Sunday, July 28, 2013

‘Arab Spring’ still working its tortuous way to disaster. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better (he said hopefully). And RIP JJ Cale

The usual story: Sunday shift finished, I am sitting in a pub supping my pint of cider and drawing on a cigar (which, I must swiftly add, I try as often as possible to buy when in Europe, where they are a damn sight cheaper – no plutcrat me, oh no). The choice of pubs is limited to two, in both of which I can sit outside and smoke and should it rain – not unknown in Britain – I am reasonably sheltered. Here, tonight, I am at the Scarsdale Arms. The other one I sometimes go to is the Devonshire Arms not – a rather hefty – stone’s throw away. In both the cider is excruciatingly expensive, but were I to try to find a cheaper pint, I should have to travel at least 10 miles, and for a cheaper pint of cider I can’t really be bothered.

Both pubs are patronised by loads of foreigners (a breed increasingly dear to a British heart in that, again increasingly, we have no choice in the matter). Foreigners, despite the goddam awful food traditionally served up in Britain, are attracted to our country. If you want to know why, you must ask one of them. Were I to be flippant – a useful ruse to say something you believe but want to disguise in case someone takes offence – is that you seem to get a better class of foreigner in the Scarsdale. That’s not why I come here, of course, and it’s just an observation. I am writing this because almost always I have an itch to write. The problem is that I rarely have much to write about, so I am bound to restrict myself to inconsequential rubbish. So here goes.

. . .

What the bloody hell is going on in Egypt? A few days ago an estimated 100 folk were gunned down in Cairo while demonstrating in support of the now deposed president Morsi. In case any you reading this entry have forgotten, Morsi was duly and democratically elected. There were no suggestions whatsoever that his election was in any way rigged. His supporters were apparently shot dead – and a great many more were wounded – by the army.

I don’t yet know, that is I haven’t yet heard, how the Egyptian army is explaining its actions and the deaths. In one of those excessively odd and, furthermore under the circumstances highly embarrassing, turns of fate, the army which killed all those folk – a more honest way of describing it would be ‘gunned down in cold blood’ – has the support – an ‘apparently’ is necessary here – of the liberal elite, the ‘burgeoning middle class’, all those folk who like to see themselves on the side of progress, literacy, democracy and the rest. So what is going on? The most recent piece of news I’ve heard is that the current prime minister has granted the army powers to arrest at will anyone they want to arrest. So that’s OK then. It’s all legal and above board.

Actually, I think what is going on is quite simple: the army had a nice thing going under Mubarak, but dumped him when the time seemed right. It then simply bided its time and they had more to lose by sticking up for their man. Then came the ‘popular uprising’ against Morsi, which suited the army’s purpose and cause rather well: they were able to steam in there, remove all those they wanted to remove, but do it all under the spurious cloak of ‘fighting for the people’ or whatever bullshit phrase they have chosen. Plus ca change...

Egypt seems to be split down the centre, which does not bode well for peace. Meanwhile, Turkey, which had its own problems a month or two ago, has rather gone quite (though in a stange sideshow Erdogan has threatened to launch a libel action against The Times here in Britain, claiming that – hold on a minute while I look this up – he was defamed in an open letter The Times published which criticised his handling of the recent protests). But most certainly the trouble there has not been settled.

In neighbouring Syria things are still going from bad to worse, with Assad’s forces now getting more of the upper hand. Obama is, true to form, humming and haahing about what America should do next. It would be easy to slag him off at this point, but he really does find himself between a rock and a hard place, and, I should imagine, his prime concerns are what domestic impact there is as a result of what he chooses to do. He is on record as laying down a ‘red line’ and says the U.S. will act if that red line is crossed. The red line was crossed when he had very good evidence that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

Unfortunately, there is also evidence that the ‘rebels’ had also used chemical weapons and are generally behaving equally as brutally as Assad. Up a bit and to the left (if you are looking at a map of North Africa) the puported ‘success story’ which was Tunisia is beginning to look rather less successful now that a leading opposition leader has been killed. . . .

On more domestic matters, my children are unfortunately growing up. My daughter Elsie will turn 17 in nine days and her younger brother Wesley turned 14 in May. And it seems like only yesterday that they were babes in arms, keen to listen to a story in bed or accompany me ‘to town’ because in their then very limited world it was something of an adventure. Oh well.

