Saturday, 31 May 2008

The right to know

Hicham Yezza will not be deported this weekend. Perhaps the Home Office had a change of heart. Perhaps they noticed the letters, e-mails, faxes and stories in the press. Many MPs joined the campaigning students and lecturers at Nottingham University, which may have made a difference. It helps to be well known.

The story isn't over yet. So far as I know, Hich is still in detention. And the debate about academic freedom and the conduct of university and police will continue for some time.

There was one little thing that troubled me. In the anxiety about the hastily-planned deportation, I put it to one side. But now that there's a pause - and hope - I'd like to return to one argument expressed in a number of e-mails sent by academics and others. (Because I saw the argument in emails it's not possible to link to it. Instead I'm linking here to the first story in the Times Higher Education Supplement, noting that representatives of the university have suggested they may have been misreported. The university's position was amended later.)

The argument that worries me is that Hicham Yezza had no reason to look at his friend's research material, because he is currently only a low-grade clerical officer. Research, the argument implies, is only for registered graduate students and people in "proper" academic jobs.

What a load of rubbish. There's a long history of research outside universities - and universities have often disliked this. Victorian botanists - including women and working-class people - taught themselves the Linnaean system and went out to find and classify new plants. The picture shows Thomas Edward, who trained as a cobbler, but gained a reputation as a self-taught naturalist. The Autobiography of Thomas Cooper - another cobbler - gives more insight into the way in which working-class Victorians sought to gain and share knowledge.

People research for all sorts of reasons - not just to give academic papers, write monographs or achieve a successful university career. After she had retired, my mum decided to find out about her family history. She learnt about how records were kept, deciphered old handwriting and made decisions about the relative value of different pieces of evidence. She investigated different kinds of employment in the 19th century. She shared her knowledge with friends and relatives. My mum left school before her 14th birthday but what she did was research and it achieved an addition to knowledge.

Research is too valuable to be left to universities, where methods - however rigorous - can follow the tramlines of previous generations. We also need researchers outside universities, asking new questions. Thought, intelligence and questioning should be everyone's business.

It's particularly shocking that anyone in a university should assume that only academic staff are interested in learning and research. Isn't it likely that an administrator - or a cleaner, or a porter - might choose a job in a university in order to get close to learning, discuss ideas and use the library? Shouldn't a decent university give all its staff the opportunity to research - and listen to their thoughts and discoveries? I suppose it depends on whether a university is really concerned with sharing knowledge and new ideas or if its chief aims are merely recruiting students, fund-raising and self-preservation.

Friday, 30 May 2008


It's been a busy week - the kind where work doesn't stop at home or even when I'm asleep. Pressure of work invaded my dreams and gave me sleepless nights.

One big rush is over now but my laptop, evidently feeling the pressure as much as I did. is having problems. It lacks power and runs out of energy rapidly - just like me. Worse, it's taken to emitting frantic squeaks on occasion. They must mean something - or perhaps there's something satisfying in sitting down and squeaking loudly. I may try it one day.

I'm going to see if one of the technicians at work can help. The technicians are amazing. I used to think that they had brilliant technical knowledge and expertise but in the last couple of years I've realised there's more to it than that. They have magic powers. I was unwilling to believe this but the evidence is overwhelming. For instance, I can be struggling with a bloody-minded printer for more than an hour. It will spew out paper in a frenzy or sulk in the corner of my desk, refusing to do anything at all. Finally, in despair, I will phone a technician. As soon as he or she arrives, the printer responds. Sometimes the technician will just walk in the door. On other occasions the magic words are required. I know the magic words - they are, "What seems to be the trouble?" - but they don't have the same effect when I say them. But on the arrival of a fully-initiated technician, the printer gives a little shrug and complies with my requests at once, turning out page after page of perfectly printed script.

Sometimes I wonder about the training of technicians. There must be secret rites and rituals from which other mortals are banned. The technicians never reveal the secret.

I hope they can save the laptop. My fear is that it will behave perfectly in their presence and then return to its customary ways of neuroses and rebellion. Computers can be like that.

Sunday, 25 May 2008


The campus on Nottingham University is a peaceful place. Locals walk there, go boating on the lake, and take their children to play in the playground. It was alarming to hear on national radio of the arrest of two terrorist suspects.

The men weren't terrorists at all. One, Rizwaan Sabir, was a Ph.D. student - a Nottingham local - who had chosen to research Islamic terrorism. It seems a fairly important and relevant topic. I assume his research topic was registered with the university in the usual way - universities are very bureacratic places. It would be natural to list it in the university's submission for the Research Assessment Exercise earlier this year, since universities move up the rankings when they have a high number of research students.

Rizwaan Sabir thought that an Al-Qaeda training manual would be relevant to his research. He didn't download it from any old source. He went to a United States government website and downloaded an edited version, with anything judged to be dangerous edited out. He then contacted a friend, Hicham Yezza, who worked in the university and asked him to print it for him. Students do this kind of thing quite often. So do academics and people with temperamental printers or empty printer cartridges. But someone saw what the student's friend was reading and reported him to the police.

That's when the Counter-Terrorism Unit arrived. Both men were rushed off the jail and held for six days. They were questioned, their families were questioned and their homes were searched. Students at the university, in the middle of their exams, became rather nervous as police swarmed through the familiar buildings. Then, when the truth of the men's story became apparent, they were released.

But Hicham Yezza, a known peace activist from Algeria with a pending application for British citizenship, was immediately re-arrested. Someone had found a problem with his visa. This is very surprising. Universities are scrupulous in checking the immigration status of their students and employees. But I suppose most people make minor mistakes in completing complex forms.

Hicham Yezza - two weeks ago a trusted ex-student and employee of Nottingham University - is now in a detention centre pending deportation. He could be put on a plane and sent out of the country as early as Tuesday - and it's hard to do much on his behalf over a bank holiday weekend.

You may wish to write to your MP, asking him or her to contact Liam Byrne, the Immigration Minister, as a matter of urgency. At the very least, Hicham Yezza needs time to prepare his case. I can't help suspecting that this speed is an attempt to divert attention from two unnecessary arrests and the alarm they caused.

There's a fuller account and more helpful links in a recent post from Beeston Quakers - Beeston is a suburb of Nottingham which borders the Nottingham University campus. The Beeston Quakers post also considers further important questions raised by these events. (And it saves me the time I would usually take in researching and adding links.)

The richest man in Europe

Today it's quiet. As I looked at the Mill buildings I thought how elegant the designs were. The buildings seem perfectly proportioned and in complete harmony with the leafy cliffs and hills.

As I sat outside the cafe at Arkwright's Mill with my friends Jane and Iyamide, Jane slipped small cake-crumbs to the ducks. The duck kept her distance as the drake approached but Jane was careful to see that each got a little treat. Then we decided to take the tour.

