When the fence won’t do

Trump’s mealy-mouthed ‘wrong on all sides’ semi-condemnation of violence in Charlestown has been – rightly  – condemned for ignoring the overwhelmingly greater weight of responsibility of the white supremacist neo-Nazi organisers (and especially the terrorist murderer James Fields) for the horror of the last few days:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.” Donald Trump

Many of us suspect that Trump has some degree of sympathy with that hateful ideology. Even if he does not, he is unprepared to condemn the evil of Charlestown in case he alienates those racist neo-Nazis who voted for him.

Progressive politics must distinguish itself from that of the right by always holding as sacrosanct the principles of honesty and moral integrity – principles that the right abandoned long ago in favour of unprincipled cage-fighting tactics.  Sometimes that integrity means recognising that progressive experiments have failed – almost always from the corruption of leaders entrusted with power beyond democratic accountability.

One such case is the reluctance of UK Labour to unequivocally condemn the corrupt rule of Venezuela by totalitarian dictator Nicolás Maduro.  Half an hour or so of intelligent critical analysis of Maduro’s (and before him, Chávez’s) rule leads one to the inevitable conclusion that those leaders damaged their country’s economies and democracy beyond measure.

And yet, UK Labour’s position can be summed up by Jeremy Corbyn’s late and equivocal statement:

“What I condemn is the violence that’s been done by any side, by all sides, in all this. Violence is not going to solve the issue.” Jeremy Corbyn

The two quotes are disconcertingly similar.  Neither of them are honest and both damage the moral integrity of the politicians and their parties.

We could all learn from the discipline of science: adopt a hypothesis. Devise a test for that hypothesis. Test it.  If it fails, abandon the hypothesis and adopt another.  No sentimentality, no undeserved loyalty, no hubris. No place for wish fulfilment.

Putting Humpty together again

I personally believe that Brexit will be bad news for the UK.  Bad for trade, bad for international relations and influence, bad for the knowledge economy, bad for our cultural health.  But that’s irrelevant to what I am bollocksing on about here.  I’m interested in whether we can heal the schism that has torn the UK apart.

It wouldn’t  have made any difference if the EU referendum vote had gone the other way.  The most catastrophic consequence of the vote – the division of the nation into two intractably opposed halves – would have still been the same.  No amount of pleading for or demanding reunification would have made (or will make) any significant difference to that.  Neither is there any point in pretending that is has, or will, go away in time.  The differences run too deep.

But I’m by no means cynical about May’s intent when she calls for national unity.  I believe that she sincerely regards reunification as a high priority.  She certainly should.  The cost to national morale of a nation divided can’t be overestimated.  Consequences could range from a greater constituency for populist, reactionary parties, through to civil disobedience (and worse) and, plausibly, the secession of parts of the UK; whether Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey or Gibraltar.  They all have citizens who hold what they believe to be compelling reasons to leave the union.

The majority vote fell the way of Brexit.  No matter the size of that majority, the decision was democratically decided and was acted upon. Those who voted for the UK to leave the EU got what they wanted, and are satisfied (or should be).  But what is to be done about the alienated 48%?  There are too many of them to ignore, they are clearly not going quietly and – unsurprisingly – telling them to stop moaning is no more effective than telling Eurosceptics to stop moaning was in the past.

I think it’s possible to diffuse the anger of the 48%, but it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be cheap.  The potential solution, oddly, can be found on the side of a bus.  ‘Could be found’, I should say, as I’m sure that it was painted over faster than the Labour’s general election Ed Stone was pulverised.  I’m referring, of course, to the Leave campaign’s notorious promise to hand an additional £350 million a week to the NHS.

As a tactic in the referendum, it undoubtedly worked.  Whether or not it was a wise move in the long-term political career development of those who allied themselves with it – particularly Boris Johnson, Ian Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage – remains to be seen.

It was certainly a tactical mistake to be subsequently recorded laughing at it in the House of Commons, even though it was indeed a laughable lie.  But need it be?  Not the amount – £350 million bears no meaningful relationship to any monies that could be saved from leaving the EU – but what about the principle?

I would hazard a guess that a very large proportion of the alienated remain voters are passionate supporters of the NHS: a larger proportion, even, than that of the electorate as a whole who hold the Service in high regard.  How better to demonstrate the value of leaving the EU to this constituency than to mend the NHS?

It would be a huge undertaking, of course: the funding hole that increasing demand and chronic underfunding has created is still somewhere near a billion deep; and filling the hole alone won’t solve the NHS’s ills.  Adequately funding the NHS on an ongoing basis would cost an additional couple of billion annually – maybe more.  But if the government can find £205 billion for renewing a nuclear arsenal it can never use, it can surely find a few billion to ensure that the NHS continues to work to preserve and maintain the health of all UK citizens as it was originally intended to.

It couldn’t, I think, be done with Hunt at the helm.  Not for any reasons of competence (though he does not  seem very competent to me), but because he has positioned himself as the hard man taking on the NHS.  But with a new face at the top, a positive message and a commitment by treasury to fill the funding gap and to continue to raise the annual health and social care budget to meet growing demand, the government could demonstrate to us Remoaners that Brexit serves all of our interests, just like the message on the side of the bus said.  Who knows?  We might even stop remoaning at last.

Roses, revolution and the Raj

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Lucy Worsley’s British History’s Biggest Fibs, but can’t help wondering whether it’s been deliberately scripted to challenge her inability to roll her ‘r’s.

It was inevitable in the first episode on the Tudor Wars that she’d have to say ‘White Rose and Red Rose’ more than once, but was it entirely necessary to have her describe Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein as a ‘rip-roaring’ read?

The second episode is The Glorious Revolution which, of course, is full of ‘Orange’ and ‘Mary’. The third, The Jewel in the Crown, only has one hard ‘r’ in the title, but is thereafter chock-full of ‘Victoria’, ‘Raj’ and ‘Viceroys’.

You can imagine Worsley’s scriptwriters, giggling like Pilate’s guard in The Life of Brian as they come up with ever-trickier sentences for Ms. Worsley to speak to camera.  If they can find some reason to justify invoking the ragged rascal who ran around the rugged rock, you can bet they’ll do it.

