Friday, 28 November 2014

Andrew Mitchell is innocent

and that is why he sued for libel. Nobody would sue if they knew they had done what they were accused of. I have written many times publicly that former MP Martin Salter took over 40K of public money to pay for a non-existent London property. He has never even threatened to sue me, because it is true. UK libel laws are problematic, and also controversial. My personal view is that there should be a privacy law, as there is in France, which would protect private individuals from unwarranted publication of details of their personal life, family matters and so on. Public figures would also be protected, but less so, because there could be a public interest defence. I barely knew Andrew Mitchell during my time in the House of Commons, so I have no personal interest to declare. He had the reputation of being irascible, and I have no reason to doubt that he is. If he did shout and swear at police officers on the day in question, and it is not seriously disputed that he did, then that was bad behaviour, and behaviour not befitting a chief whip (bullying and psychological torture is more their style), but it does not merit two years of personal hell and career and possibly financial ruin. Andrew Mitchell may have the personal wealth to pay the enormous legal bill he now confronts, or he may not. I have no idea. But there is no doubt that his political career is over. He appears to have been personally tormented by the accusation - which amounts to the use, or not, of the word "pleb" - in a way that some other politicians facing media storms of this kind have not been. I maintain that this is because he was innocent of what he was accused of. It has been suggested that he brought this matter on himself by refusing to walk away from the issue, and by suing for libel. This of course is what brought down Oscar Wilde over a century ago. Contrast with Chris Huhne, who went to prison for an offence he knew he was guilty of, and who appears to be relatively unscathed by the experience. Andrew Mitchell is not going to prison, but unscathed he is not.

It seems clear that there was some kind of conspiracy by more than one police officer to stitch Andrew Mitchell up. Probably because they didn't like him, and if the police decide to do you over they can usually manage it. The judge seems to have known this, and to have deemed it not especially relevant. He chose to believe the police officer at the centre of the case, Toby Rowland, who said he didn't know what the word "pleb" meant - probably not, because that briefing came from elsewhere in the police - because he thought Rowland was not the kind of man to make things up, and so Andrew Mitchell must be either lying or amnesiac to deny having used the word "pleb". Well, that is what judges do. They make judgments.

In his very interesting book on UK political scandals, 'Eye of the Storm', Rob Wilson MP (my successor as MP for Reading East, to no one's surprise, and likely to retain the seat next year) chronicles the personal and emotional crisis Andrew Mitchell experienced as a result of this accusation. He indicates that those who feel they have been unjustly accused are likely to suffer more than those who know themselves to be guilty. Conscience is a real thing, but so is justice. Andrew Mitchell has been unjustly treated. Justice is real, but only if those who are unlikeable or unfashionable have the same entitlement to it as everyone else does.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

did this picture get someone killed?

the regime in North Korea is both barmy and savage, as any fule kno. Its ruling dynasty and the elite that surrounds it cannot afford to move on from the worst extremes of the Cold War in which its people are still living, even though they must. The regime's pronouncements read like a bad joke, most of the time, and its leaders, since the nation's founder Kim Il-sung ("Kim: The Early Years"), to his allegedly playboy son Kim Jong Il ("Bad Elvis", as John Sweeney dubbed him) to today's Dear Leader Kim Jong Un ("Fatboy Kim", ibid.) have looked increasingly ludicrous with each generation. One day the regime will come crashing down, and the Kims with it. But until then the people of North Korea live in a tragic parody of a socialist paradise. And yet, look at this picture. It is an official photograph taken of Leader Kim's visit to an orphanage (one with no children in it, but that is the way of things in the Democratic People's Republic). It appears not to have been photoshopped or tampered with. Someone in that place has (or had) a subversive sense of humour. The picture is from KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, the sole official news agency.
fatboy kim look behind you
I am not one to subscribe to the notion that totalitarian or fascist regimes can be brought down by ridicule - look how effective the satirical cabarets of 1930s Berlin were against Hitler - but there is a place for taking the piss. The worker in the orphanage, the member of Kim's entourage, the humble official, whoever it was who had the notion of placing the two stuffed toys behind Kim in the compromising position they are in has a juvenile sense of humour, but a subversive one. It's good to see that subversiveness is alive and well and living in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, where there's not much to laugh about, most of the time. The joke that is Fatboy Kim's haircut has probably worn a bit thin by now.