I mention them because what with the fuck up the ‘Arab Spring’ is becoming I rather feel that the next few years will be hotter rather than colder and not just for the good folk living in North Africa and the Middle East. Earlier on today driving up from Cornwall I was listening to Desert Island Discs whose guest today was Mary Robinson, the former president of the Irish Republic and – in my view – and all-round good egg. One of the tracks she choose was Dylan’s The Times They Are A’Changing. Well, they certainly are. . . .

 JJ Cale — and without looking it up, I couldn’t even tell you his Christian name — has kicked the bucket and is now pushing up daisies. Cale was another of my faves, although again I can’t tell you when or how I first came across him and his music. It will have been in the Seventies, although if truth be told I didn’t really, really get to like it until I was older by at least 20 years. It’s like jazz and classical music: bit by bit you grow into it. Bit by bit the heroes of your younger years and the music they made begin to sound a little thin and you find yourself looking for something a little meatier. And despite his laid-back style Cale was meatier.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Orchard Dene and Lower Assendon revisited – I go on an unexpected and unplanned sentimental journey

Lower Assendon will mean very little to almost everyone reading this blog, unless you live in Henley-on-Thames or nearby – Watlingon, Bix, Fawley, Middle Assendon or, obviously, Lower Assendon. But it means something to me because it was where I grew up, by which I mean where I lived from the age of three to eight. It is at the end of the Fair Mile, the road leading out of Henley to Oxford, and is just beyond the junction where one road will take you to Watlington and the other onto Oxford, via Nettlebed and Nuffield.

It isn’t even a hamlet, let alone a village. It has no shop, and not even a proper pub. What was once a proper pub, The Golden Ball, is now a little more than a gastro-pub and a little less than a restaurant: if you eat there, you’ll not get away with spending at least, with drinks – who eats without drinking? - £40 a head and as you didn’t go on your own and are either a guest or a host, that can for many be something of a dent in your wallet, though not much of a dent for the good people of Henley and environs (which, I understand, is French for ‘the surrounding area’ - no slouch, me). I was there yesterday and could well have counted the houses there, but I didn’t, so all I can say is that Lower Assendon is made up of around ten or eleven houses, none near each other.

I got back from France on Friday afternoon, and as it seemed rather pointless to drive 240 miles home to Cornwall, only to drive the same 240 miles back up to London to get to work this morning, I decided to stay in London. I had planned to take Susan Wharton, Michael ‘Peter Simple’ wife, out for lunch, but just after she said yes, she rang back and told me she had looked at her diary and was promised to a party in Kent to celebrate the 90th birthday of a friend. It might sound like the bum’s rush, but I know Susan and it wasn’t.

So my next plan was to take Mark to The Golden Ball (it might just be the Golden Ball with a lower case ‘t’ – sub please check as all the really well-paid columnists are apt to say) for lunch. That was before we got there and discovered our local pub – local implies more than a hamlet, so if I tell you that when you are in Lower Assendon, it will take you more than three or four minutes to get to your neighbours house, you’ll understand why I say it is less than a hamlet – had transformed itself into what it is now. (If on the very, very rare occasion I am prepared to spend more than £40 a head on a meal, I shan’t do so in what was once a pub and should still be a pub.) So we had a pint of Brakspear’s bitter – the brewery as such no longer exists and has been bought out by some big brewing conglomerate or other though I have to say whoever brews Brakspear’s bitter has managed to keep it as good as ever – and after looking through the menu we decided we wouldn’t eat there. ‘Delightful Cornish scallops’ and ‘friendly, humanely slaughtered local pork’ really aren’t my thing, so knowing that the Rainbow Inn was a two-minute drive up the road, we ‘dined’ there. That wasn’t particularly brilliant, but substantially cheaper. Then we did what I had come to do which was to roam a little and to visit my haunts of – well, I must be honest – 60 years ago.

Nothing had changed, except that it all, naturally, looked rather smaller. I should say that I loved growing up there. There were about seven or eight of us who lived locally and we did all the things lads and lasses of six, seven and eight do. We built fires and tried to roast apples, which were, of course, inedible, rode our bikes here and there – I learnt to ride a bike on the gravel outside the Golden Ball (I’ve settle for the lower case ‘t’) – roamed the nearby woods and generally had a good time.

