’s Eve?
Now, it’s quite clear to me why alcohol has to be banned in prisons; so much crime is connected to it. The same goes for illegal drugs, with which most British prisons are reputed to be awash. After all, powders, leaves and resins are far easier to smuggle in, if only by reason of volume. But, you might have expected someone in authority to think, is it really so bad if the prisoners stage a bit of a New Year piss-up? The governor would have had every right to say to the powers that be “Look, if you cut our staffing that badly, we’ll still perform the basic duty to keep the cons locked up, but we’ll just have to turn a blind eye to the odd bit of smuggling. It’s only once a year, and no real harm was done.”
But no. Somebody decided that a hard line must be taken. The problem with people of moderate intelligence is that they tend to fall back on rule-books rather than using a bit of nous. And so a full inquiry was ordered. Everyone who might conceivably have been involved in the breach of regulations must be breathalysed. Result: dozens of cons chased around the place by screws with breathalyser kits, refusing to cooperate; the screws wouldn’t back off, and so a riot broke out. Even Ronnie Barker couldn’t make that up. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage done, and hundreds of prisoners now having to be moved to other prisons which are already bulging at the seams.
All because “Mr Mackay” didn’t have the sense of his near namesake, my late schoolmaster Richard McCall. After an extended – and totally illegal – post-exam celebration, Mr McCall came over to me at the morning meal and said “Collard, I strongly suspect you of being the first boy I have ever seen drunk at breakfast. But don’t worry, I shan’t pursue the matter.” But I fear that such men do not become prison officers.
Saturday 16 October 2010
But let’s not sink into Schadenfreude. The idea of families at breaking point is not one that should be sneered at. There are lots of them up here in the North-West, for whom the recent glorious Indian summer was overshadowed by the looming seasonal debate: proper winter clothes for the kids or heating the house properly? But I somehow suspect these aren’t exactly the people referred to. Surely, many of our readers will say, that’s in the North! They’ve been like that for twenty-five years; surely they’ve got used to it by now. Now we, on the other hand....
They have a point. The jobs which consisted of spending all day in the factory or oop t’mill have indeed gone, with a little help from a certain lady; many of the jobs involving sitting in the office all day, looking out of the window and dreaming of house prices, have lasted a good deal longer. So it could be said that the coping classes have had an extra quarter of a century to put aside sheaves of corn for the lean years. And have they? ‘Ave they ‘eckers. They’ve borrowed themselves silly, admittedly following the Government’s example, and now the bills are coming in. A sense that a lot of these people have misjudged their real economic interests steals over me.
Politics is not, at bottom, about ideas and principles; much of that is froth on the surface. It’s about living and working conditions, and that comes down very simply to relative wealth. Margaret Thatcher united the rich and the middle classes, got some of the poor on board too, and won three elections. Tony Blair united the poor and the middle classes, got some of the rich on board too, and achieved the same. The Coalition stands or falls by persuading the “coping classes” to identify their interests with the “millionaires’ Cabinet”. That is why they have taken the risk of allowing the pain caused by reforms to pensions and child benefit to reach as far down as the £45,000 bracket; they need to keep convincing them that “we’re all in this together”.
I have got a bit sick of middle-class self-pity. Earning a living and paying one’s taxes makes one a decent citizen; it doesn’t make one a hero, saint and martyr. The real heroes and martyrs, if not necessarily saints, are simultaneously the real coping classes; those who are managing to hold things together, amid collapsing social services, a long way short of the top tax bracket. This is where a lot of the real entrepreneurial talent is emerging; this class don’t expect secure jobs and nice regular incomes any more. Yes, there’s some ducking and diving; the wheels of the downmarket coping strategy are occasionally greased with a bit of benefit-fiddling, as those of upmarket enterprise are sometimes greased by a bit of tax-dodging. But it’s really those of us on four- or five-figure incomes who are “all in this together”, and Mr Cameron must not be allowed to forget it.
Thursday 17 June 2010
While horrible things happen to the Uzbeks of Osh, the mighty neighbours are showing considerable restraint. Russia has so far shown no sign of responding to the new interim Kyrgyz Government’s invitation to Russia to send troops in to keep the peace. Does it matter that they asked Russia rather than China? Well, Russia has a military base in Kyrgyzstan already, and makes no secret of regarding the Central Asian ‘stans as part of its extensive backyard. Also I can imagine the Russians having rather a tough time working out who the goodies and baddies are from that point of view: this is no longer a sound post-Soviet government against CIA-backed rebels, as both the post-Soviet government and its replacement have now been overthrown. And the government of Uzbekistan, a sound post-Soviet government if ever there was one, is showing little sympathy for its persecuted brothers across the border, which it has closed to Uzbek refugees.