Of course, this picture may be fake. I don't think so, but it may be. Of course, if it's real the person responsible for the placing of the animals may have been identified and terminated by now. Commenters on Mashable, which is where I first saw this picture, seem to think so.

For those who care, the stuffed animal in the, er, submissive position in the picture is a Japanese manga character. He is a blue cat with no ears called Doraemon who has come back from the future to help a little boy called Nobita live a better life. I think he is fab and I have got several pieces of Doraemon merchandise at home. And, why, pray tell, can the Glorious People's Republic not create their own stuffed animals, but instead use ones imported (we suppose) from Evil Imperialist Japan?

Leaving quite aside the notion of being pictured smoking a cigarette in an orphanage. Or anywhere, really, these days.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

sickness and health

those who know me, are friends with me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, etc, know that earlier this year I was involved in an accident (no one else involved, I fell over while stepping over a low fence in the street in a town in England) in which I not only broke my left leg rather badly and now set off alarms at airports because the leg has a lot of metal in it, but subsequently experienced scar-tissue adhesions in the left knee which required further surgery to enable me to bend the knee, and meant that I had to learn to walk again. I haven't blogged about it, because while my recovery was interesting to me most of the time, I thought and think that it was and is deeply boring to everyone else. But then I discovered this column by Rebecca Armstrong, who is features editor of the Independent newspaper, and whose husband was hit by a car earlier this year and seriously injured. She doesn't describe his injuries in detail, or not in the columns I've read, but it appears that he is not mobile, or not yet, and that he has had some kind of brain injury. She says that since his injury she has had to deal with his personal paperwork and administration, as well as with the various kinds of health bureaucracy that are inevitable in this situation. She had never done this before, and it is making her miserable. That's what got me thinking.

I have been wondering why, now that I can walk again, though slowly and with a limp (thank you to the Clemenceau rehabilitation hospital in Strasbourg, France, where I live) I have been feeling so much sadder about the situation than I was six months ago. At the hospital I saw people trying to learn to walk on two prosthetic legs; my room-mate couldn't stand up at all; there were people doing wheelchair sport in the hospital gym (yes, this is France, where high-end health care is available to everyone) who would always have to use those wheelchairs; and my only problem was having a gammy leg that ached a bit sometimes. So, I felt quite good about it all really. Once I could get rid of the wheelchair, in May, throw away the crutches, in July (a wonderful moment, that) and use an exercise bike, in August (next goal a real outdoors bike) I felt able-bodied again. So why am I sad now?

Being immobilised as I was and as Rebecca's husband is messes up your life in more than one way. I have salaried employment that comes with health insurance, so the six months it took for me to be ready to go back to work didn't mess me up financially. I was lucky, you could say, and I have said so many times. But Rebecca is dealing with her husband's paperwork (and apparently he was not very organised) and feeling very lonely as she does so. If the boiler leaks or the pipes burst she has to deal with that too. My husband looked after me as best he could, but he is not a nurse. All the non-physical aspects of my life were put on hold while I was bed-bound. If I hadn't been able to do online shopping from my bed I'm not sure how I'd have managed. And the downside of France's magnificent health care system is the vast amount of bureaucracy it brings with it, as do other aspects of life in this country. And it's bureaucracy in a language which is not my first, which adds to the challenge. So I am still tying up loose ends of bill payments, insurance paperwork and so on that no one else could do for me and that I couldn't cope with myself for quite a long time. And it's depressing. French bureaucrats are an unforgiving breed. So that, I believe, is why I am sad.