Our guide was an enthusiast for the energy, imagination and inventiveness of Richard Arkwright. He sketched the story of how this tailor's son had been apprenticed to a barber and wig-maker. Inventive and aware of trends, he began work on two machines to spin and card cotton. Writers of the day were shocked by women's sudden enthusiasm for cotton under-garments.

Arkwright found people to invest in his inventions and bought land in Derbyshire to set up the first huge cotton mill. No-one's sure how many people worked there: some say 1,500 but some estimates are as high as 5,000. By the standards of the time, he was probably a good employer, although there were penalties for misbehaviour; anyone arriving late at work would lose two days' pay. However there was also evidence of kindness, celebrations and encouragement of inventors. Houses were provided where families could grow vegetables and keep animals. To qualify for these, a worker had to have at least eleven children. Arkwright needed to increase his workforce.

It's hard to think back from the peace of present-day Cromford to the excitement, vigour and danger of those times. I started to think of the noise as the mill buildings were erected - all that scaffolding, the constant labour, the redirecting of waterways. Then there were navvies hacking into the land to build the canal and the almost constant racket of machines in the mill. The machines worked 23 hours a day. Further off was other, intolerable work. The cotton was picked by slaves in the American south.

Arkwright struggled to protect his inventions. The patents left out crucial details so that the designs couldn't be stolen. ("But that's illegal," cried Jane, who knows about patent law.) The first two floors in the mill buildings were windowless so that no spy could see in. There were canons to guard against Luddites. I thought about the working conditions and poverty - and the anxious hand-spinners, carders and weavers whose hard-earned skills had become redundant. I have some sympathy with the Luddites. Iyamide drew parallels with present questions about fairly-traded cotton and clothes produced in sweatshops. She has travelled much more widely than me and told me about visiting Pakistan where she gave simple ballpoint pens to girls she met to help with their schooling.

Arkwright and his mill flourished. By the time he died, he was the richest man in England. His son, who inherited his wealth, became the richest man in Europe.

Cromford is quieter now but there's it's still a place where people think. Scarthin Books is a bibliophile's dream and hosts all kinds of events, including a regular philosophical cafe. The nearby Boat Inn, where I had a very pleasant half of Black Sheep ale, has a storytelling evening every month. We'd planned to go on to Wirksworth to follow the Adam Bede trail but we didn't make it. There was enough to do and see in Cromford and we took time for conversation and catching up.

Wirksworth next time, perhaps.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Bartok in Nottingham

Loneliness drove me out and Bartok lured me. I'd been wondering about the concert all week. Bartok's second piano concerto was on the bill. I didn't know the work - my knowledge of classical music has been acquired by chance and is unsystematic - but I once spent weeks listening to recordings of the string quartets. I had a less happy experience a few years ago when, at the last minute, my son chose to accompany me to a performance of Bluebeard's Castle. I liked it but my son, who had assumed a performance about pirates was disappointed. A performance by the Hallé under Mark Elder was tempting - and I reckoned I could run to a £9 seat in the very back row. My son would be away and my daughter probably out. I could have a night out too. Still, I didn't book.

Halfway through this afternoon I rang up. Did they have any £9 tickets and could they keep me one. They wouldn't keep one for me, the lady at the box office replied, but I could just turn up and be pretty sure of getting in. I turned up.

"You could have a £6 ticket," the young man at the box office told me when I turned up. "You sit in the choir and can see the pianist's hands." This wasn't just a saving. I remembered how far away from the stage the back row was. After an enquiry about acoustics, I settled on the choir seat.

There was a free talk before the concert. It was fascinating about the history of Charles Hall
é - or Karl Halle as he was originally known. Apparently he added the accent when teaching piano in Paris, so that the French would know how to pronounce his surname. He came to London when the rich families, whose daughters learnt piano, fled from political unrest. Then he planned to move to Bath, until German industrialists who had settled in Manchester called on him to improve the city's musical life. He started running recitals and concerts. Then he assembled an orchestra for the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition on 1857, and the twice-daily free performances were so popular that Hallé was called on to run a proper town orchestra - the first town orchestra in Britain.

Mark Elder told the story well - the story of an ordinary piano teacher (and extraordinary pianist) who, without prior experience, came to lead and manage a major orchestra. But the talk was less interesting on the pieces though when Mark Elder sang or hummed the music it came alive. He assumed that everyone was there for Richard Strauss's Don Juan and Dvorak's 6th Symphony. I wanted to say that they wouldn't have got me out of the house on a rainy evening. I wasn't the only one there for the Bartok either.

The 2nd piano concerto is a strange piece, inflected by its times. It begins with a kind of mad gaiety which seems strangely incomplete, perhaps because the violins don't play. The piano is wild - almost out of control. Then, in the second movement, the violins begin with an almost intolerable depth of grief which the piano then responds to in its own way. In the final movement there's a renewal of furious jollity with the piano and orchestra speaking to - and contradicting - each other. But the rush of notes seems to be in reaction to the melancholy of the second movement - it is frenetic rather than cheerful. It wasn't surprising to find from the programme note that the piece was first performed in Germany, a week before the Nazis took power. Under the Nazis, the Bartok's work was banned.

There was a stall in the foyer selling recordings of Andras Schiff playing Bartok for less than a fiver. I bought a recording of all the piano concertos - I plan to load them onto my MP3 players so that I can listen when travelling. But I've been previewing the 3rd piano concerto on the web. This is the opening - Andras Schiff again but some years ago, when Simon Rattle was conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Online Videos by

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Escape (for two hours)

It was years since I'd walked through the Nature Reserve. I remembered it well: the narrow paths, the overgrowth and most of all the mud. That, I suppose, is what mothers remember. I recall the pushchair and the worry lest a lively toddler would get free and run towards the Trent. Our walks would often pause in the garden of the Marina cafe, where they cater for the narrow-boat trade and mud isn't a major cause of worry.

Sometimes, in the last couple of years, I've strolled as far as the Marina. But today I was failing to work at home. Everything distracted me, from the radio to my daughter and her boyfriend who are strenuously renovating her room. Perhaps, I thought, I would concentrate better if I cycled off, with my work in by bike basket. I could make a first visit to the Reserve's cafe and see if a change of scenery would help me concentrate better.

Joe the cat thought a cycle ride was a wonderful idea so I took a while to get going. My daughter held Joe firmly as I set off. I wasn't quite sure of the route so, from time to time as I got nearer, I stopped and checked I was on the right path. Polite schoolchildren, tired dog-handlers, energetic walkers all tried to help. By Attenborough church an elderly couple were uncertain but knew the general direction. As I turned the bike and cycled off, one called out after me, "Parry. Riposte."

I'd forgotten I was wearing my fencing hoodie with the name of my club blazoned across the back. I stopped and looked at them. "You're fencers?"

"Not any more."

But no-one really stops being a fencer and it was a delight to meet this couple, with their enthusiasm (best of all!) for epee. I stayed with them for a little while as we needed help finding the way past Ireton House and the church where Ireton married Oliver Cromwell's daughter.