Unlike Russia, China actually has a border with Kyrgyzstan. But all they have done is organise a fairly efficient airlift to extract their own citizens from the killing zone. Intervention outside the borders is something China just does not do, at least not since having its butt kicked by the Vietnamese in 1979. On the surface Russia and China are both firm adherents of the absolute-sovereignty-no-interference-in-internal-affairs brigade. But Russia is inclined to make exceptions for the countries of the former Soviet Union, which it would secretly like to reincorporate. China, on the other hand, is not interested in direct control, which implies responsibility, at all; China just wants to make sure the natural resources are flowing in the right direction, which is east. Not that Kyrgyzstan has much in the way of natural resources (apart from a certain amount of gold); but that whole region is pipeline country, and thus will bear watching. And, of course, if any unrest were to spill over into Xinjiang, that would be an entirely different matter; one more reason for getting Chinese nationals, who are mostly Muslim businessmen from Xinjiang, out of Kyrgyzstan sharpish.
So poor old Kyrgyzstan is going to have to sort out its own problems – I don’t think there’s much chance of their getting the UN peacekeepers they’re hoping for. And they’ll have to make sure they sort them out in a way that doesn’t annoy anybody important. Not an easy proposition for a new and wobbly government.
Sunday 13 June 2010
As a diplomatic imbroglio, this one might have defeated Talleyrand. How to maintain and restore the worn fabric of the “special relationship” while causing justice to be seen to be done for the misdoings of a US/UK company with a British-derived name? No-one can blame the American people for being angry. But managing that anger seems as difficult as capping the oil leak. Thank heaven we didn’t exacerbate it by winning the footy.
Americans are always keen, where possible, to reduce any issue to one they can chant “USA! USA!” about. And the problem is that, though BP is an international company owned by shareholders all over the world (with US and UK holdings almost equivalent), everybody knows what the “B” originally stood for. The USA doesn’t have that much history, but what it has focuses understandably on the nation’s genesis and resisting King George’s redcoats. It’s an easy button to press. President Obama assures us he is not anti-British and has no wish to lay the blame on Britain: but his frequent references to the company’s former name are a bit disingenuous. Over here we recognise the sound of a dog-whistle when we hear one.
Furthermore, the President has also lapsed into the kind of down-home language everyone likes to hear, by talking about “kicking ass”. The trouble with that is the usual trouble with politicians’ promises: pretty soon people are going to be asking for evidence of ass duly kicked. Saying that he would have sacked Tony Hayward if Hayward had worked for him won’t do: a hypothetical ass-kicking is not enough. Not only can Obama do nothing meaningful about BP: he wouldn’t even want to. As Cameron has been rightly pointing out to him, serious damage to BP would be serious damage to both UK and US economies.
Threats to prevent the payment of dividends would also be an own goal (or a “Robert Green” as they are now known). There are as many pensioners over there who would be affected as over here. A ban on any BP employee being paid more than $100,000 this year would be a far better symbolic gesture, but it ain’t going to happen. In any case, Americans believe the sky would fall in if “executives” were not “compensated” according to their “status”.
This means that the circle will have to be squared diplomatically. If ass is going to be kicked without lousing up economic recovery, a sop will have to be thrown to the spirit of George Washington. The Southern States will not forgive Obama for missing such a fine opportunity to apply the shoe-leather. Somehow the impression has to be given that the limeys have got what was coming to them. I hope that the FCO furnishes the Prime Minister with a couple of nice thick files to insert in his trousers.
Wednesday 9 June 2010
There are two ways to look at this. On one hand, it’s an example of the lengths to which people can be pushed by an oppressive state apparatus which takes scant notice of the individual rights of its citizens. We know this happens in China, and sometimes we rather admire it. Think of the speed with which the Olympic stadia and their supporting infrastructure were prepared; half a dozen new underground lines, thirty or forty miles long and going right through the centre of Beijing (eat your heart out, Boris Johnson); the fact that, as people in Hamburg were always complaining to me, a new Chinese container port can be operative within 18 months of groundbreaking, whereas no-one in Europe can do it in less than ten years.
And we know there is a human cost to this, just as there is to the population control policy. Planning permission is not subject to delays or appeals. For the last twenty years people have been receiving instructions from the local authority to be out of their homes by a week on Friday. Resistance is futile.
But of course it is not always a question of major infrastructure projects of which everybody sees the point. In Mr Yang’s case, he was told by the local authority that the land was required for government buildings. Mr Yang is not so sure. By his calculations the market value of his land is about five times what the authorities are offering him. He suspects that, once he has been evicted, something rather more lucrative than government buildings will go up on his land, and that the local authority has been handsomely bribed to use its coercive powers to ensure that the developers acquire the land for a fraction of its real value. That is why he is putting up such spirited resistance.
Another view might be to admire the way in which the old buccaneering spirit of the Wild West is re-emerging in this otherwise strictly regimented country. The developers (assuming the argument of my last paragraph is correct, and I do) are behaving like old-style robber barons. As for Farmer Yang, what a splendid example of active citizenship. Just imagine if anyone tried to resist compulsory purchase in such a way in the UK. You’d be monstered, not only by the Old Bill but by Elf ‘n’ Safety too. You wouldn’t last two hours. Let us hope that Mr Yang avoids the slammer (the fact that this story was carried in the local media suggests some sympathy for him in high places) and that his spirit proliferates in China.