Generally, I plan to keep up with the news, but there are some stories i just can't bear to follow. The current one is Alfie Evans, the terminally ill baby whose parents are desperate to keep him alive, against the considered opinion of medical professionals. It's a desperate situation for everyone, but what makes it unbearable is the hysteria of those who seek to exploit it. the Christian missionary Christine Broesamle, for instance, proudly proclaims that "Alder Hey hospital really hates me because I've worked so hard for Alfie's defence." Presumably she thinks that they haven't, that the hospital is part of the attack on Alfie, so the more anger and rage that can be generated against hospital workers, the better it is for Alfie's side. It's so blinkered, intolerant and sure of its own rectitude. I don't know what should happen. But I do know that it's complicated and good people are working hard to try to resolve it. Pretending that it's a kind of Star Wars battle between good and evil isn't any kind of answer.
Amazing how some names retain their potency for years. just those two words, and the images flood back - five stroppy youths, looking for a fight with an angry crowd. the three part TV series did a good job of tracking over the ground, and incidentally threw up a wonderful contrast in police attitudes. the hardened professional, who'd worked in the Met for over twenty years, and just knew it wasn't racist - so all that evidence, analysis, and thought just wasted. throw it down the drain. But then there was the real hero of the piece, a slightly fussy, very old-fashioned guy who didn't seem to be anything special but actually made all the difference, by a meticulous search for and analysis of the evidence that the earlier inquiry had so blatantly mishandled. some things do get better, if only a bit at a time.
Phew! three wonderful nights of football. Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Arsenal all go into their respective games with a three-goal lead. So they think it's all over? Hardly.
Man City totally dominate Liverpool, score an early goal, and then have another wrongly disallowed. You can feel the air oozing out of their ballloon. So I cleverly switch channels, in time to catch Roma conjuring the impossible escape, scoring three goals against Barcelona without reply, so that the magic away goal they scored in losing at Barcelona the previous week becomes the magic key to the semi-finals. On Wednesday it's deja vu all over again, as another cocky favourite, Real Madrid, gradually concede three goals without managing one of their own. they do eventually get a dramatic last-minute penalty, the legendary Buffon is sent off for harassing the ref, and Ronaldo preictably puts the penalty away - but it was close. So what chance Arsenal, my beloved, heart-breaking team, doing things the easy way? Not a hope. They defend disastroulsy, give the ball away, lose endless 50:50 clashes, and only escape by the skin of their teeth. Football can be an amazing game, the away goal rule does have an uncanny kind of magic, and I'm so relieved that I signed up to BT Sport. (Yes, guys. You may use that in the adverts.)
A nasty little nugget, retrieved from the acres of Skripal coverage. when Litvinenko was murdered in London, his dad Walter was in Italy, furious at the Putin regime which had ordered the killing. But years later Walter's back in Russia, sitting on a sofa in a TV studio with Lugovoi, one of the men responsible. they're chatting amiably, and shaking hands, so that the Russian viewers can clearly see that the whole thing was a nasty plot, made up by the West to smear the motherland. (Remind you of any recent coverage?). So what exactly went on to persuade Walter to change his mind? We may never know, but all the guesses are deeply unpleasant. There are no restrictions or limits to get in the way of the main objective - making Putin look good.
Pesky lot, the Russians. Just as you're starting to feel some sympathy, they kick you in the teeth. A TV documentary on Putin the other night featured a contrite Jack Straw, saying that the West had misread the risings in Georgia and Ukraine, and contributed to Putin's paranoia by trying to hijack local resistance into an East/West split. Absolutely right, and you can see the defensive "us against the world" syndrome clicking in all the time. On the other hand, the doping stuff is totally unacceptable, and has to be fought every inch of the way. ditto Litvinenko. And ditto - it seems very likely - Sunday's nerve agent attack on Skripal and his daughter. Easy to predict the rhetoric and the outrage. Much harder to say what we'll actually do. Having a few officials not turn up to the world Cup won't make a blind bit of difference. boycotting it - and getting other European nations to do the same - would seriously injure Russian prestige, but it's not going to happen.