Never underestimate the psychological after-effects of an accident. The fact that it was an accident, that it could not have been foreseen or planned for, messes with your head. And it always comes back to your brain, and your emotions, and your spirit, no matter which part of you has been physically damaged. A nurse in the UK hospital said to me that men deal with injuries much better than women do. They are more demanding, asking for painkillers and for things to be done for them much more than women do, but they don't agonise about the injury itself; they think of it as they would a car that needed repair. Women, on the other hand, agonise forever about how it happened, could it have been prevented, is it their fault (I did and do all these things) have they got arthritis now (in my case, yes, probably), have they passed on hip problems or brittle bones to their children, and so on. A physiotherapist in the French hospital said to me "Vous marchez avec la tete" ("You walk with your head") and she was right. To learn to walk again I had to believe I could. But no one else can do the paperwork for me. So, forgive me.

When I was using crutches people gave up their seats for me on the bus or tram. Now I'm not, they don't - and standing for any length of time is still difficult, especially on a moving vehicle. So, travelling is harder work than it once was. So, everything takes longer. I can't quicken my pace to catch an approaching bus or tram. I just have to miss it and wait for the next one. I can't yet ride my bike. I can't go to a concert or show unless I have a booked seat. I don't drink a lot of water any more, because if I need to dash to the loo - well, I can't. These are small negatives, but they add up over time.

This year I missed the spring altogether (the accident happened in early February and I was immobile for seven weeks afterwards). I was in hospital for almost the whole of June and July. The late summer I could go outside for wasn't enough. And now the days are shorter and darker, I still have paperwork to do. And it's making me sad.

If someone close to you goes through something like this, remember that it's when they are well recovered, some months later, that they will need support, when the professionals are gone but nothing will ever be the same again. I'm only sorry it took this to teach me that people do have needs which aren't visible - that even once you can walk again the path is stony, and you are afraid of falling.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

music in your pocket, and a watch

the iPod Classic (you know, the chunky thing with the click-wheel) is to disappear. Those who still use one may do so until it dies, and then, oblivion. I have been reading with some interest some online debates about this. A lot of chaps, especially those of the family-man car-driving persuasion, are miffed at this move by Apple. When it's pointed out to them that they are not being deprived of music-on-the-go but can listen on their phone, and that most people can't fit their entire music collection on any iPod, they get even crosser. That's not the point, they say. My music identifies me. I say to that, if you need an iPod to have a sense of identity you are more of a slave to the capitalist conspiracy than I am. And I am. My first iPod, in 2010, had a click-wheel, and while I wasn't sorry when that was phased out, I really somehow liked the sound of that little wheel. After that iPod died I listened on my iPhone, and that was great. I needed to make playlists, but I rather enjoyed thinking each morning what I wanted to listen to on the way to work and putting a playlist on. I liked timing the playlist so the last track, played as I was walking into the building, was a punching, up-yours kind of thing. A favourite was "My Name Is Stain" by Shaka Ponk, or "Batard" (no translation needed I fancy) by Stromae. Is this a gender thing? Because chaps I know seem to HATE doing this. They want ALL THEIR MUSIC RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW. I managed to drop and break my iPhone about 18 months ago, and couldn't afford a new one, so now I have a Samsung Galaxy and I like it quite a lot. But I also now have a simple iPod Nano, for music only. Because iTunes.

Yes, iTunes is horrid, we all agree. But what else is a girl to do? You like a track, you get it for a euro. And no Wall of Plastic. Sig other has one of these walls, because he has many many CDs and is still adding to his collection. So I have to buy Billy bookshelves from IKEA to put the CDs on.

A watch. You know what I'm talking about. I have wanted one of these ever since I first heard about them. I just rather resent having to get a new phone so I can work the watch off it. Samsung do a stand-alone one. But the Apple one is a thing of beauty... What would you do?

Apple Watch
Samsung Gear Watch

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Good King Richard

Richard III
this picture of King Richard III is quite well known I think, though it was not painted in his lifetime. It seems to be a copy of one that was, but is now lost. He's one of the better known kings of England, largely because of Shakespeare's play and the numerous subsequent film adaptations, especially perhaps Laurence Olivier in the part, with his hunchback and tights. The title of this post makes my view of Richard clear - he has been maligned throughout history, and the record should be set straight - but the story is not a simple one. Shakespeare was hired to trash his reputation, because the grandfather of Elizabeth I, queen in Shakespeare's time, was the usurper of the throne victor in the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, at Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485. Shakespeare wrote about other kings, but it's only really Richard, and to some extent Henry V, who are remembered because of him. Shakespeare had to trash Richard's reputation, because even then, a century later, there were still people who knew, or suspected, that Richard was not the villain his Tudor successors had called him.