As someone with a whole clutch of speech impedimentia of my own, my heart goes out to her.  On the other hand, her inability to pronounce a hard ‘r’ is part of her charm and – the cynic in me says – her brand, just as Stephen Hawking’s synthesised voice is part of his.  Perhaps she goads them on from the sidelines to run her rhotacism ragged.

Don’t Shoot!

I can see an overwhelming case against armed police being made to use handheld video cameras whilst carrying out armed responses, and a rational argument against a bulky harness-mounted chest camera, but none against a helmet-mounted one (or, indeed, an independent recording officer being present at a pre-planned encounter like the recent police shooting that inspired this post:  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jan/05/man-killed-by-police-m62-shot-chest-postmortem).  The technology exists and is cheap and reliable.

The arguments seem unassailable to me. If the police acted correctly under the circumstances, cameras will help them to demonstrate this in court and to the public.  This will help to deter unfounded legal action against them, saving law-enforcement budgets for enforcing the law.  It will also help to maintain faith in the integrity of the force, bringing concomitant benefits including the reduction of violent attacks against police and police property, again protecting budgets and, more importantly, lives.

If they acted incorrectly (a cold term, I know, if someone has been hurt or killed), then video evidence can and should be used to protect the innocent.  Not everybody who is shot by the police is a criminal or carrying a weapon (which, though illegal, dangerous and effing stupid is not, per se a capital offence) – ask the family of Charles de Menezes.  More to the point, awareness that their actions are being recorded will deter any tendency towards the trigger-happiness we have seen  in the US forces in recent years.

Armed police have to make split-second decisions in confused and highly-charged circumstances.  They have a duty to protect the public from danger and every right to protect the safety of their colleagues and themselves whilst carry out dangerous duties.  Quite rightly, the legal system and the overwhelming majority of the public recognise this and will always come down on the side of the police when there is a measure of doubt.

But the police have duties and responsibilities on their part, and amongst them is a responsibility to reduce the chance of doubt.  When a cheap and reliable off-the-peg means exists to reduce the fog of uncertainty there is no good argument against implementing it.  Indeed, failing to do so raises uncomfortable questions about the reasons why.

Scylla and scyllier

Most of my politics chimes strongly with Jeremy Corbyn’s.  But I don’t support Corbyn as leader of the Labour party.  Neither, for that matter, do I support Owen Smith.  Corbyn cannot speak to the alienated working class and his record as Labour’s greatest ever rebel means that he cannot command – or demand – loyalty in party ranks.  Smith would sell his own grandmother for a sniff of power.

Not that either of them will be remotely concerned about me.  For a start, I don’t have a vote in the leadership election as I left Labour for the Greens in October 2014.  And when the dust has settled – if the dust ever settles – the winner of that contest will have no need to concern himself (shame the ‘him’ is a given) about my vote in the next general election – I will continue to vote for the party which, under the monstrously undemocratic first-past-the-post system, is most likely to unseat the present Tory Government.  And in Keighley, that’s Labour.

The point, as I have said many times before, is that I am an outlier.  And that tends to be the case with my many left-wing, Corbyn supporting friends.  We are practically off the chart when compared with the average voter.  The voters Labour does need to worry about are those who have historically voted Labour, but who voted Tory – or UKIP –  at the last election; and those who may do the same at the next.

We’re in the immediate wake of a disastrous European referendum in which the Tory party was split down the middle and the Prime Minister got the message so wrong that he had to resign.  That was followed by a leadership election characterised by such treachery and blood-letting that it made the Borgias look like the Larkins.  Yet what are press and media talking about?  The Labour leadership crisis, of course.

It serves no useful function to mither about Murdoch and the right wing press & media: that’s crying over spilt milk: and the bias isn’t going to change until the news-buying public wants left-wing slanted reporting, which isn’t going to happen.  More to the point, Labour has gift-wrapped their crisis for the media and tied it off with a big red bow.  While the Tories dispatched their traitors with discreet stillettos, and then immediately closed ranks and bared white teeth to the cameras, the Gangs of New/Old/Corbyn Labour have spilled out into the high street and are not bothering to even hide the axe handles.

A coherent Labour should have made mincemeat of the Tories over the European Referendum.  As it stands, Labour is currently 14% behind the Tories in polling:

(Courtesy of Yougov)

That is abysmal; and both Corbyn & Smith should, in conscience, resign on the strength (or rather weakness) of it.  Neither will.  Of course, Smith can’t win the leadership election and the onus is upon him to withdraw from  the contest, if only to stop Labour being the bloody story.  He won’t.

The Tories’ triumph is in choking back the bile in the knowledge that their political aims are best served first, by achieving power.  Labour’s failure is in not even understanding that, let alone applying it,

Labour’s last chance of redemption is for the entire party to commit behind the winner of the leadership contest – whether that is Corbyn or (unlikely) Smith.  But do I believe either wing is capable of that?  See you on the stump in 2020.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Labour’s right is in an intractable bind.

They believe – profoundly – that Corbyn is unelectable.  They say that his policies and character don’t chime with the voting public.  They believe that he does not occupy the centre ground which is prerequisite to winning a general election.

This bucks the general trend in the Labour party – in a recent Yougov poll, Labour party members support for Corbyn has risen to the extent that a majority of party members – 53% – now believe that he could lead the party to victory.  This, Labour’s right argues (with some justice), is a consequence of the influx of left wing members, attracted (or attracted back) to the party by Corbyn’s policies and agenda.

On a personal level, I can understand that influx.  I used to be a Labour party member, but left in despair at what I saw as the party’s misconceived adoption of the Tories’ austerity narrative under Ed Miliband.  Now, I find Corbyn’s policies – more closely aligned to my own than other party leader of recent times – attracting me back towards Labour.

But I am a political outlier, and what attracts me does not necessarily attract sufficient of the electorate to win power.  To that extent, I have a degree of sympathy with those who wonder whether Corbyn has the capacity to win for Labour.

And there’s the bind.  If, as Labour’s right believes, Corbyn is not currently capable of winning a general election, then there are two strategies open to them.  The first is to get rid of him; the second, to get behind him, to influence him and to make him and the party electable.

The first option seems unfeasible for the time being: as the Yougov poll demonstrates, support for Corbyn within the party is strong, with no alternative potential leadership candidate even coming close.  Besides which, Labour has a lousy history of leadership change, clogged up with prevarication and fudge.  The Tories’ ruthlessly efficient knife-skills put them to shame.