Sir Martin Donnelly, once Liam Fox's chief civil servant, has described leaving the EU as "like swapping a three-course meal for crisps." Fox is not impressed, dismissing Donnelly for sticking to the patterns of the past. and what does the future look like, in Fox's view? "Confidence, optimism and vision will always deliver more than pessimism or self-doubt." Whether or not that's true, Fox would have benefitted from attending an Arvon writing course, which would have taught him that a snappy concerete image will always beat a string of abstract nouns.
Well, why not? Might as well call a spade a spade. I'd had a sense of Russia getting away with stuff on the doping front, slightly reinforced by odd asides as part of the Winter Olympics coverage. But now the scales have fallen from my eyes, and the whole picture is dazzlingly clear.
And what makes the difference? Watching the Netflix documentary Icarus, that's what. It's one of those quirky autobiographical documentaries which starts as as something completely different, but then becomes rivetting as a whole new story unravels before your disbelieving eyes. Ryan Gilbey is a keen amateur cyclist and film-maker, who gets intrigued by the possibility of training himself in the illegal use of drugs to improve his performance - if he can do it, starting from scratch, then surely anyone can. First he gets an American expert to help him, who then gets second thoughts, because this might harm his professional profile, but as a parting gift he puts Ryan in touch with Grigory Rodchenko...
Who just happens to be the mastermind behind Russian Olympic doping. They develop an odd kind of jokey friendship, until things start to unravel. WADA is looking into doping, and seriously investigating what the Russians do. Rodchenko is under pressure, but also scared that he may get ditched as a scapegoat (it has happened before. He got locked up in an asylum, and was only released because Putin's mate needed him to come out and run the programmme. So maybe it's safer to go to the Us...but should he help prosecute the Russians, or try to protect himself by going to the press? It's confused, fascinating and scary, but on the way it provides absolutely total proof that this was a watertight, state-approved programme of deceit, on a massive scale. anyone who thinks that the Russians are the victims of political pressure, or have suddenly cleaned up their act with miraculous precision, is kidding themselves.
There was a day when May got the headlines for an environmental initiative - yes, we were going to clean up plastics by...what was it...2040? Well, good for her. Yes, it's important. Something needs doing. Right to make it an issue, though it would be good to see a bit more urgency, direct application of government will.
But gradually, bit by bit, the full story starts to emerge. Compared with other countries, our record on clean energy is atrocious. After Cameron's brief flirtation with greenness, Osborne killed solar energy in the UK, and now May's doing something similar to wind power. You don't have to be nastily destructive - just fail to see the opportunity, and reduce the incentives for firms to invest in the future.
Even worse, when initiatives come up which include a chance of collaboration, countries actually working together for a cleaner planet, we're in there, diluting the rules, changing the message, making sure that the change is as minimal as possible. The price of Brexit, apparently, is that we shall find as many ways as possible of humiliating ourselves in the eyes of the world.
Yes, a politician with whom I'm impressed, because she has a vision for the future. It's maybe a sign of the times that she's a conservative, but these days we get our inspiration wherever it occurs. I am increasingly impressed by Justine Greening.
That's right. the one who got sacked. Went to a comprehensive, wasn't keen on grammar schools, had a halfway realistic approach to the teaching unions. so she had to go. Was offered something else, but turned it down. a bit like Jeremy Hunt, except that she didn't stay put where she was, while also picking up another department. But she did at least go with dignity.
But not to sulk. She's in the news today for talking about Brexit. And what she's saying is - if young people think it's a rubbish move, in the end they'll work to reverse it. Has anyone else in any kid of position said this? Actually thought about how the current pantomime looks to people under 30, and what might happen as a result? I'd have her in as PM tomorrow, but what do I know? She is at least trying, and trying to be constructive. she'll get a lot of flak for it, but she looks to me like the sort of MP we need.
I've been following this one for a while. When I first used it in poems, people were sure i'd made it up. but no,. Home Secretary Theresa May really did have a sub-committee working under this title, whose job it was to make life unpleasant for people from abroad. At some point it all seemed to go quiet, maybe because PM Cameron didn't think it was a good look, given that he's a caring sort of guy. But once he's gone, and May's back in charge, the policy and the slogan go full steam ahead - she uses it proudly, confident that the Brexit vote gives the Home Office a mandate to persecute anyone who wasn't actually born here.