Here are the names of my companions in case any of them happen upon this blog: Ann Gibbons (of whom a little more later), Lindsay and Mandy Cooper, John Valentine, John Lovejoy, Richard Bryant, and myself and my older brother Ian. I had my first kiss with Mandy. She was about five and I was about six. The big house there was Orchard Dene, which consisted of the owner’s house, and around the back three flats, of which ours was by far the smallest. The owner was Jim Gibbons and his wife (whose name I can’t remember. Ann was their daughter.

We lived at 3 Orchard Dene, up a green, cast-iron set of stairs. Curious, I left my brother Mark in the car – which was his decision as he is somewhat ‘shy’ (odd for a man who is now 55) and didn’t want to come, and went to the big house and knocked on the door. A woman in her late 60s answered and I asked her whether she was Ann Gibbons. She was. I had similarly visited with my older brother Ian (who is now mentally ill) several years ago, but this time the visit was longer. We chatted for a while and were soon joined by her husband Peter, who asked me whether I would like to look inside 3 Orchard Dene. The present tenant, he said, was a very pleasant, very amenable man, who wouldn’t mind at all, and so I did. The tenant was on his way out to work, so he told us to let ourselves in.

The flat is small, just two bedrooms, one for Ian and myself and one for my parents. It has been thoroughly modernised, so the open fire in the living room and the coke burner in our room have gone and it is now centrally heated. What was once our larder now has a washing machine. The windows are now all modern. I spent some time chatting with Ann and her husband, and she reminded me of what I had forgotten and I reminded her of what she had forgotten. If you carry on up the lane, which leads to Bix, you’ll soon go passed what was once a diary farm run by – the name is not made up up – Farmer Smallbones. She said he taught her how to milk a cow. He didn’t teach me, but I do remember tumbling around in his hay loft and once, after learning the red was a colour bulls hated, parading up and down the other side of a gate to the yard which contained his bull, in a pair of red socks.

The Coopers lived in a small cottage at the end of the drive, but that has now been substantially gentrified and the owners run a B&B business. I have to say that this was not really a sentimental journey at all. I didn’t experience some kind of heaving in my breast or anything like that, but – the sun was out and it was a glorious day, I realised how lucky I was to have spent the early part of my childhood in such a lovely part of the country. Henley was not close for a young lad and although Ian and I went to primary school there, the Sacred Heart School, we had to catch a bus every morning to get there and then again at night to get home.

Ann has grandchildren who come and stay – they live in Bristol and so a visit to the countryside is always welcome – and these days they are not allowed to roam: it’s the increased traffic, she said, nothing else. But 60 years ago we roamed everywhere. In the holidays we had breakfast and then buggered off for the morning, came back home for lunch, and then buggered off again for the rest of the afternoon. In those days, as we all know, it was perpetual summer and I can’t, after all these years, remember one single drop of rain.

I now live in rural North Cornwall and am very grateful that my own two children, now 17 in two weeks and 14 a month or two ago, living next to their uncle’s beef farm and have several cousins, are also able to grow up in a very pleasant part of the country. It’s luck really. Many children cannot, but then children being children, until they are ten or eleven, most all things are an adventure whether you grow up in the country or a city.

Thank the Lord for small mercies.

PS ‘Lower Assendon’ – look it up on Google maps and switch to whatever the function is to allow you to go down the roads and byways.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Come on, Kate, do me a real favour and get a move on!

Just a quick word before the day is out: please, please, please God make that bloody royal baby (who is to be called ‘Kevin’, I understand, as Princess Kate has always had a thing about Kevin Keegan) be born today. I am not the slightest bit interested in any of the hoo-ha, but if he – bound to be a boy – isn’t born today, he’ll be born next week and work will be murder, sheer hell. So, you bloody Windsors, if you want me to remain on your side: get that baby born!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

More concerts in France, and I open my big mouth to diss - slightly - the World’s Greatest Novelist

I’ve been here in Illats, south of Bordeaux, for a week and it is hot. Yes, I know it is also hot in Old Blighty, but it is a little hotter here. The heatwave in Britain is most probably something of an aberration – in several years time folk will be talking about ‘the summer of 2013’ as we still talk about ‘the summer of 1976’ when we were all encouraged to stop pissing and pooing to save water, eat off palm leaves to save on the washing up and to recycle our G&T ice-cubes (sounds impossible, I know, but you would be surprised what skills you can acquire quite rapidly when needs must).

Not that there will be any ‘water-saving measures this summer, however dire it gets and however burnt to a cinder lawns throughout Sussex, Surrey, Kent and Hampshire become. The government would simply not dare after all the floods and rain we had until three weeks ago. There must be enough water down there in our acquifers (or whatever the technical term is) to last us two or three scorching summers, so a hosepipe ban is surely oompletely out of the question.