The second option is viable in theory, but seems impossible in practice.  The profound dislike of Corbyn’s politics by Labour’s right and their distrust in his capacity to lead the party to power has grown to the point of hatred; perhaps best illustrated by the increasingly ad hominem nature of their attacks upon him.  And this is by no means one-sided: the Corbynites’ loathing of  the party’s right is just as bitter and as intractable.  From my perspective, both positions seem to have ossified way beyond any basis in rational thought.

The one approach that offers no strategic benefit or tactical advantage is to leave Corbyn in his position as leader, but to continually criticise and brief against him.  It is the worst of both worlds for a party to undermine its own leader and to promote the impression that it is deeply divided.  All parties are deeply divided, of course; but parties perceived as divided don’t win elections.

That last, idiot approach is the one that Labour’s right has currently adopted.  Silly buggers.

New Rage of Discovery

In 2012, Snibston Discovery Museum’s Transform programme commissioned Adept to make a new piece, New Age of Discovery.  It was a political, promenade piece, an odd mixture of intervention, performance and installation that imagined a future in which Snibston (a museum built on the former site of one of Stephenson’s own coal mines) had long been shut down as an economy measure.

For the one-night performance (repeated once in 2013) we sheeted much of the vast collection, plunged it into darkness and covered the floors with dead leaves.  We populated the industrial heritage areas outside the museum with a strange army of funky engineers and performers.  In Adept’s alternative future, a consortium of steampunk philanthropists reopens the coal mine and uses the revenues to reopen the museum.

In 2015, Leicestershire County Council closed Snibston Discovery Museum.

In the light of the attacks upon Bradford’s cultural heritage this week, I thought it was timely to post this, the final speech in New Age of Discovery delivered by the Director of the Discovery Consortium, standing on a bridge before we sent a locomotive ploughing through the projection screen beneath him to convey Snibston into an optimistic new future that sadly, it will probably never have.

“Humanity was born in the cold, in darkness and in ignorance.

“Two achievements lifted us above the animals: our mastery of fire and our ability to pass on what we had learned to the next generation.  One amongst us, the human Prometheus, tamed fire, and made a pet of it.  And with the fire, we fended off the cold and illuminated the darkness.

“Sitting together in its glow we told our stories, woven from the warp of our histories and the weft of our imaginations.  The children listened, wide-eyed with wonder and the next day, went out into the world taller, standing on the shoulders of their elders’ experience.

“We learnt.  Our knowledge grew so great that we constructed vast warehouses in which to store it.  We called them schools, libraries, museums.  We came to recognise that all who wished to share in the knowledge could and should be allowed to take as much as they wanted; for no amount of use consumed it.  In fact, the opposite was true; the more people learned, the more knowledge they were able to add to the stores.

“We learned and applied our learning to invention until we could work miracles.  We dug deep into the earth to find sunlight, millions of years old, stored in black coal and blacker oil.  We burnt it to heat red rock until it wept tears of metal; and we shaped the metal into mighty machines that ate fire, belched steam and travelled the roads we built across the land, the sea and the sky.

“But in the luxury of plenty we became greedy and wasteful.  We wasted a thousand days’ sunlight every night, turning it as bright as day, just because we could.  We used energy as if we could never use it up.  We used it as if we did not have children.

“There was one vital difference between the stores of knowledge and the reserves of fossil fuels; the coal and the oil were in finite supply.  A hundred years ago, at the end of the twentieth century, both started to decline.  The easy coal had all been dug, the shallow oil sucked out of the ground.  People who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing closed the mines, because it was a few pennies cheaper to ship coal half-way around the world than it was to dig it from under our own feet.

“Our grandparents knew that the supplies of coal and oil were running dry, but they did little to safeguard our futures, for they had been born in the times of plenty, and it had made them selfish and short-sighted.  As resources declined, so they looked around for any saving that would allow them to maintain their level of consumption.  They saw the schools, the libraries and the museums and muttered that ‘difficult decisions would have to be made.’

“It is ours, the New Steam Generation, that has had to learn again to live without consuming; to put back into the earth that which we take out; to make; to repair; and to be content with less.  We have rediscovered the value of knowledge the hard way; through the loss of it.  And though it may take another generation, or ten generations, we will excavate the lost knowledge and put it back where it belongs, accessible to every person who wishes to use it.

“But the last of our coal did not go away.  It lay hidden deep underground, as it had lain for past eons.  Now, at the start of twenty-second century, when the oil has all but run out and the countries on the other side of the world no longer have enough coal to meet even their own needs, we find it once more, like a forgotten friend who had never gone away, except in our neglectful memories.

“So tonight we discover hope again; where it always was and always will be, in our own hearts.  Tonight we are given one last chance; an opportunity to make a better future for us all.  Here, in the heart of Coalville we have rediscovered precious stores of both those gifts which long ago lifted us out of the cold, the darkness and ignorance!

“Tonight ladies and gentlemen, we re-open Snibston!”

Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth

In the agony of an unexpected Tory majority government being returned in the general election and the rout of Labour and LibDems, resulting in the resignation of the leaders of both, the columnists, pundits and blogsters have been provoked into a roil of activity.

The corpse of yesterday’s progressive political offer is being dissected in a thousand different ways.  The countless analyses of why Labour’s offer was rejected so emphatically fall broadly into two camps: those that believe Labour under Ed Miliband was too left wing for a risk-averse public, and those that think it wasn’t left wing enough.  That’s a tricky reconciliation for the next Labour leader to negotiate.

Many ask why the pre-election polls got it so dreadfully wrong.  The only answer being proferred so far seems to be that, at least in the last few days, the data didn’t lie, but the pollsters did – the results they were getting in were at such stark variance to the previous polling that they were dismissed as rogue.  If so many people did change their voting intentions at the last minute, it would be interesting to find out why: incumbency effect; something in the Tory approach that struck a particular chord; or a tactical mistake by Labour?

There’s a good deal of comment regarding how we allow social media to construct a protective shell of like-minded opinion around ourselves.  I’ve written about this before, elsewhere.  There’s nothing wrong or artifical about it – it is, after all, only what we do with our circles of real-world friends – but it is slightly different to those analogue friendships.  Social media encourages us to comment immediately on those events that either enrage or delight us; and furthermore, gives us a platform from which we can rant uninterrupted.  We offer our opinions on politics and current affairs far more freely through social media than we do over a coffee or down the pub.