In the residential streets, the air smelt of well-tended gardens and heavy lilac. But as I cycled onto the reserve the scent changed to the damp green smell I link to cow-parsley, grass, nettles, dock leaves and hawthorn. Soon I saw ducks (with ducklings), swans and geese in and around the deep pools.

It's not a natural space, apart from the bank of the Trent. The Reserve is built around flooded gravel pits. The work of gravel extraction continues. But lately much of the Reserve has been left to nature and nature is doing its best. There's something calming about water, trees and grazing birds - something that can help people focus on a task. I settled down at a cafe table, pulled out a pile of papers and reached for my reading glasses ... and reached again. I'd left them at home.

Cycling back on the pale paths of the reserve - quite without mud - I looked at the rippling water of the Trent, the green leaves and blue sky and thought it would make a perfect picture. And then I knew that no picture would conjure up the moment. I cycled on without reaching for my camera.

Does anyone know what this bird is, by the way? I got as far as goose - and then I began to wonder if that was wrong.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Military awareness

Do you think military awareness should be part of the national curriculum?

Do you want to see soldiers in uniform wherever you go?

Do you want your children encouraged to join in military activities at school?

Do you want discounts for soldiers in shops?

Do you think that discriminating against someone in military uniform should be a criminal offence?

Do you want more military parades - on the streets and on television?

Do you think major football clubs be compelled to host military parades?

Do you want a public holiday devoted to celebrating the armed forces?

And what would you think if these laws were in force in North Korea? in Iran? in the United States? in Russia? in Britain?

If you've been following the news, you'll know that these propsals have been welcomed enthusiastically by Gordon Brown and are likely to become law. And if you've been following this blog, you'll have guessed that, as a Quaker and a pacifist - and as a mother - I'm not pleased.

I should say that
I haven't read the whole report. It's a big pdf file and I can't open it on my computer. Instead I've depended on a series of press reports. These seem in agreement on the main report but offer different details.

I've met plenty of soldiers. I've talked to them, drunk with them - even fenced them. I disagree with their choice of career but I know that many are well-intentioned and courageous. I think that, as we have an army, we should treat soldiers well. The state of facilities for military families and the number of homeless ex-soldiers is a national scandal.

But I don't want to live in a society which celebrates the military or encourages small children to see themselves as soldiers. I don't want lies about the glory of battle or any suggestion that it's sweet and seemly to die for your country. I had enough of that at school.

I was nine years old when I was introduced to the poetry of Henry Newbolt. We read "Vitai Lampada" in class. It's a poem which begins with a cricket match one evening at a public school. The players, we are told, aren't after trophies - all any schoolboy cricketer cares for is "
...his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote -/ 'Play up! play up! and play the game!'"

In the second verse, the scene shifts to some outpost of empire:

The sand of the desert is sodden red, -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; -
The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

And there's a third verse, to tie it all together and imply that this is how it should be - that schoolboy games are train boys in unquestioning obedience to orders.

Even at nine, I knew there was something odd and disturbing about the poem. Like other poems by Newbolt (the second poem in the book we studied was "He Fell Among Thieves"), this poem is in love with death. There is so much it doesn't say. There's no indication of why the soldiers are fighting or who the enemy is. The opposing forces aren't even described - it's as though they don't exist. British soldiers are overwhelmed by "dust", "smoke" and "the river of death." There's not even any suggestion of ethics of loyalty - England and "honour" are discounted. All that matters is the memory of a schoolboy game and this time the game ends in death.

Newbolt wasn't the only writer of that period to praise the romance of death to a young audience. The first act of Peter Pan ends with Peter, trapped on an island with the seas rising. Alone on stage, he summons up his courage and declares, "To die will be an awfully big adventure."

They took that line out of the Christmas productions during the First World War. And many of the boys who had read read Newbolt and thrilled to Peter Pan did what was expected. They played the game and faced the big adventure of Gallipoli and the Western Front.

I've heard that terrorists say "You love life but we love death." A hundred years ago, there was a love affair with death in British culture. Please don't let this new celebration of the military bring it back.

Note: The children in the picture are North Korean, by the way.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

The edge of history

It was the first preview, but I'd seen the play before. I had memories of the original production in the Pit in the Barbican, when the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered Stephen Poliakoff's Breaking the Silence. That made me hesitate before booking for the new production. I recalled impressions and atmosphere rather than substance and performance but I couldn't forget the railway carriage set or the single-minded arrogance of the play's central character. I think 1984 was the year when I worked out I'd attended more than a hundred performances. If that one stayed with me, it was among the best in a good year for drama. "No," I thought, when I heard about the revival. "I probably shan't go.

But cheap ticket offers always lure me and £5 a seat for the first preview was too good an offer to miss. I rang up so promptly I secured good seats too - in the fourth row - and arranged to attend with a friend. It was a good excuse for wine and a meal before the show.

I like going to Nottingham Playhouse. It's not too big, the staff are friendly and the theatre-goers don't seem so posh or fancily dressed as the slightly scary clientele of the nearby Royal Centre. When I book for the Playhouse, the box office staff like to talk about the play - they seem part of the whole enterprise, which is always a good sign. This time the young woman who answered the phone talked about the various seating options and added her reflections on the first act of the play, which she had seen in rehearsal. Her enthusiasm reminded me how much I like theatre-going.

I was caught up in the play at once. When I saw that the first half lasted 90 minutes, I wondered whether my attention space was good enough. But as soon as the first actor entered the railway carriage set, I wanted to know what happened to these people. And it didn't matter that I had seen the play before.

Nikolai, the central character (based on Stephen Poliakoff's grandfather) is a Russian Jew with two passions. One is for ordered, elegant, private living. His wife must dress formally, defer to him and follow restrictive conventions, even though the family is living in a single railway carriage with bullet holes in the walls. The Russian Revolution has just taken place but Polya, the servant, still waits at table where meals are served on silver plates. Nikolai's other passion is the urge to capture sound on film - a surprising pursuit since he cannot imagine mingling with the public to attend a cinema.

At first, Nikolai's survival seems improbable. Equally unlikely is his appointment to supervise the inspection of the new telephone system of the northern region. But his wife, son and maid seize on their opportunity for survival in a changing world. As we watch, Nikolai's charm, single-mindedness and state funds seem to give him the chance to invent the first "talkies". Meanwhile his wife Evgenia forms an alliance with Polya, the maid, which provides both with opportunities for happiness and a fuller life. As they develop and Sasha, the watchful son, grows up, Nikolai seems unchanging.

The railway carriage passes close to danger and the great events of history. When the play was first performed, Thatcherism was on the rise but the world gained some uneasy sense of stability from the tension between the super-powers. Now we live in an even less certain world. Millions of people are displaced and many more are struggling to understand or survive.

Breaking the Silence doesn't downplay the risks or brutality of those early years of the Russian revolution. But through one family, it shows a time when change and danger co-existed with an urge to create, invent and imagine. It conjures up excitement at technological change as well as nostalgia for a lost way of life. As for the end of the play ... well, I'm not going to spoil it by saying.