I am staying, as I have been for, I think, the past three years with my stepmother’s aunt and accompanying her to concerts. Her husband isn’t interested (and, anyway, he has been ill these past few days, although he is slowly recovering – according to the doctor ‘there’s a lot of what he’s got about among old people in these temperatures’). Because my aunt stayed home to keep an eye on here husband last week, I went to the first concert, on Thursday evening, on my own. It given by a group of seven singers who call themselves Scandicus and sing late 15th, early 16th music a cappella. It’s not to everyone’s taste but I like that kind of music a great deal. The next concert was by Maxim Vengerov and a pianist called Itamar Golan (I looks rather like what I should imagine a Mossad field agent would look like – he looks liked the kind of toughie you wouldn’t want to mix it with).

They played duos by Beethoven, Schubert, Franck and Saint-Saens, followed by two encore pieces by Brahms, both thoroughly rousing, designed, I suspect, to get the audience to demand a third encore, which we got. It was a gentle piece by Faure designed to calm us all down again and indeed we did and afterwards all went quietly. My aunt commented that she though Vengerov had gained weight and that his fingers seemed thicker, especially around the joints, and as she had a sister who developed appalling arthritis and gained a great deal of weight because of the steroids she had to take, was wondering whether Vengerov, too, is developing arthritis.

There was to be a concert on Saturday, but that was cancelled, so our next concert is tonight. Apart from attending those concerts I have been doing very little (which suits me well). Yesterday, we went off to Bordeaux and called in on a 92-year-old former colleague of my aunt’s, a Liverpudlian woman who met and married a Frenchman just after the war and has been living in France for the past 62 years, but still hasn’t lost he Scally accents. She also rates in my book because she can still laugh at the silly jokes I sometimes hear and pass on to her which my aunt will treat with sheer and disdain. (An example: a chap went to the doctor and asked him whether he could give him anything for persistent wind. The doctor gave him a kite.)

My aunt, who is 82-years-old, is rather crotchety these days and anything not being exactly in the place she is accustomed to it being has been earning me a stern rebuke on each occasion, even though I have no idea I had done wrong. There are several things I always look out for and have done so for the past three years – ensuring the lavatory seat is down if I take a leak during the night, for example, and not overfilling the kettle (a bad one, that), but even though I say so myself, I am a considerate guest, never take anything for granted and am getting just a tad cheesed off at being treated like a naughty, rather dense schoolboy. But she is 82, after all, and naturally I say nothing. Lord knows what I shall be like at that age, if I ever actually get there.

. . .

I have just finished reading The Human Stain by Philip Roth. I bought the novel after seeing the film and was rather taken by it. And I only saw the film because I had watched Bad Company with Jeff Bridges, which was rather good, and was looking for other films by its director, Robert Benton. His film stars Anthony Hookins, Ed Harris and Nicole Kidman and is a reasonably entertaining potboiler. Actually, that’s unfair. Hopkins and Harris are both good actors and give great performances. Kidman was thoroughly miscast, but I didn’t realise that until I had read the novel.

As for that novel, well I should say straight off that it is more complex than the film. Indeed, like many films ‘of the book’ it is more a film based on material presented in the book. One character, in particular is wholly excised from the film’s version, a young female and highly ambitious French professor called Delphine Roux. Oddly, although she is well-realised in the novel, she did strike me as being something to close to a plot device for comfort, and doesn’t really even make an appearance in the novel until the last quarter. And dare I say this? After all Roth is now regarded as one of America’s ‘great’ novelist hand has been ‘awarded prizes’, not least the Kellogg’s Golden Wheatflake for producing literary masterpiece after literary masterpiece while starting each working day on a bowl of cornflakes.

But in my extremely humble, though it has to be said, firmly held opinion, The Human Stain is rather overwritten. It has to be said that given Roth’s talent for the telling phrase what he does supply in excess paragraph after paragraph is very readable and very entertaining, but I sincerely feel his novel would have gained by being trimmed by a third and perhaps even a half. The trouble is that for the past 40 years, it seems, novels in America are sold by weight, so there is no reason for a writer to limit himself. And given all ‘the prizes’ Roth and others have received, I dare say there is a tad too much deference in his publisher’s office when Phil (or one of their other star novelists) turns up with his or her latest manuscript. (‘Do you know, Philip, I hardly thought that it could even be possible, but, by God, I do think this is even better than your last novel!’) Anyone reading this might or, more probably, might not have read The Human Stain, but I would love to be able to hear another’s point of view.