But what I wanted to offer my two penn’orth on is the explosion of comment, written in understandable anger and chagrin, telling voters how wrong they were.  They are mostly variations on three approaches.  Some kindly (if patronisingly) explain the web of Tory lies and flummery that took them in.  The angriest rants attack them for their moral evil, often suggesting that they have been hypocritically concealing their turpitude under the guise of looking like ordinary, decent humans.  Others set out the prospectus of disaster and societal ruination that their selfishness has brought down upon our collective heads.

But explaining to people that they voted incorrectly (or yelling at them for having done so) misunderstands what elections are about.  There isn’t a right or a wrong answer; you can’t vote ‘wrong’.  Before the election, we all knew that; we posted that it didn’t matter who you voted for, the important thing was that you put that X on the paper.  Well, people did: and I and countless others didn’t get the result we hoped for.  But others did.  That’s elections for you.

Yes, we can argue (and I do) that the first past the post system is a piss-poor mechanism for democratic representation; the catch 22 is that any party which achieves, through FPTP, the power to change it, loses the inclination to do so.  You don’t cut the ladder out from under your feet.  But notwithstanding the inadequacies of the electoral system, those of us who are seeking moral and political change for the UK have to recognise that the left’s offer has been firmly rejected by the electorate.  Whilst hurling blame around is a natural response to a shocking disappointment, it is entirely unproductive.  The business in hand is to examine what went wrong, learn from it and set about creating a compelling case that progressive politics is better for everyone.

Crystal Bollocksing

Back in 2007, the Arts Council commissioned me to deliver a programme of presentations to officers across the country on the impact and potential of digital technologies.

Just today, I accidentally stumbled upon the Powerpoint I created for the programme and, if I say so myself (which I self-evidently do), I don’t think it was too shabby.

I emphasised the growing importance of Wikis (bit of a sitter, that one), ‘The Cloud’ & the less-than-one year old Twitter.  Admittedly I sold virtual worlds and especially Second Life a bit strong, but then I’ve always been a sucker for web3d (it’ll happen, just wait…)

I listed the UK’s top ten social media sites (according to Nielsen Netratings; Quite how Slide got in there I’m not sure).  They were, in order of popularity:

1          YouTube

2          Wikipedia

3          Facebook

4          Blogger

5          MySpace

6          Bebo

7          Slide

8          Yahoo! Answers

9          Windows Live Spaces

10        TripAdvisor

Funny to see those mighty which have fallen.  Windows Live Spaces was Microsoft’s blogging platform which died of awfulness in 2011.  Bebo was quite an interesting modular social media app which I had quite a lot of time for, especially it’s ‘Bebo Groups’ module.  It was popular with yoof for a while and, bemusingly, had a massive take-up in the Republic of Ireland.

Then there are the glaring absences; no LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest or Whatsapp, to name a few on 2014’s top ten.  Twitter and Whatsapp, and their many fast-growing cousins like Instagram, Snapchat & Vine, really had to wait for the mass roll-out of the smartphone, their natural platform, before they could grow to their potential.

I concluded my presentation with four ‘Shiny Space Suit and Food Pills’ predictions for nascent or emergent technologies that I believed would have a major impact in future.  My predictions were:

  • ‘Rapid Prototyping’ (as we called 3d printing back in the days when the internet were all fields)
  • Augmented Reality
  • Crowdsourcing
  • ‘Artificial Creativity’ (ie., creativity by artificial intelligence)

Well, three out of four isn’t bad…

Time for an Edit

Somebody offers you a fruit.  It has a couple of small, rotten spots.  You take out your penknife to cut out the bad areas.  No, they say, if you are not prepared to eat the whole fruit, you’re not allowed to eat any of it.

Inevitably perhaps, I have been considering issues of theology and freedom of expression this week.

Anybody who does me the kindness of reading my blog will know that I call myself an athiest.  But that’s not quite accurate.  More exactly, I’m agnostic to the point of atheism.  I’m agnostic only in the sense that it would be arrogant of me to claim with confidence that there is no god or gods: as arrogant, in fact, as it is for anyone to asseverate with certainty that he/she/they does exist.  The truth is, we cannot know.  My own best guess, based on my own observations and interpretation is that there is no god.  But if your observations and interpretation lead you to a different conclusion, that’s your right and fine by me.

There has been a huge amount of debate over the last few days regarding the extent of responsibility that people of any particular sociological classification should hold for the actions of people who claim alliance with that same classification.  This is self-evidently fallacial.  How many left handed-people would feel the need to accept responsibility for a cack-handed massacre committed by one of our kind in the name of society’s ignorance of our disadvantage?  (we die, on average, 1 ½ years earlier than our right-handed fellows, I read)

This is not to ignore the responsibility we all have to condemn injustices; and probably all the more, the closer they strike to home.  As a (hopefully) decent man, I will condemn all injustices of which I become aware.  As a left-handed one, I may be particularly inclined to condemn those injustices committed by fundamentalist left-handers that might bring down unfair opprobrium upon me and my sinistral kin.  But that is act of clarification in my own interests, not an apology.

On this basis, no Muslim should feel the remotest need to apologise for the barbaric actions of a statistically tiny number of fascists who claim Islam as a justification for the commission of atrocities.  On the same basis, nobody should condemn any Muslim who wanted to clarify the distance between the overwhelming majority of Muslims and the few evil bastards who falsely claim their faith as justification for the atrocities they commit.

But all of this is preamble.  What I really want to write about is thornier stuff.  I want to write about the word of god.

It strikes me that the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) have dug themselves into a hole by making it an article of faith that their books of belief are the immutable word of god.

They’re not.  I have read the Bible (both old and new testaments) and the Koran from cover to cover.  I bet not many can claim the same.  They’ve both got good stuff in.  They’ve both got achingly redundant stuff in, too, and stuff that’s simply morally wrong.

Why should we be surprised?  These books were written, not by any god, but by men (and I’m being gender-specific here).  They were written to serve ancient societies with inconceivably different moralities and they have been revised or reinterpreted according to various political agendas across the centuries.

