Keeping Us Safe

Ever since the result of the referendum, we've known that for the Home Office Brexit means "we hate foreigners." That this was petty and vindictive wasn't a surprise, but this week's Guardian correspondance column produced a little gem of its kind.

Sheila Hale is American, but married to a Brit, and has lived in the UK for fifty years. She has American and UK passports, but last year the UK one was due to expire, so she tried to renew it. "Ah," said the hawkeyed HO officials, "it's in the name of Sheila Hale. But your US passport is in the name of Sheila Hayes Hale. How do we know they're the same person?" Her simply saying so wasn't enough. She needed a recent utility bill or bank statement, in the US name which she hasn't used for twenty years. She tried explaining why this wouldn't be possible, but got nowhere. Until she had a brainwave. Her husband was a knight, so that meant she had to be Lady Hale, not Lady Hayes Hale. Well of course, they said. She got her new passport next day. 

Howards End

Slim pickings on TV most nights, but that makes the exceptions even more valuable. The BBC series of Howards End, on four successive Sundays, has been a real treat. It's partly that the extra allowance of time gives room for development and subtlety. There's not the sense of pressure that you often get as a 300 page novel is rammed into 120 minutes of screen time. The acting's been terrific, especially of the Schlegel siblings, but there's also the intelligence of the script. After You Can Count on Me and Manchester by the Sea Kenneth Lonergan was already one of my favourite people in film, but here he's brilliantly self-effacing. He's quoted as saying that 75% of the script is pure Forster, but it's a very carefully selected 75%. Last time I read Howards End I found it much heavier going than watching this series. And the remaining 25% is impossible to spot - it feels smooth and seamless, but never shallow. Then there's those trademark Lonergan moments, where characters are filmed at social events talking to each other, and you can't hear what they're saying but you know exactly what is going on. Sheer magic.     

Where do you get your news?

Key question these days, but one I saw differently this week, through sheer accident. I was in the dining room, watching the BBC ten o'clock news. It was telling me about a deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh, who'd just agreed that Myanmar would take back refugees, that Bangladesh would return them, and everything would be fine. After what's gone on, that was hard to believe. It was also hard to believe that Bangladesh got anything out of this worth having. Were we supposed to think better of them, for washing their hands of people in trouble?

But then I needed to make a drink so I moved into the kitchen, and switched on radio 4. Same story, but with a crucial bit of background added. On the radio version, the deal was arranged by China. They bullied Bangladesh into accepting it, despite the fact that it didn't include provisos for which Bangladesh had asked. Pure muscle, making something happen because they wanted to contrive the appearance of an agreement which wasn't actually there and would make no appreciable difference to those at the sharp end. But radio listeners get to hear information which doesn't make it on to the TV screen.   

House of Cards

Oh dear. i'm not sure if I ever finished series 4 of House of Cards, but since there's a whole virgin series 5 maybe I should go back to check, except that now we have the Spacey stories, and maybe that changes everything. It certainly doesn't help  when he and Underwood and Clare are having a tense discussion and he says "We can't afford to be weird with each other."   

But it's not just that. The manipulation, the ceaseless exploitation of others, the fits of simulated rage - it's all got very mechanical. The imminent defeat which will magically be transformed into a last-minute victory. As they go through the motions but I feel I've seen it all before. Maybe this has just gone on long enough, and the Spacey scandal is a twisted kind of favour in disguise. The early days, when Zoe Barnes was around, are a lively, tense memory, but maybe that is as good as it was ever going to get. 


I wasn't sure I could take more of Trump, but the four-part Channel f series tracing his entire career has been really good. Not outraged or emotional, just a calm tour through the key developments, through the eyes of a range of people who were there at the time - some of them very close. There's friends, colleagues and enemies, and some who moved from one category to the other. there's moments early on when he seems almost like a normal, decent guy, but then the urge to own and to buy takes over, and he loses control. He has two thriving casinos in Atlantic city, but then the Taj Mahal comes on the market. He has to have it. It's the biggest there is, so he has no choice. Except that all financial experts are confident that he's bound to make a loss, and they're right. He sells it, wriggles out of contracts, leaves local businesses unpaid. but none of that worries him a scrap, because he's on to the next big thing. 

the same, apparently, applies to his women and his wives. He sets up Ivana as the manager of one of these casinos, and she's very successful. Tough and ruthless, maybe, but a hard and thorough worker. There's fascinating footage of a big night where she's the boss and he's the appendage - and he hates it. He really suffers, to be at a big occasion where he's not the centre of attention. No, it won't change my opinion of him, but it isn't half filling in the detail.  