I'm going to name all the cast, because every role contributed to the success of the performance I saw. Jonathan Wright and Jim Findley were guards who were also human, whatever they did and witnessed. Owen Aaronovitch as Verkoff, the ex-butcher who becomes Nikolai's unlikely employer, was a suitable contrast with the family; without ever upstaging them, he suggested there was more to the character than we saw on stage. Diana Kent and Celia Meiras developed convincingly as Evgenia and Polya - it will be a long while before Polya's final appearance fades from my mind. As Sasha, Ilan Goodman grew convincingly from spoilt pet clutching a teddy bear to a youth desperate to fit in with Soviet society. Philip Bretherton, as the apparently unchanging Nikolai, offered a process of slow revelation until, at the end, the audience came to see beneath the arrogant exterior a man who loved his country and cared about its people.

Estelle Richardson is a relatively young director. After a production as good as this, I'll be watching for her name on future playbills.

The play runs till the end of the month. I don't know if it's moving elsewhere - only that it should.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Sunshine and history

The gatehouse is what tourists expect - or near enough. You can imagine Robin Hood lurking. There's a statue of him nearby but it's not how I imagine Robin - but then my imaginings were built by Errol Flynn and Richard Greene.

Robin wasn't much in my mind as I climbed the steep approach to Nottingham Castle - but he had to be there somewhere. There are leafy, green walks at the base of the Castle Rock, a steep hill and winding pathways, and even the major oak represented in a mosaic of pansies.

I wasn't meant to be in Nottingham. I was meant to be in a meeting - one of those necessary committees with long agendas and jargon-filled papers for discussion. I'd decided to work from home in the morning and allow myself an hour in the office with the preliminary paperwork. Just before mid-day I left for the station.

The trains I needed were cancelled - there was a signalling problem. Station staff promised a bus but it wouldn't get me to work in time for the meeting and it would be hard to get back again. I rang in with apologies.

I was about to go home when I realised that some trains were running and, if I waited a few minutes, I could go to Nottingham instead. I waited a few minutes. After all, I had work in my bag and could get some done while enjoying a cup of tea - or even the picnic lunch I'd planned to eat at my desk.

Once in Nottingham, I wasn't sure what I would do, but the day was warm and sunny and gradually my wanderings drew me towards the castle. I remembered a tea-room and free admission on week-days.

There's much discussion in Nottingham of the disappointment tourists experience on first seeing the castle. The fine mediaeval building of Robin Hood's day was destroyed after the Civil War when Charles I fought parliament, lost and was executed. The Civil War used to be one of the best known parts of British history. I grew up on stories of battling Cavaliers and Roundheads which were told much as 1066 and all That put it: that Roundheads were "Right but Repulsive" and Caveliers "Wrong but Wromantic." It seemed like a contest of hairstyles and costumes, until I came across an account and portait of the young John Milton, a dedicated anti-monarchist who didn't fit the Roundhead image. The English Civil War is largely forgotten now - many young people are surprised to learn that England was once a republic. However it marked Nottingham. The king chose Nottingham Castle to raise his standard in 1642. I'm not sure why he chose Nottingham which became a parliamentary stronghold during the war - the castle was held for parliament and later used as a prison. In the end it was demolished, for fear royalists would attack and hold it. The site must have made it one of the most powerful fortresses in the country.

In the 1670s, after the Restoration of Charles II, the site was leased by the Royalist William Cavendish, first Duke of Nottingham, whose son built a small mansion on top of the rock. The poor lived and drank below, not just in houses but in man-made caves. Nottingham's caves were officially inhabited until the beginning of the twentieth century. Unofficially, people were living there a few years ago. Maybe they still are.

I wonder what the Cavendishes thought when they looked down on the poor, or if they spent much time in Nottingham. In 1831, the Duke of Newcastle opposed the Great Reform Bill, which proposed extending votes to the middle classes and providing parliamentary representation for the new industrial areas. The Bill was intended to undermine aristocratic patronage and the aristocracy objected. When the House of Lords threw out the Bill, which had been passed by parliament, there were riots in Nottingham and the Duke's castle was burnt down. The Duke left the burnt-out wreck as a reminder to the people of Nottingham.

The mansion was rebuilt in the 1870s and taken over by the local council, who used it to create the first municipal art gallery outside London. The castle is still owned by the local council. It's not one of the best municipal galleries but I always find something there to delight me. Every so often a campaign springs up to demolish the current castle and replace it with a Disneyfied tourist attraction but I would hate that. The current building may not be exciting but I'd rather not unpick 400 years of history. "City of legend" is a fine marketing slogan but there's more to Nottingham than that.

Yesterday, however, I was set on tea and a picnic. I drank Earl Grey while working, then moved to a bench on the terrace for my picnic and more work. There was a breeze. I could see the sails of Green's Mill turning. Beyond the houses, churches and office buildings there were high, sunlit fields. For an hour or so, this was my workplace.

Then I walked down the steep path through the trees to the memorial to Captain Albert Ball, V.C., a fighter pilot killed in World War I. It's a strange memorial showing the young airman with a female figure flying beside him - a Victory, perhaps. From some angles their cheeks seem to be touching. I don't suppose Albert Ball had much opportunity to be close to women. He was only 20 when he died.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Labour plays the race card

I'm too young to remember the 1964 election in which local Conservatives are said to have used a notoriously nasty slogan to win Smethwick. Patrick Gordon-Walker, the defeated Labour man, may also have pandered to racism on occasion.

At least the Tory slogan in Smethwick was unofficial. In the Crewe by-election, called in indecent haste before the previous MP's funeral, the Labour Party is putting out an official leaflet which carries a picture of the Conservative candidate and the question, "Do you oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?"

Maybe the Conservative party policy isn't clear on the issue. But Labour (government) policy isn't just about foreign (non-EEC, by the way) nationals. Soon we shall all have to carry ID cards. The government is preparing to collect our biometric details so that it can store them on a database. The ID scheme targeting foreign nationals is simply starting with a soft target - people who don't have votes.

The Labour leaflet in Crewe hasn't been published to open up a debate on ID cards. The government has made it very clear that the introduction of ID cards is not open to debate. This leaflet is about race. It's about fuelling fear and race hatred to hold a vulnerable seat in a parliamentary by-election. The implication of the leaflet is that foreigners are dangerous and only the Labour Party will keep them under surveillance.

Spreading suspicion is dangerous. Mistrust is often a two-way process. And for many the word "foreigners" doesn't just mean citizens of other countries. It means immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. It includes people whose families have been British citizens for generations but who happen to be a different colour or follow a different religion.

The Tory slogan at Smethwick wasn't on leaflets. It was part of an unofficial whispering campaign. I don't know whether it was approved by the local Conservative Party or their winning candidate. But in Crewe the slogan is on official leaflets, produced by the Labour Party and endorsed by the Labour Party candidate. (Of course, she says it's just about policy.)