And you know what?  It’s all right to say that they’re out of date.  No, it’s better than all right: it’s necessary.  Both the Bible and the Koran demand that the faithful should put unbelievers to death.  They do; unequivocally, in black and white.

Bible: If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant; 17:3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded; 17:4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel; 17:5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.

Koran: When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. – 9:5

The command of these religions to murder people whose catechism of belief (or unbelief) differs from their own is just one of a raft of grotesque anachronisms both contain.  They stretch from the bizarre (the Biblical edict that it is OK for parents to sell their second daughter into slavery) to the wearily commonplace (homosexuals should be murdered).

And this is I where believe that some followers of the Abrahamic religions may have a modest measure of responsibility for the actions of those who commit abuses in the name of their theologies (and I’m thinking every bit as much about the institutional disenfranchisement of women and the oppression of LBGT communities by fundamentalists in the Christian churches as I am about the massacre of cartoonists).  If theologians or believers claim that the barbaric edicts of redundant texts are the irrefutable word of god, then they are de facto exonerating the actions of people who take the redundant commands within those texts literally.

So here’s an idea.  What about recognising at the highest theological level that that the ethics of past millennia do not necessarily apply to the present day?  What about accepting that morality might have evolved and adapted – even become more godly – over time?  What about editing out some of the stuff in the Bible and the Koran that no longer applies or was never right in the first place?  It’s not without precedent; the Quakers have been practising the revision of their central texts from their inception.

There are evil people all over the world who claim a religious justification for the oppression of women, people of non-conformist sexuality, people of other faiths, no faith or even of their own faith, but different opinions.  They are empowered by edicts in holy texts claimed by their religions to be the incontestable word of god: edicts that have no place in our world today.  It’s up to the pillars of organised religion to state boldly that some parts of those texts are redundant or just plain wrong and need to be excised.  Like bad bits in a generally good apple.

Blog Post, Outraged

Some time ago I closed my son’s O2 mobile account and moved his phone across to EE.  Unbeknownst to me, (perfectly reasonable) charges of £39.30 were levied by O2 subsequent to my cancellation of the direct debit.  What seemed less reasonable was that the first I knew of these charges was when O2 passed the debt on to BPO Collections.

BPO sent me a letter informing me that I owed O2 £39.30.  There was no explanation as to why I owed £39.30, just that I did, and would I please pay up pronto.

I replied on 27 August with this email:

Dear Madam/Sir

Yesterday I received a letter from BPO Collections to recover an overdue account debt of £39.30 owed to O2.  The BPO reference number is XXXXXXXXXX

I am happy to repay this debt if I owe it, but this is the first I have heard of it.  Please could you tell me what telephone *number* (not account) it is associated with, when and in what circumstances it was incurred?

Thanks in advance for your help in this matter.

Yours faithfully

Steve Manthorp

I received an automated reply:

Thank you for contacting BPO Collections Ltd. I can confirm safe receipt of your email.  A response will be issued to you within 5 working days by one of our experienced advisors.

If you feel that your query requires urgent attention, you can contact our offices on XXXXXXXX where one of our advisors will be happy to help you.

If your query is regarding making a repayment, you can call our automated payment line on XXXXXXXX or alternatively visit our website www.bpopay.co.uk where options include:

  • Making a one off payment
  • Setting up regular repayments
  • Taking advantage of any settlement offers available

You will also have the use of our payment calculator, which can assist you in finding a regular repayment amount that is affordable for you.

You can also send a message to our specialist advisors should you find you are experiencing financial hardship at this time.

Kind Regards,

BPO Collections

Recoveries Department

(Calls may be recorded for quality and training)

For the sake of brevity I will refer to this in future as the Fucking Autoreply.

It was followed the next day by this email.  My own redactions (if the government can do it, so can I):

Dear Mr Manthorp,

Thank you for your email. I can confirm that this matter is in relation to an outstanding balance owed to O2 for exceeding air time limit and an early termination charge mobile number XXXXXXXXX, original reference: XXXXXXXXX

The email goes on to list a range of payment options, concluding with:

Alternatively, you can pay online via our website www.bpopay.co.uk.  

Please ensure you quote your BPO Reference number during all transactions.

Kind Regards,

Jackie Lewis

Administration Assistant

BPOI visited BPO’s website.  The home page includes a photo of two smiling young financial professionals.  You can tell they are financial professionals by the sobriety and cut of their suits.  I imagined that the lady financial professional depicted was Jackie.  I liked the look of her.  She seemed trustworthy.

On the 1st of September I paid the £39.30 outstanding using BPO’s Payments Place portal.  I immediately received an automated receipt.

On the 8th of September I received this threatening email from BPO:

Final Notice – Please do not ignore

Dear Mr Stephen Manthorp,

BPO Collections have been instructed by Lowell to collect this outstanding debt and despite requests by both BPO and our client for payment, the balance still remains outstanding. To date, we have not been made aware of any dispute on the account that is preventing you from paying the outstanding amount. Accordingly, we now have no alternative than to recommend to our client that further action may be appropriate which may include a home visit.

 (etc. etc.)

I assumed that the email had been sent out by an automated system which had not yet picked up on the fact that I had already paid the outstanding amount.

On the 15th of September I received another email entitled ‘Recent Login Attempt’:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to you today in regards to the above account. Our systems show that you have recently visited our website but have been unsuccessful in making your repayment.

 In case you are experiencing any difficulty when using our website www.bpopay.co.uk , I have listed our alternative repayment methods below:

I was a little offended that I had reverted from ‘Mr. Stephen Manthorp’ to ‘Sir/Madam’, but I was more annoyed that BPO had failed to register my payment.  I replied:

I have checked my account and I did pay, on 2nd September.  Please confirm that this email is an error on your part.

Yours

Steve Manthorp

Notice that I, too, had cooled off from ‘Yours Faithfully’ to just ‘Yours’.  I could sulk, too.

Jackie Lewis replied with a string of questions:

Dear Mr Manthorp,

Thank you for your email. I understand you have made a payment to this account.

Could you please confirm how you made this payment?

Could you please confirm on which date you paid this balance?

Could you also provide any receipt you may have received in response to your payment?

I have currently placed your account on hold for a period of 2 weeks to allow you to provide us with this information and to bring this matter to a close.