Boy with a Topknot

I read one of Satnam Sanghera's memoirs, and heard him speak at a conference in Durham. I think he's a really sharp, intelligent writers, and he's interestingly different in arguing for the benefit of having a day job. Unlike almost any other writer you're heard of, he actually doesn't want everything in his life to be dependent on his writing.

So I was looking forward to the TV drama based on his account of his estrangement from his Sikh background, in parallel with his belated discovery that both his father and sister were suffering from depression. That would have been quite enough, because he explores that development with tough honesty, ready to acknowledge the ways in which he's been selfish and blind.

But of course that isn't enough. We couldn't end up with grim truths and hard-won wisdom. We have to have the cute romantic finish, the phone-call from Wolverhampton station with the girlfriend who's - look! just behind him - and happy-ever-after before the credits can roll. Richard Curtis has a lot to answer for.  

Holiday Job

Priti Patel goes on holiday to Israel. Like you do, she has meetings while she's there with a range of political contacts, including the Israeli Prime Minister. Theresa May, due to meet Netanyahu in London, had no idea he'd just been talking to her colleague. "It was just a holiday", said Patel. "And Boris knew." Well, he did - eventually. But not before it happened, and as a result officials had no chance to warn Patel that encouraging the Israeli army to think they'd get UK backing for a project on land they'd pinched from Syria might not be in our national interest. Not just a holiday, then. She actually managed to fit in 12 meetings, and apologised to Theresa May for not asking permission in advance. Oh, hang on a minute, make that fourteen. Eventually, and it takes a while, she is encouraged to resign.

Boris Johnson is no better. He languidly tells MPs he can't see anything wrong with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe training journalists, but she's not. And the Iranians are increasingly suspicious of her as a result of Johnson's words. He goes to the Commons. He apologises if anything he has said has been misunderstood, and implies that his remarks were "taken out of context." But they weren't understood, and they weren't taken out of context. Simply, he got it wrong, and should say so, with a clear, honest apology.

They can't do it. They simply can't face the fact that they told a lie. And, as an obsessive remoaner, it does occur to me that these were two of the star performers in the campaign which promised extra money for the NHS and as a result - according to its mastermind Dominic Cummings - won the Brexit vote.     

See "Code of Conduct (revised)" in Poems from the News, also on this website. 

Poetic Licence

Poet A wins an Exmoor poetry competition - until someone points out that his poem is very similar to one by poet B. He tries to explain. "I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used poet B's poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn't entirely my own work."

Fair enough, you might think. Strange types these poets, at the mercy of the sub-conscious, never knowing whether or not the gold they're producing is their own, or an echo of someone else. But then you look at the facts. Both poems have 18 lines. 16 of those lines are identical. The two that have been changed - very much for the worse - allowed poet A to slip in an Exmoor reference which wasn't in poet B's. Otherwise, it's ninety per cent theft.   

Guess who?

"All of this 'Russia' talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT!...Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary and the Dems the focus???? also, there is NO COLLUSION."


You guessed it. Not a teenager letting off steam, but the leader of the free world. He doesn't want to run the country, he wants to re-run the campaign - having a five star general leap on to the stage shouting "Lock her up!" is the best fun he's had in years. 