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

What schools do

A student friend was recalling her school days - not very long ago. "Don't write what you think," she was advised. "You don't pass A-levels that way. Write what you're told."

And that's how it works. She took the advice, kept quiet about her own ideas and wrote the unoriginal essays that would gain the highest marks.

Luckily the story has a happy ending. My friend is now studying Philosophy and Theology at university, filled with excitement at her studies and writing what she thinks. It sounds as though she's on track for a First. Meanwhile compliant students, who never considered thinking for themselves, are floundering and wondering where it all went wrong.

My school exams were something of a farce. For O-levels I relied a mixture of rote-learning, guesswork and, for the subject that interested me, extra reading and thought on the day. English Literature was almost a disaster. I launched into an essay on Shakespeare's King John which required a comparison of Cardinal Pandulph and Robert Faulconbridge. I'd nearly finished when the awful realisation struck me: I was writing about the wrong Faulconbridge. There was only one thing to do. I scribbled out the entire essay and wrote a hasty comparison of Elinor and Constance instead. The teacher, who didn't like me, was delighted that I didn't get an A and told me I shouldn't be studying English.

I have odd memories of other exams, including my last Geography paper. I had never passed a Geography exam in my life but I wrote rapidly, trying to recall my notes. Then, when I found myself with more time, I began to invent. I hope the examiner enjoyed my vivid account of logging on the forested mountainsides of Denmark. (I borrowed the facts from Norway. After all, I reasoned, it's all Scandanavia.)

My last essay was my piece de resistance. I was asked to compare the ways in which transport was adapted to environment in four contrasting parts of the world. This was my sort of question. I decided I would fail gloriously and chose the Amazon jungle, the Sahara Desert, the North Pole and Britain. I outlined the problems Father Christmas would face if he tried to travel by sleigh in the Amazon jungle. Tarzan wouldn't find it easy to swing through the trees in the Sahara Desert, I said. He'd have to wait a long time for a bus too. "On the other hand," I remarked, "I once had to wait more than an hour for a 73 bus in the Upper Richmond Road." And so it went on.

I wrote a note to the examiner at the end, congratulating him on reaching the end of my paper and commiserating with his misery at marking it. I added that "Kilmarnock carpets are made in the Killybegs". I'd learnt the fact and it seemed a shame to waste it. And then I included my favourite Latin quotation from Aeneid I: "Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit" (Perhaps one day it will be a pleasure to remember even this.)

That was the only Geography exam I ever passed. Sometimes thought and imagination (and nerve) win out over rote learning. These days I don't think I'd have been entered for the exam. I certainly wouldn't have seemed a good bet for A-levels.

Today, exams are accompanied by celebrations and rituals, many borrowed from the United States. There's a school leavers' assembly - I'm not sure what happens there. And for many children, there's the school prom. It's an expensive, dressy event - an evening meal and dance. Not all pupils can afford to attend. Suits and posh frocks are expected - wedding shops have branched out to offer "prom dresses". Some pupils arrive in stretch limousines. It's extravagant and socially divisive.

At least this year's prom is relatively cheap: £25 for each 15- or 16-year-old. But the venue is in the outskirts of a neighbouring city, twelve miles away. The prom finishes later than the last bus and train. Obviously the school assumes that all parents have cars, or can afford 25-minutes in a taxi.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Who's in charge?

It's summer. Suddenly the centre of Nottingham, which has been almost empty in the cold and rain, was thronged with people. I'd forgotten about the noise of happy crowds. In the Old Market Square a French market drew smiling queues. I couldn't resist the quince jelly or chestnut jam, let alone a wonderful mustard "aromatisee" with goats' cheese and basil.

Real baguettes were a necessity. And although French cheeses are more expensive after the change in the exchange rate, I succumbed to the lure of some favourites: a good comte and emmenthal, a thin slice of tome de Savoie and a small piece of Roquefort. They offer a taste of holidays - just a taste as I asked the young man on the cheese stall for "cent gramme, seulement."

He served everyone with a flourish, in French when the customer spoke French but otherwise in an English sprinkled with French words and intonations, rapidly charming customer after customer. He was swift as he sliced and wrapped cheeses but always found time for smiles and politeness - and he had a happiness in his work that infected everyone. I was nearly tempted to extravagance.

Nottingham must have one of the most crowded city centres in Europe. It's compact, held in by a dull inner ring road, Maid Marion Way. (Maid Marion deserves better.) The Old Market Square has recently been rebuilt with fountains where children play when the weather is hot. Much of the central area has been paved so that only buses, trams and taxis trouble pedestrians. Despite the hilly terrain, the centre itself is as flat as it can be, so that it's easy for wheelchair users to navigate.

Around the city, traffic crawls along access roads and car parks are crowded. There have been debates about a congestion charge but the city council has come up with a different solution: taxing car parking spaces at work. I haven't read through the arguments as I don't live in the city but I have noticed that public transport is excellent, especially in the day-time, and there are the usual park-and-ride schemes. In a small city, traffic adds to pollution. Not everyone enjoys the sunny weather in the city centre; some choke or gasp.

Yesterday's Nottingham Evening Post published the response of businesses to the proposed parking charge. "Impose the charge and we'll quit the city," they say. The threat - to withdraw employment from the area - is a serious one. It raises a serious question: who's in charge?

Nottingham electors vote for their council. If they don't like the parking charge, they can vote the council out. It's called democracy and, for all its shortcomings, it's a decent, fairly open system. But when businesses threaten publicly-agreed policies, they short-circuit the democratic process. Are our cities run by elected councillors or by wealthy corporations?

Companies have always influenced politics. Councils and countries want thriving, successful economies. Today they court businesses as the providers of wealth and apparently fail to notice that they give more than they gain. Companies demand tax inducements, special provisions, an education system that serves its needs, subsidies, consultation - even deference - when the government proposes new policies. In a global economy, the threats of big companies are huge and dangerous. They can relocate where workers are cheap and unprotected - and where no-one expects them to care about the environment. They can get together and threaten mass unemployment. And despite legislation, they can achieve a near monopoly in the supply of necessities. Small traders have to look out.

If councils and governments defer to businesses, we don't live in a democracy. Bribes and blackmail govern our lives. Of course, there are organisations which could protect democracy against the corporations: the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the European Community and the United Nations. But these seem to have fallen for an absurd notion which correlates the free market with freedom and democracy. And it's not the same thing at all.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

On the pyre

It was 10th May, 1933. 20,000 books were burned. The loss of the pages that matters less than what was on them. The act indicated a closing of thought and imagination.
The writer Erich Kastener watched as students seized his books from library shelves and threw them on the bonfire. They declaimed the Fire Oath: "Against decadence and moral decay! For discipline and decency in family and state!" The words of the Fire Oath don't sound so different from the words of many politicians today.

There's a long history of book-burning and many books have been lost for ever. Writers too are imprisoned and killed - we don't know how many.