At this point, reader, I succumbed to anger.  I had provided the Blooming Persistent Offenders with everything they needed to trace the payment.  I was not prepared to send them personal financial documents to cover their ineptitude.  I emailed in dudgeon:

Frankly, this stinks of scam.  I was already suspicious about this collection, now I’m pretty sure that it’s a con.

If you are genuine, why don’t you know these things?  You (should) have the account number, you (should) know the amount that was owed, I’ve (ALREADY!) given you the date I paid it, you (allegedly) operate the website through which it was paid and you bloody certainly should be able to trace a payment received. I have paid what was owed.  It’s not my job to ‘prove’ that I have.  You are (allegedly) a collections agency.  It is your job.

Please note that I will not reply to further correspondence unless you fully and explicitly explain why you have failed to keep a record of my payment or why you cannot trace it in your bank receipts.  I have kept copies of this email correspondence to forward to the Financial Ombudsman Service if necessary.

I received the Fucking Autoreply, followed by this:

Dear Mr Manthorp,

Thank you for your email. Please accept my apologies as we do not wish to cause you any undue stress or inconvenience.

We would like to have this matter resolved as swiftly as possible. I can confirm that your account has been placed on hold to allow us to do this.

It would assist us greatly if you could please provide a payment receipt or a bank statement showing your payment to BPO. This would allow us to investigate the matter further and locate your payment.

I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.

Kind Regards,

Scott Coyle

Why Jackie Lewis had passed the baton to Scott Coyle, I do not know.  Perhaps my language had offended her sensibilities.  Scott Coyle sounded as if he was made of sterner stuff.  It’s the sort of name that puts one in mind of Hollywood leading men of the 1950s.  If the male financial professional depicted on BPO’s home page was Scott Coyle I was, frankly, a little disappointed.

However, I had had time to cool off and my reply – whilst still adamant that I wasn’t going send them my personal financial documents – was measured in tone:

Dear Mr. Coyle

As I stated in my previous email, I am unwilling to continue with this conversation until you can convincingly explain how you failed to keep a record of my payment and why you cannot trace it in your bank receipts.  That is not unreasonable, I think, if you are an honest company and not, as I have grounds to suspect, a phishing scam.

I received the Fucking Autoreply, followed by nothing.

How I celebrated!  The Bloody Poor Outfit had finally traced my payment and filed my case away in the vaults.  Whilst an apology would have been nice, their silence was enough for me.  The fatted cow was duly slaughtered, bottles of fine vintages were opened and life slowly returned to its normal course.

That is, until Thursday the 27th of November:

Seasonal Settlement Offer

Dear Mr Stephen Manthorp,

We are looking to offer select customers the opportunity to take advantage of one of our seasonal campaigns. We hope that if you are able to take advantage of one of them, it will help in getting your debt cleared.

Option 1: 60% Discount offer. Subject to affordability, if you are able to pay £23.58 within 30 days, we will discount the remainder, meaning you will save £15.72.

Option 2: 50% discount. Subject to affordability, if you are able to settle this over 3 monthly instalments of £6.55 per month, we will discount the remainder on receipt of the last payment, meaning you will save £19.65

Seasonal Settlement Offer?!!!  Ho Ho fucking Ho!  But perhaps the spirit of good will was working its magic on me too, for my reply was businesslike but courteous:

Please note that I paid this debt on 1st September.   See email correspondence between BPO and me between 27 August and 23 September.

Please confirm that you received a payment from me for the sum of £39.30 through Payments Place, Transaction ref . XXXXXXXX and that this debt is cleared.  Please delete this debt from your books and email me confirmation that you have done so.

Copy retained for submission to Financial Ombudsman Service.

Frankly, I don’t imagine that the Financial Ombudsman (Or Ombudswoman, for all I know) would have much interest in my case, as I’m sure (s)he’s kept busy with all those celebrities and multinationals avoiding paying their taxes.  But it made me feel better, and I left it in.

Got the F.A.

On Wednesday 10th December, in a novel twist, I received the Seasonal Settlement Offer again.  Well, I lost my rag.  I sent them a terse email headed, somewhat pompously, Important Information!  Do Not Ignore!

I paid this bill on 01/09/14.  I have written to you many, many times telling you so.  Now I am going to write to O2 (with whom the debt was originally incurred) copied to the financial ombudsman.

F.A.

I tweeted O2.  They invited me onto a chap applet with ‘Cody’ (quite a good gag as the conversation at the other end was largely algorithmically generated) and I explained the whole situation.  I received a promise from Cody that BPO would not contact me again.

I was naïve enough to think it was all over.

On Thursday 18th December, I received another email from Scott Coyle:

Dear Mr Manthorp,

Thank you for your email. Please accept my apologies for any undue stress or inconvenience caused by the delay in my response.

Unfortunately, we have been unable to locate your payment of £39.30. I have therefore placed the account on hold for to allow us to assist you.

Would you be able to provide any receipt or bank statement showing this payment?

I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.

Kind Regards,

Scott Coyle

By this time I had decided that BPO must be one of those practice names that small town solicitors are so fond of, comprising the surnames of the partners, in this case, Messrs. Bollocks, Prat and Orifice.  Scott had still not got the message: he was persisting in the quest to access my personal information.  I decided that if he was that keen to read my bank statements he could bloody pay for the privilege:

Dear Scott Coyle or Lowell (your given name is not the same as your email address)

On Thu 27/11/2014 at 15:00 I emailed BPO the date I paid the amount owing and your own transaction number.  I attach a copy of that email in case your systems’ retention of emails is as woeful as your keeping of financial records.

On 10/12/2014 I complained to O2 about BPO’s unbelievably shoddy service.  They promised me I would not be contacted by BPO any further.  Now this.

I regret that I will have to charge for providing copies of bank statements.  If you wish to proceed, I will be happy to email you a pro-forma invoice.

Copy retained for Financial Ombudsman and publication on my blog.

Guess what I got by reply?  Yup, the not-so-sweet FA.

I also took another – by this time, bloody livid – pop at O2 on Twitter.  Perversely, they have now Twitter-friended me.

And you know what?  On the afternoon of the 19th of December at 16.46, not far short of four months since the saga had begun, I received this email:

Dear Mr Manthorp,

Thank you for your email. I realise there has been an error. I can confirm that there was a duplicate account and that your payment was applied to the wrong one when the payment was made.