But it's not funny. A sober reminder of the personal costs of this stuff in last night's Storyville documentary coming Home, about an American soldier who left his unit, was held and tortured by the Taliban for five years, and then returned to the US in a deal involving Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo. Because of Obama, and all the politics involved, Trump was on this in a flash, passionately telling rallies that six young, beautiful Americans had died trying to rescue this deserter, who in the old days would simply have been shot. and of course, they loved it, and are still yelling for this guy to be thrown into jail for the rest of his life. Army experts, used to debriefing prisoners who've been tortured, say this man's had worse treatment than anyone since Vietnam, and should not be in prison for a single day. Oh yes, and the progrramme aslo does the legwork, asks the questions, and sets the record straight: none of the six young men were actually searching for this soldier when they were killed. It made a great story, and he told it with passion. Just turns out not to be true.  

Lobbying for Failure

Not quite sure whether to laugh or cry. Theresa May, rightly appalled by the Brexit prospects, starts chatting up individual European leaders, asking for concessions. European leaders are actually considering concessions, but then realise that if they grant them, this will be written up by the British press (and it will) as Theresa's triumph against the hated foreigners. So they quickly and unanimously decide not to offer those concessions. Thanks, guys - great job. This is going to be a disaster and we have no-one to blame but ourselves.   

Internet - for good and bad

Today's Guardian feels like another bad taste of social decline. A horrendous story about survivors of the Las Vegas shootings, who've been targetted by trolls saying "I hope someone truly shoots you in the head." Because, of course, I'm a troll so I know you were lying in the first place. Ok, so it's a fairly sick person who's thinking that way but boy, do social media do a great job of reinforcing that by offering them an instant audience.  That's on page 23.

Then I turn over, to page 25, which has a story about a 27 year old Pakistani activist, who's about to become Pakistan's first transgender doctor. She was followed on her way home by three men, who threatened and abused her. she felt nobody would protect her - except her community on Facebook. they spread the word, shamed the police into taking action and - Sara Gill believes, probably saved her life. Maybe it's not all bad.  

Men getting it wrong

Finally, justice for Eni Aluko, the England footballer smeared by the FA. (If you want my detailed account of the Eni Aluko affair, the poem Sweet FA is in Poems from the News, another part of this website). Aluko herself has been astonishing throughout, composed, objective and consistent, despite being put under all kinds of pressure.

The FA, predictably, don't come out of it that well. Clarke, their chairman, was particularly inept at the MP sub-committee showdown, by which time it was clear that his organisation had made huge errors. A sensitive man, a canny operator even, would have recognised that this was a good moment for caution and humility. But no, he's used to being in charge, so he thinks that a show of casual dominance will go down well. He dismisses accusations as "racism fluff", before it occurs to him that maybe that's not the route to take. Somebody raises a previous case of ill-treatment, which received wide press coverage, but he hasn't a clue what they're talking about. And  then, when he's accused by the PFA, rightly concerned for his failure to investigate the ill-treatment of one of their members, he insists on launching a tirade about the failure of the PFA to act on abuse. As it happens, he gets his facts wrong, but it's the tactic that's childish - "it wasn't me, sir, and even if it was look at him - he's far worse."

This is exactly the route Trump took, when it was pointed out that "He knew what he signed up for" might not be the ideal way to console a young widow grieving for the loss of her husband. Trump doesn't consider that he might have got it wrong. "what about Obama?" he says. I'll bet his treatment of grieving widows wasn't any better."  As it happens, predictably, it was miles better, and there are grieving widows aplenty to prove it. But these fantastists aren't talking about the truth; they just want an alternative world, in which they didn't cock it up. 

Ken Burns' Vietnam

So that's it. All over, just like that. A mere ten hours of compulsive watching, and we've done the Vietnam war. I remember, way back, watching the Ken Burns series on the American Civil War. A bit solemn, but so patient, and with wonderful photographs. The jazz was similarly good to look at, though a bit more controversial in terms of what he did and didn't cover, what kind of look-in contemporary music got. But Vietnam is safely distant in one sense, although - as the programme showed - in some cases the wounds still linger on. But the detail and the photos were stunning, and they've assembled an amazing array of witnesses - Americans, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, first hand accounts of what went on, from a range of angles. There is a sad, wise recognition that american exceptionalism has been a hugely expensive curse for the whole planet, let alone America, but although that wouldn't got down well in the White House for the rest of us it's long overdue. It's moving to watch people grow over the length of the war - how a loyal marine gradually becomes a vet against the war, and then witnesses John Kerry's astonishing testimony to congress about what the war has cost. Plus, of course, the astonishing soundtrack. We always said there was no time like the sixties, and here's the proof.   