The poem that follows is by the radical Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whose books were burnt even though he had died in 1856. In this poem of exile, "In der Fremde" (Abroad) he writes of his longing for Germany.

Ich hatte einst ein schönes Vaterland.
Der Eichenbaum
Wuchs dort so hoch, die Veilchen nickten sanft.
Es war ein Traum.
Das küßte mich auf deutsch, und sprach auf deutsch
(Man glaubt es kaum,
Wie gut es klang) das Wort: »Ich liebe dich!«
Es war ein Traum.
I once had a beautiful fatherland.
The oak
Grew there so high, the violets gently nodded.
It was a dream.
It kissed me in German, it spoke in German
(One can hardly believe it,
It sounded so good) the phrase: "I love you!"
It was a dream.
Heine's poems survived. Many had been set to music before the Nazis started their book-burnings. Kastener wasn't so lucky. Much of his work was lost when his flat in Berlin was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1944.

Friday, 9 May 2008

"Please, Mum, I want some Tipp-ex"

If my son asked, and I gave permission, he could get married. He doesn't seem keen on the idea. Perhaps he's too busy with guitar, politics, friends and school - probably in that order. He's allowed to buy lottery tickets, though he doesn't, and was briefly allowed to smoke, although that right was withdrawn shortly after it was granted. He doesn't want to smoke in any case.

Soon my son will be able to take driving lessons on main roads but he won't be allowed to buy a drink in a pub until he's 18. He's also banned from buying "intoxicating substances" till his eighteenth birthday. This sounds fine in theory.

The practice is rather different. The Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act 1985 makes it an offence for shopkeepers and shop assistants to sell any intoxicating substance to or for someone under 18 if they have reason to believe it may be used for the purpose of intoxication. In other words, if a shopkeeper sells glue to a young glue-sniffer, the shopkeeper may be charged with a crime. The maximum penalty is six months in jail and a fine of £5,000.

I don't know what it's like in other areas but here the shopkeepers simply won't sell intoxicating substances to under-18s. So if my son needs Tipp-ex or highlighters or aerosol deodorant, I can't just give him the money to get them. I'm the one who has to find time to go to the shop. It's making me cross.

I've tried to find a full list of "intoxicating substances." Different trading standards offices list different substances but are careful to say that there are other "intoxicating substances" that hey haven't listed. Here are just a few: typewriter correction fluid, highlighter pens, glue or other solvent-based adhesive, shoe polish, metal polish, nail varnish (and nail varnish remover), anti-freeze, dry cleaner fluid, hairspray, aerosol deodorant, petrol, some paints and paint thinners, pain relief spray.

I suspect that young people keen to sniff such substances will find them if they wish. Meanwhile older teenagers are forced into dependence on their parents when they should be encouraged to grow up.

Thursday, 8 May 2008


Suddenly summer has arrived. As always, its arrival leaves me sick and headachey for a couple of days. I need time to adjust to the sudden warmth and sunlight.

There are disasters and follies elsewhere - madness and crime at home and abroad. Meanwhile politicians court us with promises of discipline and punishment - for others, not us. We are supposed to believe that criminals are other people, out on the edge of society - not real human beings who rejoice and suffer. I wonder if there is anyone my age who hasn't committed a crime, or at least an infringement of local by-laws.

Summer is often a time for breaking laws and breaching boundaries. It's the 40th anniversary of the "evenements" in Paris with all the confused hope for a better world that they offered. The collected graffiti of those days in French or English gives a glimpse of heady optimism. It's hard to grasp that now - or the recent repression and colonial wars that must have informed the rebellion.

At home, simple boundaries are broken. People move from their kitchens and living rooms to balconies and gardens. The barbecue season has commenced. Perhaps I should buy a barbecue and grill veggie burgers and haloumi kebabs. Cooking, reading and work can be done out of doors, though not until I've mowed the lawn and clipped the hedge. Eventually there will be contacts with neighbours.

Meanwhile insects and spiders have begun to invade the house. I marvel at their fragility and perseverance as I try to evict them. Spiders are easy to manage. If necessary I can cup them in my hands before moving them outdoors. But I've seen three wasps this week - two in the bathroom. I caught the first two, imprisoning each in a tooth mug before sliding paper underneath. Then I released them in the garden.

The third wasp buzzed around the lampshade on the landing by the hatch that leads to the loft. It stayed out of reach and I needed to get to work. I don't think three wasps means a nest. I hope not.

Monday, 5 May 2008


It's up there on the list of favourite superpowers. "Would you rather be invisible or able to fly?" the quizzes ask. I'd go for flying any day - so long as it's not in a plane. I don't like being shut in. And invisibility, however much fun it might be at first, is a kind of prison.

H.G. Wells' Invisible Man came out of the same era as Sherlock Holmes and pre-dates (but only by a little) the spy stories of the Edwardian era. Their heroes gained a kind of invisibility through their mastery of disguise but would return to safe visibility in the world of comfortable rooms, a housekeeper and a London club. Temporary invisibility was a kind of power. It could even be a route to power. W.H. Auden is thinking of the commnist agent when, in his poem "Our Hunting Fathers", he compares the perfect life of animals with the "mature ambition" to "hunger, work illegally/And be anonymous." He's recalling an account of Lenin given in Ralph Fox's biography.

But permanent invisibility - the kind where you look in mirrors and can't expect to see yourself - that's not such fun. Listening to the follies of others loses its attraction if you can't be seen laughing at the joke. And in the end the invisible are vulnerable to all kinds of cruelty. Unless they're caught by chance in a picture or seen in the background of a story, it's as though they don't exist. They can slip beyond the law and beyond compassion. They are rarely seen as equal or fully human.

There's a sinister term "the disappeared", used mostly of those who vanished in South American states. It's sometimes put another way - that they "were vanished" or "were disappeared". The passive verb alludes indirectly to the involvement of government torture squads or death squads. But the practice of "disappearing" people is older than that. It happened in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union - and in democratic France in 1961 when the police massacre of Algerians in central Paris went largely unreported.

Today we have the "ghosts" of Abu Ghraib, who rarely made it into the photos, and the anonymous victims of extraordinary rendition. Presumably they are still carried through British territories and bases at home and abroad. I complained to my MP once. He responded that the British could hardly be expected to search United States planes on a regular basis and that, in any case, the prisoners being "rendered" could always make representation in the British courts through their lawyers. This seemed such a wilful misunderstanding of the facts that I gave up.

Those are the extremes of invisibility. Others choose invisibility because the alternative is worse. The nameless Nigerian deported on a B.A. charter flight last month was briefly noticed, because his fellow passengers objected to his treatment. It didn't help him. He was still deported but the other passengers were thrown off the flight for complaining. One man, on his way to attend his brother's wedding, was held in police cells where the British police confiscated all his money before dumping him, penniless and without a ticket, back at Heathrow. I don't know what happened to the man B.A. deported. I hope he's still alive, and safe.