I came to Richard through the Shakespeare play, in my schooldays. The cartoon villain that play makes him uses such glorious language that I started wondering why he needed to be trashed. He was king for only two years, after all. He was defeated in battle. Why was he not forgotten? So I got to reading other things about him, and a teacher pointed me at Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time", most editions of which use this picture on the cover. I discovered that he was the last king of England to be English. The last king of England to die in battle. And the first one to have the laws of England written in English so that the people could understand them.

Nobody knew then that the remains of Richard, the only king of England not to have a marked grave, would be found underneath a car park in Leicester. But they were, in 2012. Something that was so unlikely that it's still hard to believe now, but it happened. I went to Leicester last month to see the visitor centre they have created, and to see the grave site in the former car park. It was rather affecting, like going to a funeral can be. But I was impressed. Richard is to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral next March. I shall be there to pay my respects to his coffin, which will lie in the cathedral for three days before the burial. They are building him a tomb there now, and I hope it is fit for Good King Richard, which is how the north of England knew him.

Who killed the Princes in theTower? Nobody knows. Possibly no one did.

Did Richard have a hunchback and a withered arm? No, the bones establish that. He had scoliosis, which would have made one shoulder higher than the other, but the clothes of those days, and especially armour, would have disguised that very effectively.

The visitor centre in Leicester has a terrific display of pictures of actors who have played Richard. I never saw Kevin Spacey or Antony Sher play him, and wish I had. I saw the film with Ian McKellen, which is my personal favourite, and is quite terrifying. The display includes a picture of John Lydon in his Johnny Rotten days, and says that Lydon modelled his physical stage persona on Richard as played by Olivier. Really?

Things not many people know. When Richard was killed on Bosworth Field, his crown was found under a bush. I remember that from school history. But the crown was placed on Henry Tudor's head, then and there, by Stanley, who was supposed to be Richard's ally and had betrayed him. When Henry was king he got an Act passed declaring his kingship to have begun the day before Bosworth, which made Richard guilty of treason. So Henry Tudor's reign started with a lie.

Rest in peace King Richard.

After the bones were found, a camping equipment shop in Leicester put a sign in its window for its January sale: "Now is the winter of our discount tents". Oh, please yourselves. 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

P J O'Rourke and the boomers

Ghastly right-winger that he is, I have always found P J O'Rourke hilarious. I particularly loved that his book on international conflict and crisis was called "Give War A Chance". Anyway, his latest tome, "The Baby Boom, How It Got That Way And It Wasn't My Fault And I'll Never Do It Again" is a bit variable. You have to love a writer who puts in ahead of the foreword a quote from Ecclesiasticus, in the Apocrypha bit of the Bible (I always used to get him mixed up with Ecclesiastes, because I could never remember which one you were supposed to read and which one not, but Ecclesiasticus is the Wrong One) "How can he get wisdom... whose talk is of bullocks?"  But a lot of this is a description of a 1950s-to-early-60s childhood in Ohio, attracting the reaction "So what?" And why do Americans have to refer to brand names all the time? For us ration-book Brits the only brand names with any nostalgia quotient are probably Spangles and Golden Wonder, neither of which exists any more. He refers to Depends and Levitra, both of which I had to look up (incontinence pants and Viagra variant, since you ask, neither of which probably existed when US boomers were children).

But O'Rourke's boomer credentials are impeccable. He used to be editor of National Lampoon. Largely because he was/is funny. He took a lot of drugs, at the right time. He lived in a shared house called Big Green.