I can confirm that your O2 account has been closed and paid in full.

Please accept my apologies for any undue stress or inconvenience caused by our error.

Kind Regards,

Scott Coyle

Well, Scott, I appreciate that you have taken time out of your busy movie schedule to apologise for your and your cowboy outfit’s total fucking ineptitude but, yes, you did indeed cause me undue stress and inconvenience.  Personally I hope that O2 will kick BPO into the long grass where it belongs, because their reputation, such as it is, is sullied by any connection with your shambolic excuse for a service.  But that’s just me. Bye, Piss Off.

I quit!

I resigned from the Labour Party today:

I wish to resign from the Labour party.  I joined the party because I was desperate to see some opposition to the Conservative party’s ideological programme of political change.  But Labour – and in particular, the weak and ineffectual Ed Miliband – has failed to meaningfully challenge Tory policies. 

The Labour party is either running scared of the financial sector’s ruthless exploitation of the poorest or worse, running alongside it.  Where is the policy to ban outright the payday lenders?  Why hasn’t Miliband promised that no bank will ever be bailed out by a Labour government; or that there will be a legal cap on executive salaries and bonuses proportional to average company pay; or that the ridiculous vanity project Trident programme will be scrapped at last?

Labour has a few socialist MPs left: Tom Watson, Dennis Skinner and Glenda Jackson, for instance; but the shadow cabinet is dominated by apparatchiks, all too comfortable in the halls of Westminster and completely disconnected from the lives of real people.  I don’t want the next election to offer me a spurious choice between Coke & Pepsi political parties.  I want to vote for powerful, substantive policies that will seek to redress the yawning chasm of inequality that has grown during the tenures of successive governments – Labour as much as Tory – over the last 35 years.

The reason that the repugnant UKIP has grown exponentially in popularity isn’t simply the exploitation of people’s fears and bald, unrealisable lies (though they have done both): it’s also an outright rejection of the cosy Westminster coterie and their intimate, more-or-less corrupt relationship with big business.  If Labour is to reconnect with the people (and to win the next election, it absolutely has to), then the Pepsi politicians of the shadow cabinet have to leave the leather benches and the subsidised cafes and bars of Westminster and spend the next six months in their constituencies, rediscovering what real life is like for the people they are meant to represent.

Abnormal service will be resumed as soon as possible

A friend contacted me the other day to ask why I was so ‘obsessed’ with institutional abuse.  Had I been a victim of it myself?

Well, no, I haven’t.  But her question gave me pause for thought: why do acts of abuse by people in positions of power make me so indignant?  There is a legion of important causes that I could bollocks on about (and sometimes do), but I expend an arguably disproportionate quantity of my bile upon the corrupt practices of politicians, the authorities and the civil service.

It’s that last word that’s key, I think.  All these people are public servants – my servants.  They are sworn or contracted to serve the collective best interests of the people of the United Kingdom.  If they abuse the power I have entrusted to them then I am complicit in their wrongdoing and have some responsibility to address it.  Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, put it well; “He who allows oppression, shares the crime,”

Of course, it’s all too easy for public servants to forget who they are serving, or even that they are serving at all.  When people rub up against money or the law, some – not all – become corrupted by it.  Politicians fiddle their expenses and award lucrative contracts to their friends and donors; members of the Metropolitan Police’s SDS squad deceived women into sexually exploitive relationships and provoked actions which they then prosecuted.  Institutionally racist, homophobic and classist structures tacitly grant their employees the opportunity to express their prejudices through violence, coercion or neglect.

And power defends its own.  When the very institutions that we have established to impose order and decent values upon our society become corrupted, it can be near impossible to impose the rule of law upon its dishonest agents.  Because, like Judge Dredd, it is the law.

We all fear that the coterie of politicians who abused institutionalised children in the seventies and eighties will never be prosecuted (and MI5 have certainly done what they can to insure that they won’t).  We suspect that the families of Jean Charles de Menezes and other victims of botched police operations won’t ever see policemen prosecuted for murder or even manslaughter because the institutions established to administer justice excuse their own agents from the rules they apply to the rest of us.

But we are not powerless.  We have two mechanisms for addressing those wayward servants and restoring them to their duties and responsibilities.  The first is the ballot box.  It may seem remote from the copper stopping and searching disproportionate numbers of black kids, or the ATOS officer cancelling the disability living allowance of somebody dying of cancer, but our government and local authorities form the wellsprings from which stem the attitudes and behaviour of all public servants.  If you aren’t registered or don’t use your vote, then they’re not your servants to command in the first place.

The second means by which we are able to exert some control over our servants is by challenging wrongdoing.  Politicians are obliged to reply to correspondence.  There are complaints procedures for pretty much every public office.  The court of public opinion through press, media and social media can be very influential.

We have to believe that through our own actions each and every one of us can change the world for the better.  The corrupt and dishonourable servants don’t want us to think that we can.  As a better man than me once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

A Position of Responsibility

I hope my friends, off- and online, would agree that I’m not generally aggressive in my atheism.  By-and-large, I keep my beliefs to myself unless challenged or incensed – and that’s rarely.

Purely objectively, that’s less true of people of faith.  There’s an element of evangelism inherent in every major religion because they are all exclusive.  Whatever the contemporary rhetoric, every religion condemns those who hold another faith (or no faith) to damnation at best and at worst, violent death.

Being an atheist I don’t believe in damnation or come to that, in eternal partying in a celestial candyshop.  The accumulated evidence of my own life and of the lives of thinkers I respect suggests that upon death, consciousness winks out of existence and our bodies mulch down in what seems to me to be a fitting and poetic conclusion to life.

Neither do I have any time for religious dogma.  I don’t believe that women are the vessels of sin, or that God expects us to spend a month in every year dehydrated or that we should refuse blood transfusions (this is not to say that I don’t think people should be allowed to follow articles of faith if they choose; just that I find it unhealthy for religious institutions to impose them as the ‘will of God’) .  I don’t believe that it is acceptable to sell my second daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7) or that I have a duty to kill everybody who doesn’t comply with my faith (Quran 2:191-193).  In fact, I believe that everyone else on the planet has as much right to life and dignity as I do.  While the key religious tracts may well hold wisdom, they also contain the redundant dogma of a time long past and have to be read with that historical context in mind.  They are not the word of God, they are the words of people as fallible as you and I.