But now, finally, there are signs that these assumptions are being questioned. The Home Affairs select committee slams the failure of the Home Office to base immigration policy on any serious analysis, and goes through the appalling record of victimisation and incompetence over the past few years. " We believe people should be working together to build consensus on the benefits and address concerns about problems on immigration." Wow. If that approach is maintained, there'll be a lot of changes in how the Home Office operates, and it's not before time.
It was fairly predictable that a Windsor councillor would at some point complain about the homeless littering the streets, and try to ensure that they are bulldozed or hosed off the pavements before Harry and Meghan's big day. What's gratifying is the speed and confidence with which this proposal has been resisted. The police are quick to point out that this isn't a simple matter of people wandering on to the wrong patch. People are homeless for a reason, and for lack of alternatives, and simply wiping them out of the immediate line of sight isn't a solution to anything. Which is a relief, because everything we hear about Harry and Meghan suggests that they'd be appalled to be used as the reason for brutal social engineering.
And yes, it's Trump again, bu what else can you do, when he's determined to hog the agenda? That's what you get when you vote for a volatile narcissist to be the most powerful person in the world. He's celebrating today, because he's got his tax cuts through, and is triumphantly signing them the day before Christmas. He said he'#d do it and he has, and his supporters line the steps, looking wonderfully, smugly happy. I don't think this is because the move will bring employment or a rise in living standards for their constituents. It's about profits, and rich people making more money than they were before. If ever you wanted a demonstration of why it isn't enough to see if business is happy, this is it. The Dow Jones loves it, but the prospects for most Americans are bleaker than ever before.
So says Nikki Haley, threatening the UN like an old style primary school teacher. Amazingly, it didn't work. "We're Bolivia. Make sure you get that down. We want to be top of the list", says the Bolivian representative as they go ahead anyway, and vote in condemnation of Trump's endorsement of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
It won't help in Jerusalem, of course. And the UN may well end up weaker, and poorer, as a result. But once you instal Trump as US president then there are a lot of things that are going to get worse. the Middle East situation will certainly deteriorate, but it's better that Trump's bullying is defied rather than letting it be indulged. Nikki Haley doesn't look that good, either, unless you look long-term through a narrow US lens - American journalists are saying this boosts her chances for a later Presidential run. God help us all.
Or maybe not. The Labour Party are saying they don't want to rerun the Brexit vote, and I'm mightily relieved. Was the first round a deceitful fiasco? Certainly was. Was the result dangerously close and secretly influenced by foreign groups? Yes indeed. Would the future of this country be more secure if we decided to stay in after all? Absolutely.
But I don't want another vote, because I don't want another campaign. Also in today's paper is an article by Dominic Grieve headed "Rational debate is drowned out in this climate of Brexit vitriol." The abuse and threats that he and others have received would have been unthinkable ten years ago. It's common to hear "Do you want what Jo Cox got?" as if this were a predictable part of the business of politics. The campaign we had last time was appalling, and the media was totally ill-equipped to cope. I don't see any evidence that things have substantially improved. If anything's going to rescue us from this it'll have to be the intelligence and conscience of MPs. Yeah, I know. but it's all we have.
Ok, so this is two posts running about Home Office harassment, but I'm not apologising for that. the Sheila Hale case was a bad joke. Paulette Wilson's is much more serious. Came here 50 years ago, aged 10. lived and worked here, now a grandmother, no other home. Two weeks ago they picked her up, took her to detention near the airport, and without her MP's intervention she'd have been on her way. Staying Put was a wonderful poetry and music concert, put on in Wolverhampton by the great Steve Pottinger, to highlight Paulette's case and raise money in her support. It was a fabulous night - ten minutes each of eight poets, and a ukulele band which also featured sax and bass guitar. Best of all, Paulette came and really enjoyed herself. All she needs now is some common sense and decency from the Home Office, but if your main mission is to create a hostile environment, then those are in short supply.
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.
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.
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.
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.