For others, invisible is a daily fact. Some office workers literally don't see the cleaners in their buildings. Shoppers walk past the beggars and Big Issue sellers and don't pause to look them in the face.

Detective stories between the wars sometimes used invisibility as a clue. The housewife would open the door and take a delivery but later comment on the emptiness of the street. And the readers, accustomed to not seeing the people who served them, would ignore the implied presence of the man, woman or boy who made the delivery. In those stories, the invisible man would often be the killer. Sometimes invisibility is an excellent disguise. And sometimes people who are ignored want to make their presence felt.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

What council estates look like

The trains ran smoothly and it was easy to get a seat on the tube. I paused at the second-hand bookshop near Putney Bridge Station. "Only one book," I told myself, lingering at the shelves of £1 paperbacks. Then up the stairs to Putney Bridge.

Whenever I climb the stairs, I remember the days when the block by the staircase used to be a public lavatory - ladies upstairs and gents downstairs. There were tow signs on the bridge. The top sign said "GENTS' LAVATORY" and the sign below added the command, "Cyclists - please dismount." The public lavatory was sold off with so many local assets. It's not a lavatory any more but sells expensive coffee and cakes. Somehow memories from my childhood deter me from purchasing espressos there, but it's probably a good cafe.

I waited a while for the bus, then swung myself up to the top deck for the views. The Thames was a-glitter in the sunlight. Diamond-sharp points of light quivered and dissolved into brown foam as new gleams appeared. St Mary's Church looked small given its significance in history ... but when it hosted the Putney Debates in 1647, England was a small, insignificant nation. It was the ideas that mattered. I wanted to get off the bus and see the exhibition, and visit the small farmers' market, but I didn't have time. I was on the way to see my parents.

The bus journey was far longer than I'd expected - probably a side-effect of the crucial football Fulham-Birmingham football match - and I eventually got tired of looking at familar sites, even in the warm sunshine. It was good to see the familiar exterior of the Spotted Horse, even though the interior now serves a richer, less friendly clientele than I remember. I regretted the passing of the elegant Christian Science reading room, which I'd often admired but never entered. And then I fell into a half-doze until the bus swung into Roehampton village and from there into Danebury Avenue and the Alton Estate.

So many people think they know what council estates look like. Outsiders see council estates on the TV and associate them with violence, danger, drug abuse and teenage pregancy, as though these things were confined to certain areas and classes in the country. Even people who live on council estates are encouraged to see themselves and their families and their homes in this way.

There are signs of poverty on the Alton Estate. Shops are closing there as they are everywhere else and the metal shutters are a depressing reminder of fear and misery. Changes made in the past thirty years have often ignored the design of the estate, which won praise and prizes for good reason. The bungalows, flats and maisonettes are set on grassy slopes among grass and trees and, when I got off the bus, I smelt the familiar scent of mown grass and heard a bird calling. Squirrels were chasing among the trees.

It takes less than five minutes to walk from the bus-stop to the block of flats where my parents live and I grew up. I took my camera out to record the scene.

It looked like home.

Glimpsing Manchester

[first posted 1st May]

I went to Manchester for work. There wasn't time to be a tourist: just a 10-minute walk from one station and a 20-minute walk to another. Much of the day was spent in a windowless room that could have been anywhere with people who had travelled for several hours to be in that room with one another. It was comfortable and interesting, the people were friendly and had lots to say, but by second afternoon session I was uncomfortably aware of the close ceiling and heavy, tightly-fitted doors. I made my excuses and left in the last tea break.

The sunlit Manchester streets were a delight.

I first knew Manchester through books. At university I read Mrs Gaskell and Engels but before that I found a tattered paperback edition of Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring. The book opens with an account of the Peterloo Massacre, when soldiers on horseback drew their sabres on the peaceful, holiday crowd who had come to listen to Orator Hunt. The troops were sent in by the local magistrates. It's hard to be sure how many were killed and how many were injured but the plaque suggests 15 dead and about 600 injured. The Home Secretary congratulated the magistrates on their prompt action.

Fame is the Spur presented Manchester as a place of oppression and resistance. Perhaps that's always coloured my view of the city. That history was at the back of my mind as I relished my glimpse of a few streets. Victorian Manchester is still evident, with flourishes proclaiming the joys of trade and manufacture. I may mistrust banks and be wary of the police but surely the exuberant architecture comes out of love for the city and hope for the future - there's more passion in Manchester buildings than in today's vast superstores that speak only of quick bulk sales and rapid turnover. Supermarkets seem to be built for hasty demolition. Once they have served their purpose they will collapse like a flat pack; shoppers may miss their bargains but no-one will regret the functional aisles or cheap exteriors.

The old factories, offices and banks of Manchester have been commandeered, often for small businesses. Cab companies jostle nightclubs and grocers display wares between cheap cafes and travel bureaux. Repair shops nestle in railway arches. Victorian window frames are picked out in mauve above a Japanese restaurant. The new occupants of old buildings have inherited their optimism and flourish.

I was in the student quarter but I don't suppose all the people I saw were students. The appearance of the area was international but most accents were local and friendships seemed to extend beyond the supposed barriers of race and culture. I caught fragments of conversation. "So he said, 'Are you from the Caribbean?'" a blonde declared. "Well, I could be but it's not what most people think." I wanted to hear more, to find out who "he" was and what her companions thought, but the group crossed the road away from me and I could not follow. A woman launched into a complaint about her poorly hip, which prevented her keeping up with her friends - but the complaint stopped as a friend apologised and called on the rest to wait. I was running for the train by then.

I caught the train and was carried to Stockport and then through Edale and Hope - the bare slopes of the Dark Peak. I wanted to get out and walk. Instead the train carried me on and I watched the snowy lambs seeking their mothers' sides and safety ... or so they think.


[first posted 29th April]

I'm not convinced by Twitter - at least, not yet.

Part of the problem is the name. It sounds like a parody English village: the short version of Great Twittering in the Dell, perhaps.

And then, the messages are so short. In a mere 140 characters, how can anyone develop a style or convey a sense of character? Yet I'm addicted to Facebook status updates, which are rarely longer. Looking at some of my friends I see that S. "is making a nice cup of tea", K. "is finalising escape plans" T. "is acting suspiciously" while A. "is on the train with the elephants."

So far I haven't found so many friends on Twitter. I'm not sure I've got the hang of it. I know I'm supposed to answer the question "What are you doing?" and see what my friends are doing. One wrote, "What do you think I'm doing? I'm typing in this message in an attempt to avoid working." Another added, " Wondering just how my good friend k has persuaded me to sign up for yet another online thingummy! Blogging! Facebook! Whatever next?"

I've made two mistakes on Twitter. One is the frequency with which I change my mini-message. Yesterday I offered the world a chronicle of the weather and the progress of the washing on the line - mainly its failure to dry. And today I signed up to follow messages from 10 Downing Street.