Anyway, what do I know?

. . .

Yesterday, I took a little time out and made my own way home from Bordeaux. I was looking for a pleasant bar with a shady courtyard where I might sit quietly on my own and enjoy a cigar or two and a glass of lager or six. As it turned out, and despite meandering through the countryside as I mad safe, I couldn’t find any, so I settled for a small bar in Podensac, the slightly bigger town near where I am staying. The Tour de France was on the telly, but inside the bar was empty. Outside, on the street, were four tables, and I can confirm that

1) the French also have the chavs (‘les chavées’, perhaps), and

2) that the bloody awful love affair the Westen world now has with getting a tattoos all over your body is doing exceptionally well here in the corner of south-western France. The pic below, in keeping with the bar

(though I did still manage to enjoy my cigars and lager) was taken on the way back from ‘la toilette’ at the back to my table.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

And then there was me: I decided to bite the bullet and throw off the veil

It’s a strange thing writing a blog such as this. Over the years – I’ve been writing it since late 2009 – it has been a bit of this, a bit of that, and most recently nothing more than one punter among a million cyber punters giving his two ha’porth worth about what’s in the news. That, I’m the first to admit, makes me the equivalent of some digital pub bore. When I started this blog, I thought it might simply be the continuation of the written diary I kept from around 1981 to 1995.

That diary proved useful, especially when I was going through a horrible end-of-romance and needed somehow to sound off. There were other things in it, but that sole fact, that it was at heart merely a litany of ‘poor me, oh poor poor me’ gripes and the second sole fact that my writing is unreadable (I won’t describe my writing as ‘illegible’ because that implies it is messy and slovenly which it isn’t, in fact when viewed from a distance it is rather attractive. It’s just that it is so difficult to read that even I find it very hard to decipher) means that I have never read a single entry and I’m certain never shall. It was written in hardbound A4 ledgers and they are now, about 12 of them, sitting in a box in Guy’s House, a renovated very small cottage at next to The Hollow, which has now become nothing more than a depository but which could easily be converted into living accommodation – in fact, when it was renovated a small bathroom with shower was included for that specific purpose, although who it was intended should live there I really don’t know.

The problem with a public blog such as this is that it is no longer private, so I don’t feel able to record private thoughts and happenings. It isn’t that I have anything to hide, but as far as privacy is concerned, it is not and cannot be the equivalent of a diary. I know that at least three people I know read it every so often (my sister, a friend I worked with for a long time until he retired about a year ago, and another old boy of the Oratory who I don’t I have never actually met but who, in an odd way, I feel I know a little) occasionally dip in and read my latest ramblings. Apart from them I know, courtesy of Google’s stats service, that folk in Russia, Germany, France, the US, Turkey and even China dip in, probably as a result of googling a certain topic and happening on it. How many of them are regular visitors I don’t know. But maybe I should bite the bullet, maybe I should, every so often, use this more as a diary as well as sounding off in full pub bore fashion about this, that and t’other.

Were I to do so, I would record that I am feeling, and have been feeling for some time, curiously flat. I don’t know why, but I am conscious that recently in my life – this is the only way I can put it – activity is compensating for action. I seem to be going through the motions. My week is neatly divided into four days of work and three days of being at home. I enjoy being at work and I love being at home with my children, but I am very conscious of the routine.

Highlights – make that ‘highlights’ – occur on Tuesday mornings when I check online to see my wage has arrived in my main bank account so that, given the direct debits and standing orders I have set up, I shall not inadvertently overdraw, followed by a second ‘highlight’ on Wednesday mornings when I check online to make sure the various standing orders, all of which are to pay bills or top up other accounts intended to pay bills when those bills are due have functioned as they should. Every Wednesday I work a single shift and head off west, home to Cornwall. I invariably stop of at a pub in South Petherton if there’s football on Sky, or in Sticklepath, on the edge of Darmoor, if there isn’t, for a couple of pints of cider and a cigar or two (and, by the way, I always buy them abroad where they are a damn sight cheaper and tonight smoked my last two).