Enjoying Economics

I know, I know. Those two words have never, ever been placed together before. Economics is a dreary edifice of impersonal information, presented by people who wish to demonstrate why things (particularly money, business things) have to be as they are, even though some of the effects seem to be disastrous. But not any more.

My fresh optimism has been created by reading two books in close succession:
23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang, and
Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth.

Chang takes you gently through some very complicated territory, with an approach that seems like a Dummies Guide. There are 23 ‘Things’ and each of them starts with a “What they tell you” section, followed by a “What they don’t tell you” section. It could be childishly simplified, or deeply condescending, but it’s neither. He knows a lot, and brings in all kinds of evidence but only when it’s needed, so the whole effect is to clarify and explain. It’s not difficult to read, but with every chapter you feel yourself getting wiser.

Raworth has a simple, basic insight, so amazing it’s astonishing that no-one’s latched on to it before. The potency of economic theory is carried as much through the visual (diagrams, graphs) as through the words. So if we want to know what’s wrong with previous economic theories, we need to look at their visuals, and really analyse them, rather than taking them for granted. And of course, if we’re going to see things differently in the future, we’ll need new visuals, which reflect the actual nature of our lives – interconnected people, with a range of interests and needs, living on a planet whose resources are under threat.

These are not angry outsiders, throwing stones at the evil people who have led us astray. They’re both economists, who know their field and its history, who understand how things have got to where they are. But they’re not shrill, or full of themselves, or bristling with spite because their truths have not been sufficiently recognised. They’re both clear, positive and humane, using their intelligence to point forward to a more constructive approach which might at least give us a chance of survival. Don’t take my word for it. Get hold of them, and read them both. You won’t regret it. 

Growing Up

Years ago, when I was trying to educate myself about child psychology (Bowlby, Winnicott, people like that) I remember taking on board the idea that maturity was about recognising that other people existed, equally, had their own reality, and that "how I see things" might not be the only way to see things. Fairly basic insight, but just at the moment it seems quite precious.

Two recent articles on this theme. Jeffrey Sachs, not a particular hero of mine (because of his enthusiastic involvement in the "let's educate Russia about capitalism" drive) had a really sensible piece about American exceptionalism, and how the US needed to grow out of the idea that they had a God-given mission to show the rest of the world how it's done. Not world-shaking, not before time, but welcome nonetheless. And the current Ken Burns TV history of the Vietnam war is soaked in that awareness that having their US version of the truth made them miss completely what was going on in the minds of the Vietnamese.

Then there was Peter Hain, writing about Northern Ireland negotiations, and how trivial exchanges - e.g. about a shared interest in football - could actually oil the wheels of high-powered political deliberations. which is exactly what's missing in the Brexit fiasco. All the noise, all the press releases, are about what we want, what we'll do, what we need. Not a glimmer of how things look to the Europeans - who for excellent reasons think we're out of our minds.   

Right knee, operation no. 4. Progress report.

For a couple of weeks I felt pretty despondent. Got over the op well, was up and about, increasingly independent – but had no more flexibility in my right knee than before the operation. And that’s despite my surgeon’s triumphal demonstration at the very end of the op, deliberately bending the knee so I could see the change.

But apparently this is OK. The stuff stopping my knee bending is more to do with post-op swelling than the dreaded scar tissue, and between my two weekly appointments at Bridgnorth physio I’ve made some measurable progress (the magic protractor, just like maths at school), so that I now transfer on to their weekly one-hour session in the gym, moving round various pieces of equipment, but also having some intensive 1:1 work in increasing flexibility in the knee.