10 Downing Street messages are dully predictable. Someone has been made a Dame Commander of the British Empire - I don't care enough to find out who it is. A big red bus arrived as part of a Daily Mirror campaign. The PM is urging investment in Iraq - well, he would, wouldn't he - and has been on GMTV pontificating about cannabis.

Meanwhile I learn that 10 Downing Street is following me on Twitter. Apparently they're following 2,276 people - 22 more than are following them. I'm not sure whether to be amused or disturbed. As I commented on Twitter, "
I am being followed by Downing Street, apparently. That's better than being followed by MI5, I suppose. Will Downing Street take notice?"

Soon I'll post a short, innocuous message. I imagine Gordon Brown, his gaze fixed on the computer, avid to know whether my nightshirt will dry before the next hailstorm.

But I see that I and my fellow Twitterers can nudge and send messages to 10 Downing Street, which might be fun. And I begin to see possibilities in Twitter, from sending quick political campaign messages to writing very short poems or six-word stories.

So I'll stay with Twitter for a day or two ... and perhaps longer.

Take your cat to work week

[first posted 25th April]

Like most cats, Joe has favourite places to sleep. There's the laundry basket, for instance. He jumps into it neatly, then tips it over and rolls it around the floor from inside. When he's found the right position, he curls up and sleeps.

He has a special blanket at the foot of my bed, but he likes sleeping on my pillow too. Sometimes he chooses my son's pillow or, since my son had his hair cut, my son's head. Perhaps he thinks my son's head needs to be kept warm.

But when he's not sleeping, Joe is a lively, inquisitive cat who sits at windows, watching the world. He likes to hunt too and has recently brought in a mouse and a bird. There's a bell on his collar which rattles against his name-tag, so I hope he's not too successful a predator. I think his favourite food is still Sainsbury's cat biscuits, closely followed by Whiskas.

Lately Joe has taken to following people who leave the house. He's fond of human company and the Spring fills him with enthusiasm for the outside. Today he bounded beside me as I set off for work and wouldn't go back. We were two streets from home when I scooped him under my arm and carried him back. He moulted ginger fluff all over my jumper, and squirmed with vigour. "It's take your cat to work week," he insisted him. There was birdsong in the air. As I tried to hold him firmly, Joe did his best to indicate that I should join him in climbing trees and hunting.

Perhaps he thinks, when I go to work, I'm hunting cat biscuits. After all, I sometimes bring them home.

Collateral Damage

[first posted 23rd April]

There are many useful phrases in war. "Collateral damage" is used quite a lot. It suggests that the death of civilians - old people, the ill, non-combatants, dissidents, men, women and children - was an unfortunate accident and that the dead simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Warmakers need such a phrase. It's illegal to target civilians and when civilians are targeted "as part of a plan or policy or large-scale commission of such crimes," the perpetrators can find themselves up before the International Criminal Court.

But some countries opt out. China and the United States of America refuse to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. The establishing Treaty was signed by President Clinton but
George W. Bush "unsigned" the Treaty. One of the reasons the Bush administration gave was the protection of United States soldiers and officials who might be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. President Bush and his officials have thus made themselves immune from prosecution for torture, even though key members of Bush's administration met to discuss exactly what torture techniques could be used on suspects.

At least the Bush administration is coming to an end ... and that used to fill me with relief. I've been worried about John McCain's apparent willingness to continue a hundred-year occupation of Iraq, which sounds like a hundred year war to me. But the Democrats seem to have a chance, even though the continuing contest probably damages their chances. And that used to strike me as a good thing, whether the winner were Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

And then Hillary Clinton answered a question about Iran. What would she do as president if Iran launched a nuclear attack on Israel. It says something about American politics that she wasn't asked what she would be if Israel launched a nuclear attack on Iran, although that's a more likely scenario. At the moment Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East.

Hillary Clinton's reply isn't entirely clear, though
this useful blog from The Times includes a video clip of the interview. She said: “I want the Iranians to know that if I’m the president, we will attack Iran. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them." Her words sound horribly as though she's considering a pre-emptive strike. And she doesn't bother to use the euphemism "collateral damage". She threatens a whole country and the 71 million people who live there with annihilation. That sounds like a war crime to me.

I'm in no position to campaign against Hillary Clinton. Although Britain feels increasingly like a United States colony, I can campaign only for and against my own elected representatives. But I'm angry that Hillary Clinton, whose supporters proclaim that she is the great hope of feminism, can advance such views.

Hillary's supporters often charge women who oppose her with betrayal of feminism. When I was involved in the Women's Movement, it was concerned with the rights of all women, not just Americans. I don't see how any feminist can vote for a candidate who threatens the "obliteration" of millions of women with their children and families.

The picture is of Nagasaki, by the way - before and after the single nuclear bomb was dropped. Nuclear weapons were smaller then.

Religion, guns and country lanes

(first posted 20th April)

Obama's "wobble" may be over now, though we shan't know until the Pennsylvania primary. It was strange to hear what he'd done wrong. He'd suggested that some small-town Americans were defending the values of gun-ownership and religion out of frustration and bitterness. It didn't seem an unusual or controversial statement. Of course people who see jobs vanish and communities under threat look for shared values, often rooted in an imagined past. And it's easier to place blame on outsiders and newcomers than to analyse the problems of global economics or the defects of big corporations.

But many United States citizens see small-town America as part of their essential identity. Small towns are the inheritors of the pioneers or the settler villages where, according to myth, the white inhabitants needed guns to fight off attacks from marauding natives. The barbarity with which native villages were destroyed and crops uprooted is less well known and I've never heard an American cite Washington's command to employ terror as a weapon against native men, women and children.

Obama didn't address the complexity of history. He certainly didn't talk about massacres and violence. He simply suggested that small-town Americans were not perfect - and was instantly accused of elitism. Columnists suggested that this might lose him the nomination or the election. He had offended against the vision America has of itself.

United States myth-making is potent and piecemeal. Hollywood contributes, and advertising, and the sonorous phrases of the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge, recited daily by schoolchildren facing the flag, was, like the others, adopted, defended and altered when the United States felt itself at risk. Until 1942 it could involve a salute with the right arm outstretched and raised slightly above the shoulder with the palm facing down. This pose ended only when the U.S. entered the Second World War. It was evidently awkward that American schoolchildren declaiming "One country! One language! One flag!" looked strikingly similar to little Nazis.

I learnt about Britain from biscuit tins and Quality Street boxes. Tudor houses and pretty villages meant England. So did the redcoated soldier standing just behind a woman in a purple bonnet and fancy dress. England was a stagecoach drawn up outside a country inn. Scotland was bright tartan, castles and bagpipes. It was highly improbable and soldiers were expected to die for it. "There'll always be an England/ While there's a country lane," the song went.

I'd never seen a country lane, though I knew the paths through Richmond Park. Nobody put bright modern council estates on biscuit tins. Perhaps the government would take more care of council estates and the people who live there if they saw them as essential England.

I wonder what bitterness is inspired by our myths of an England that never was.