Then it’s the routine at home: drop in on my stepmother, who had a stroke six years ago, to pick up a shopping list, do her shopping and later spend a little time with her; doing the quiz work I do for the Mail for a little extra cash that night; Fridays droping in again (I see her every day as she only lives five minutes’ walk away) followed by quite a bit of time-wasting. Saturday is always rather overshadowed by the fact that I’m off up to London the following day when the week starts again. It’s not an onerous regime and I am very conscious that in many ways I am quite lucky.

Yet for quite some time now I have been feeling flat, understanding in my heart that activity, which is fundamentally superficial, keeps my mind off the fact that there is no action. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who feels like that. Perhaps it is merely a function of age (you might have gathered that I am no longer a spring chicken and am, for example, utterly invisible to the pretty young and youngish women I encounter every day.

When you are young, you seem to imagine you face a lot of problems, many of which have more to do with a certain insecurity and a hidden lack of confidence than any real problems (although that is not to belittle those young folk who do face real problems – we are getting more and more aware of the incidents of sexual abuse of the young taking place which a great many young, for one reason or another, feel unable to reveal to anyone and so suffer horribily in silence.) But those, essentially mundane problems are not things you would necessarily discuss with anyone, except perhaps a good and close friend. But they are a concommitant of ‘growing up’. What you do have, as a young person, however have is your hopes and your dreams. Those dreams, I’m sure, could well almost always be bollocks, but that isn’t the point. The point is that you don’t know that they might well be bollocks, you don’t know that there’s a lot more to life, that there are a lot more difficulties which you will face and which you will or will not overcome. Who knows, you might well have the wherewithal to realise those dreams against the odds. Many do.

What you don’t yet know, don’t even suspect, is that quite apart from not being the most important individual alive – every so often we in our salad days suspect that that is the case – that there are several tens of individuals in your own small circle; several hundred in our immediate community; several thousands living locally, several tens of thousands a little further afield and several billions the world over who feel just as keenly as you do that they are the centre of the world. And with all those egos clashing against each other you can bet your bottom dollar that things are not going to pan out as smoothly as you would like and, when you are young, expect. (Naturally, the strength of this conviction of being the centre of the world will vary from individual to individual and, more pertinently, from culture to culture. I believe the Chinese don’t have anything close to the notion of ‘individuality’ which we spoilt brats in the West have, but on a personal level I’m sure each one of those billions lives in China will feel ‘special’ even if they are not treated as ‘special’. ) It does, however, never leave us.

We still all feel we are the centre of the world. Unfortunately, that world seems at some point to become ever smaller and so what does leave us are those hope and dreams. Ask yourself: just what hopes and dreams does my 76-year-old stepmother have who suffered a stroke six years ago and who now, where once she was a very active woman who spent many hours a day in her garden, is now more or less confined to her armchair and kept amused by Escape To The Country and Bargain Hunt? Precious few, I should imagine.

This whole entry was sparked this even when I came home, at around 8pm, and found my younger brother, with whom I stay when I am in London, flaked out and gone to sleep. I worry about him. He might now be 55, but he has taken to describing himself as ‘old’. Good Lord, what is he talking about! Yet it was the catalyst to this, the ramble above, and I have decided to start posting a rather more personal blog. It will not, however, appear here, but in the blog adjacent to this which I have I have called My Second. Feel free to dip in once I start posting entries, but be warned: it might be messy and horribly self-indulgent.

Christ, what a ramble. But, oh well.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Arab spring? Apparently, if we all make a great, co-ordinated effort and all fart in unison, we can bring peace, tranquillity, freedom and democracy to the Middle East

A few years ago I heard this description of a standard journalistic technique: ‘Simplify, then exaggerate’. That is largely what we do all the time. So, for example, you might come across a headline such as ‘Can farting cure cancer?’ in the health section of your average middle-market tabloid, something like the Good Health section of the Daily Mail. ‘My, my,’ you think, ‘now there’s good news. I do seem to fart quite a bit, and if I develop cancer - why, it might not be all that serious after all! Must read on.’ So you do read on and gather that the vast majority of those of had been cured of their cancers - an astonishing 100pc in fact - farted at least once a day. Significant or what!

So by a journalistic process tried and tested on innumerable suckers for a great many years - the creative use of statistics - a new truth is established: farting might well cure cancer! But note well the word ‘might’ - that is your get-out clause. When your conclusion is not only questioned by doctors and researchers - well, not questioned but described as 24-carat cack - you can airily point out that you were only suggesting that farting might help to cure cancer. You weren’t claiming it definitely could cure cancer, oh no, a great many other treatments are also involved, but as statistically an astonishing 100pc . . . you are already more than halfway out of the woods in as far as all sensible people have already completely lost interest in your argument and written you off as just another unscrupulous hack.