At the end of October I get to see my surgeon again. This is a more realistic time scheme within which to review progress, and they’ll ensure that my physio continues for as long as is necessary. If despite that there are still serious flexibility problems then he may perform a manipulation – anaesthetic but not invasive surgery, wrestling the muscles into submission.

Which is fine, but I could/should have been told all that two weeks ago, when I had had no physio and was terrified that the knee was settling into concrete by the day. (It didn’t help that after my first knee op this wasn’t a problem; then I was trotting up and down stairs using alternate legs like a reasonable human being. The problems only set in later).

But I am a lot happier about it now, and cosily settled into my routine of 12 exercises, ten times each every day, with a couple of walks into Wenlock, hours sitting with my knee raised but nestling between two bags of frozen peas, and then a good-night injection into the gut before I go to bed. Thank God for Netflix, BT sport and the local library. 

Fear and Lies

For once, Trump's classic summary "sad" is exactly appropriate. Paul Watson, a senior NHS official, forced hospital leaders to repeatedly chant "We can do this", criticising them for not doing it loudly enough.

Watson sort of gets it. He tries to cover his tracks by saying it was meant as "light relief", but it clearly wasn't, as in his next breath he's insisting there's a serious message there: "If it seems cheesy or patronising then so be it but it does have the merit of being true."

So there. This is about power. These aren't just any hospital leaders. They're leaders of hospitals deemed to be failing, and he's just accused them of putting patients' safety at risk. Before the chanting stunt he offered them a choice - "Do you want the 40-slide version of our message or the four-word version?" Cunning, that. It means they were asking for it, that in a way it's their fault - which presumably is why none of them told him to grow up, or to get stuffed. Welcome to Jeremy Hunt's NHS. Does that sound like an atmosphere in which you'd want to do good work?    

Stewart on Lawrence

A real TV treat. To accompany the TV showing of Gertrude Bell's Letters from Baghdad, BBC4 have put out two one-hour episodes of Rory Stewart talking about the legacy of T.E.Lawrence.  It's been gorgeous - some fabulous photography of landscape and architecture, but also a detailed, clear analysis of what was going on in Lawrence's mind, and why that might matter now. And it's all done by a guy who idolised Lawrence as a kid, and then explored vast stretches of the middle East on foot, staying in bedouin tents. But also by someone who at a ridiculously young age was a governor in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who saw the idioocy of occupation in heartbeaking detail. as his conclusion spells out, it's tragic that the American military are encouraging their officers to study Lawrence - because he's a winner at fighting in the Middle East - whereas Lawrence himself would actually be telling them "don't do it better; don't do it at all." 

This series is from some time back - it shows Stewart walking thoughtfully through a Damascus souk - but I can't think how or why I missed it. Yet again, thank God for catch-up. 

Getting Ahead

I have to confess, I smiled. I shouldn't, because it's a sad story for a number of pupils, and tragic for the guy at the centre of it, but there is still a strange symmetry about the story of Mo Tanweer, the deputy head at Eton who's just lost his job for handing over exam secrets to his pupils. Go on, guess what he used to do before he went into teaching. that's right. He actually was an investment banker.

Maybe he thought he was going into public service, paying something back for the riches he'd acquired. But you can be sure they were rubbing their hands. Just the kind of hot property they wanted to acquire, a guy at the cutting edge, who'd give them an edge, let them mark out their place at the front of the field. It was always one of the drawbacks of league tables, that they fired up the guys who like to be on top, to whom it's more important to bewinners than to educate the kids in their charge.  

Climate Change

Do you really need more warnings about climate change? asks Bill McKibben, as he calmly details the various weather events taking place in North America this week. And yes, of course, if you widen it to the whole planet it's far. far worse. As he knows. He's been warning about this for thirty years. But he manages to stay calm and focused, to mount yet again the unanswerable argument:

"Global warming is the first crisis that comes with a limit - solve it soon or don't solve it. Winning slowly is just a different way of losing. Winning fast enough to matter would mean, above all, standing up to the fossil fuel industry..." But that's enough. Don't take my work for it. In my paper version, it's on p.25 of the Guardian on Monday, 11 Sept. I'm sure you can find it online.