Who are the boomers? Opinions differ. Most agree that the oldest ones were born in 1946, conceived usually by returning soldiers. The youngest, however, were born anywhere between 1959 and 1964, depending who you believe (O'Rourke goes for 1964). What did boomers have that was cool, and that has lasted? Our music, of course. We had the Beatles. We had the Rolling Stones. We had the Kinks. We had the Who (none of these American, just saying). Except that all these people are/were war babies, born in the 1940s. Not boomers. Who are the boomer musicians? The late Sid Vicious? Morrissey (at the younger end)? Elvis Costello? Well, I grant  you him, but it's not the same, if you get my drift. So what did our generation produce? We went into politics, some of us. The Clintons are boomers, at the top end of the age group, and so may Barack Obama be, at the bottom end. Tony Blair definitely is. Angela Merkel. But the boomers' time in the political sunlight was brief. David Cameron is younger than that. Nigel Farage doesn't count. Our time there is over. Fun while it lasted. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Like the rest of our lives really.

Artists? Writers? Not that many. Martin Amis, if  you like him (I do) scrapes in (born 1949). Jonathan Coe. David Mitchell is too young. Margaret Drabble is too old. The writers I choose to read, mostly, are older or younger than the boomer generation.

But P J O'Rourke is funny. And concise. He notes, rightly, that the tax bills to fund the boomers' retirement are barely starting to come in, adding that that ought to galvanise those Generation X slackers into doing some work, besides which it would help them get over the death of Kurt Cobain. Just as well, then, that we don't want to retire. If we did, we'd have to admit we were old. Our parents wanted to retire. Some of them did so in their fifties, because their working lives were quite hard, and they were glad when they were over. Us, no. We've been having a pretty good time, all told. Quite a lot of us died young without any wars to kill us off, unlike now (I've lost several friends my own age and younger), but (and I'm talking about Brits, here) we had home cooking not junk food when we were children, we played out, we were not driven around, we were allowed chips only once a week, and we acquired self-reliance by being outside the house without adults from early on. We never grew up, and we are going to live for ever.

That's not an indictment of my generation, it's a snapshot opinion of it. Will later generations think of us kindly?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Desert Island Discs in Yorkshire

Yes I know, posting your desert island discs is frivolous and shallow, but hey, I'm on holiday.  In Yorkshire, since you ask, for the walking, to help mend my leg. It's so cold for August I've had to buy warm clothes, even though I knew the summer clothes I would wear in Alsace would not do in Leeds. The tracks are in no particular order.

1. The Moody Blues, 'Nights in White Satin''. Tune of my teenage years, and I have never tired of it. One of the great swooning ballads of all time.

2. The Rolling Stones, 'Paint It Black'. It's not the greatest thing they have ever done, but I think it is the clearest and the most powerful. Most pop songs, rock anthems etc are not about death, or not entirely, even the girl-group tragedy ones (see below), but this one is.

3. The Hollies, 'Bus Stop'. A near-perfect pop song, with the then-great voice of Graham Nash.

4. The Shangri-Las, 'Remember'. The best of the girl groups. 'Rock Dreams', back in the day, called them "three schoolgirls in black leather". I love the pauses in this. I will never get tired of it as long as I live.

And now, moving a little nearer the present day:

5. Stromae, "Formidable". He sings only in French. The most famous Belgian. All human life is there. And every line is simple, as Brel was. "Tu etais formidable, j'etais fort minable".

Back again to the past:

6. Jacques Brel, "Amsterdam". A dead famous Belgian. He of course also sang only in French, but nobody asked about that then. A perfect chanson. "Comme des oriflammes, le long des berges mornes."

7. The Beatles, "Strawberry Fields For Ever". For the nonsense of it, though I suspect John Lennon took the words a little more seriously than I do.

8. Tom Lehrer, "The Periodic Table". Just because. No one else could.

A bit old, all these. And yet I like a lot of today's modern beat combos. I'm sure these favourites will change over time, but that is what I would take if I had to go today.

Book? To Kill A Mockingbird. (Tussle between that and Wuthering Heights, but the latter has too much property in it, which wouldn't really do on a desert island.)

Luxury item: Tussle between a supply of Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream and pen and notebook to write with. The latter wins, by a whisker.

The one record I'd choose of them all? Difficult, but it's the Brel.

Just a bit of fun. You? Love to hear it.