Before you run away with the idea that the technique of ‘simplify, then exaggerate’ is one only employed by the good folk who cobble together the health section of your average middle-market tabloid, something like the Good Health section of the Daily Mail, take a good look at the health sections of other newspapers; and then take a good look at all the other sections of you rag of choice. And don’t restrict yourselves to our printed media: radio and television do the same, both in Britain and the rest of the universe. It’s known as ‘lazy journalism’ and it is very, very, very effective. Please don’t run away with the idea that it is only ‘middle-market’ papers who use the technique: here in Britain The Times uses it (though in my view The ‘Thunderer’ is more middle than up market despite its pretensions and the pretensions of its readers), as do the papers read by all saints, the Guardian and The Independent.

There is this touching idea here in the ‘developed’ world that the task of the journalist is to bring the truth to the people, to ensure our freedoms and, generally, to be a thorn in the side of the nasty folk in authority whose every waking moment is given over to coming up with new ways of restricting those freedoms. Wrong. The task of the journalist is to make the paper or programme he or she is working for as interesting as possible in order to attract as many readers, viewers or listeners as possible to allow his or her bosses to charge those taking out advertising space in the paper or in an ad slot top dollar. So running headlines such as ‘Can farting cure cancer’ is not quite as daft as it seems.

As for ‘lazy journalism’ - and the irony is, of course, that the phrase is usually used by politicians smarting from the fact that yet again they have been caught with their fingers in the till, so we are here dealing with a vary bad case of pots and kettles - dreaming up catchy phrases is another useful technique. So, for example, for many years a child born outside marriage (the quaint phrase was once ‘born out of wedlock’) was known as ‘a bastard’.

Then, about 30 years ago (it might well only have been 29 years ago, so don’t hold me to a figure) a sub-editor on The Sun came up with the phrase ‘love child’, which sounds a lot nicer than ‘bastard’. A ‘love child’ is, of course, no different to a ‘bastard’, but that isn’t the point: the point is that a ‘love child’ - the implication being that the child is the result of a true, romantic love worthy of Heloise and Abelard rather than just a drunken shag in the back seat in the pub car park - is far more acceptable. But what is notable is that today girls proudly refer to their ‘love child’, thereby implying that there is something far nobler about the little tyke than one born to a married couple, and the phrase has become part of our language, all thanks to a sub who was good at his job.

Another such phrase, one which was just as vacuous as ‘love child’ but which helped to shape how a nation thought, was invented after the death of Princess Diana. She, a perfectly pleasant though apparently rather dim young woman, became ‘the people’s princess’. The phrase was said to have been coined by one Alastair Campbell, an ex-tabloid hack and the then prime minister Tony Blair’s press secretary cum henchman. He knew what he was doing and as far as I know ‘the people’s princess’ is still in current use. What fascinates me is how two or three little words can seemingly alter the mindset of a whole generation. And here are two more little words which seem to have completely bamboozled us: Arab Spring.

Oh, the optimism, hope and promise conveyed by that phrase: after decades of tyranny (the fact that the tyrants in question were firm and extremely useful allies of us here in the West notwithstanding and it really is in very poor taste that you should now mention it), the peoples of various Middle Eastern countries were finally on the verge of breathing deeply the fresh air of freedom: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very Heaven!’ This was it: democracy, that panacea for all ills from cancer to farting, was about to be introduced in the Middle East. The people would now have their say! The people would now be allowed free and fair elections! Yes it was an Arab spring!

Well, I have no idea who came up with the phrase, but it is now obvious that it is in very poor taste indeed. To put it bluntly: Arab spring my arse! This is not to suggest that the countries involved would have been better off sticking to the bastards who ran them (sorry, ‘love children’ who ran them), but it is to point out how frighteningly effective a vacuous phrase like ‘Arab spring’ can be.

The reality is, if not worse, hardly any better. Libya might now have rid itself of Colonel Gaddafi, but law and order regularly breaks down in Tripoli and Benghazi where assorted and mutually antagonistic militias vie with ineffective government forces for control. Syria might well be seeing the last of the Assad family, but the horribly disparate bunch opposing him, lazily referred to as ‘the rebels’ as though they were a coherent opposition, are from what I hear equally as unedifying. Most recently Egypt, which saw a president elected in what was seen as a free and fair vote, is now once again under military rule after a coup, though a coup apparently welcomed and approved of by Egypt’s urban liberal elite, so we have now been introduced to a novel concept: the good military coup.

As I pointed out in my last entry, black can apparently be white. Well! So much for the ‘Arab spring’. Yet, there are undoubtedly a great many in the West who are not too concerned with detail and are far more partial to a catchy phrase and who still think: Arab spring, eh, so it really is coming good at last. Dream on.

. . .

It would, however, be unfair of me not to mention Tunisia. That country also had a revolution, followed by elections in which a mildly Islamic government was returned to power, and as far as I know things have so far worked out. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

When black is, in fact, white. Or when a military coup is not a military coup because the urban liberal elite say so.

Now here’s a pretty dilemma to keep all those who think themselves on the side of the angels happy: a military coup has taken place in Egypt which has removed a democratically elected president, but not only has it not been condemned by assorted liberals and those who dress to the left, it has even been welcomed as a Good Thing. So is it Long Live Military Coups after many, many years of hissing and booing whenever some swarthy general or other seized power ‘to preserve’ stability? I rather doubt it, actually, but over at the Guardian here in Britain - and on papers of a similar persuasion in other countries - there is quite a lot of confusion.

Today the get-out clause has been - that is the means by which various folk have been bending over backwards and arguing that, you know, in special circumstances, and purely as an exceptional case, you understand, I mean that is important and it is imperative that this is not regarded as setting a precedent, black can, on occasion be white - that President Morsi, for that is he, was not governing on behalf of everyone, that he had not - despite only being in power for a year - improved the economy and that generally he was not the kind of chap good Guardian readers in the more affluent suburbs of Cairo would have in for a G&T and nibbles.

There is, unfortunately, no suggestion that he has been getting heavy-handed and that his secret police have been banging on doors in the middle of the night and carting off those inimical to the regime. That’s a shame as that would have made the coup just a little easier to justify. In fact, apart from being quite open that he would like slowly to develop Egypt into more of a Muslim state Morsi doesn’t seem to have done much wrong. Well, there was something unacceptable about him: he wasn’t to the taste of the urban liberal elite of Cairo and other cities.

It is important to remember that Morsi was voted in by a majority and that there were no suggestions, at the time or since, that his election was in any way tainted. The word is now - after all the coup must somehow be justified, especially as it is being supported by that urban liberal elite - that many who voted for him only did so because the other choice was a former prime minister under former president Murbarak and that Morsi, as the acceptable face of the Muslim Brotherhood, was the better bet. So that’s OK then, is it. I must admit that I can understand that point of view and that aspect of the dilemma, but it is hugely and utterly irrelevant.

The thing to do - as Morsi’s supporters have been pointing out these past few days - is to do what folk in other democratic countries do: wait until the next elections and demonstrate your disapproval with your vote. Why should Egypt and Egypt’s urban liberal elite be any different? As far as I am concerned one indication of how phoney it all is - that in an honest world black is never white - is that a great deal has been made by those of that urban liberal elite that ‘there were loads of woman of all ages among the protesters’. This was a rather sly way of suggesting that of course Morsi’s supporters were wrong ‘uns because in some ill-defined way they were against women.

In fact, one particularly inane comment from a Guardian reader in its comment section was that ‘Morsi supported and encouraged female genital mutilation’. Well, all I can say is that wasn’t the Morsi championed by the urban liberal elite both in Egypt and over here when he was standing as an alternative candidate to the former prime minister. That claim is rather more recent. And it also sits rather uneasily with credible reports that there were quite a number of sexual assaults on women demonstrating on behalf of the liberal elite.

The radio news have been full of discussion as to whether this was a coup or not. Some argue that it wasn’t, that it can’t be, because it is just the previous revolution of two years ago being concluded. And, in a sense, that is true, but it still doesn’t not make it a coup. I know too little about the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi to judge whether he ‘would have been good for Egypt’ or not, but I do know from what I have heard on the media that he was and is very far from the kind of dictator Assad in Syria or Gaddafi in Libya were.

At the end of the day it is just another demonstration of the fact that when push comes to shove principles aren’t worth really worth a dime: we can drone on about them until we’re blue in the face but in essence they are merely something the leisured West talks about when they are not debating ‘the human condition’. I, for one, am not going to pretend that black is white just because it suits those ‘on the side of the angels’.