I don’t believe there is any evidence that a god or gods affect the world.  Good and innocent people live and die subject to painful and arbitrary injustices. Evil people thrive and expire in their beds.  The opposite is true, too.  I see no evidence that leading a godly life results in favour on earth (if anything, there is evidence to the contrary); or that a divine hand intercedes in times of natural or human disaster.  A deity that stood by impassively in the face of misery and injustice would not strike me as a deity worthy of praise.

What atheism does offer me is the opportunity to take responsibility for my own actions.  I don’t have any rule book other than the law of the land – which has never bothered me too much, because it has largely been written by bad people for their own advantage – and my conscience, which seems to me to be the one quality above all that defines me as human.

And being guided by conscience is not easy.  It does not have the clarity of a tablet of commandments – quite often, things that seem conscientious from one perspective can become much more occluded from another angle or in the face of additional information.  Some Issues of conscience can be changed by time or geography; and some cannot be changed by any variation in circumstance.  The one and only bottom line is; I must make up my own mind and live with the consequences of my own decisions.

As a consequence, I frequently find myself to be in the wrong.  That strikes me as healthy.  Conscience is a compass rather than a map.  It does not set out a destination and a route: it just indicates a direction of travel.

I’ve never feared death, so I’m unsure whether faith helps people who do.  I’m scared of continued and endemic pain, but oblivion has always seemed to me to be not an unpleasant prospect.  Taoism – the spiritual philosophy for which I have the greatest empathy (and which is equivocal about the existence of a deity) – sees death as a return to the source; the river flowing back into the sea.

I don’t believe that hell is other people, or that hell is within ourselves: I just don’t believe in hell.  Neither do I believe in heaven.  All available evidence leads me to believe we’re here now, gone tomorrow; and that the best thing to do in the face of a dragonfly-short span on earth, is to make the best use of our time we can, according to our consciences.

Gross Abuse

The conclusion of the second report from Operation Herne, the enquiry examining abuses committed by officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS) whilst operating undercover, states:

“Irrespective of the more recent introduction of RIPA legislation and the improved training and management of undercover officers, there are and never have been any circumstances where it would be appropriate for such covertly deployed officers to engage in intimate sexual relationships with those they are employed to infiltrate and target. Such an activity can only be seen as an abject failure of the deployment, a gross abuse of their role and their position as a police officer and an individual and organisational failing.”

SDS officers such as Bob Lambert and Mark Kennedy do not deny having engaged in fraudulent intimate & sexual relationships – Lambert even fathered and abandoned a child whilst undercover.  It follows, then, that the authors of Herne – the Derbyshire Constabulary – regard the deployments of those officers as ‘abject failures’ and believe that they ‘grossly abused their roles and positions as police officers’. That being the case, why the hell has Lambert still got a place as an academic in two universities and an MBE?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Metropolitan Police are putting every procedural device in the way of the victims of their abuse, who are seeking redress in the High Court.  It seems that gross abuse has just become a habit for the Metropolitan police.

Why Damien Hirst is a good artist

When Damien Hirst first exhibited The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst (1991).Living, the notorious ‘pickled shark’, he had an answer ready for the accusation that anybody could have done it. “But you didn’t, did you?” he said.

Neat and perceptive though it was, Damien Hirst’s riposte to some extent misses the point.

The implicit complaint is not that he or any other artist does not have the right to make whatever art they want – it takes all sorts, after all – but that they appear to be fêted for making work which – to the complainant – does not evidence technical skills beyond those of the average person.

This is not an unreasonable position.  The majority of people expect practitioners in any trade or profession to possess demonstrable expertise that untrained people do not.  We respect (and pay) professionals, not for what they choose to call themselves, but for their specialist skills and experience.  Plumbers, doctors, even professions as vilified as estate agents or politicians, all have a skill base which is an essential to success in their area of business.  Why should artists be excepted?

But can ‘anybody’ make a Damien Hirst?  In not challenging the premise of the accusation, Hirst does himself (and any other artists whose work is primarily conceptual) a considerable disservice.  It’s not true on several counts.

Firstly, Hirst is highly skilled at conceiving objects imbued with meaning and which provoke thought.  The capacity for intellectual play is one of the crowning achievements of the human intellect, a building block of innovation innate at birth but suppressed as ‘childish’ by formal education and societal pressuire.  Relearning it is arduous.  As Picasso is said to have said (I can find no original source for the quote), “It took me 4 years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.”  Anybody who believes that anybody can conceive an object with those properties should just try conceiving a sentence imbued with meaning and which provokes thought, let alone an oeuvre of objects and images.

There are many who will remain sceptical that intellectual play is a skill, or even if it is, that it is a valuable one.  As my father was occasionally wont to say, farting ‘God Save the Queen’ through a keyhole is a skill (indeed, it is one I would applaud).  To those I would argue that Hirst is a contemporary exemplar of that body of artists from the renaissance onwards who recognised that the market for their work was greater than they alone could meet and who took on help to meet that demand.  In industry, this would be universally hailed as a demonstration of the value of the product or service and a strategy for growth.  Somehow in art, it is regarded as cheating.  Nobody would criticise or devalue a Dyson vacuum cleaner because James Dyson had not built it himself; but should an artist dare to employ a highly skilled team of assistants to construct the artworks s/he has conceived (read: designed), s/he can expect to be showered in derision for ‘conning the public’ and sometimes even from within the trade for ‘selling out’.

Lastly, neither Hirst nor his critics should dismiss his skills and those of his ilk as project managers.  It’s one thing to come up with the concept of pickling a sheep; it’s another completely to do it, and do it beautifully.  The first time I saw Hirst’s Away From the Flock I was knocked out by its realisation.  It is a measure of the skill of its manufacture that it looks so effortless, but as a project manager myself, I couldn’t help seeing the Gantt chart behind it, from how to slaughter a sheep without damaging its appearance, to researching the properties of embalming solutions, to designing-in the transportation of a large, transparent box full of probably toxic fluid.

Arguably there is room for criticism of Hirst’s skills here, on the basis that the Shark in Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living deteriorated over several years to the point where Hirst had to virtually remake the work.  Demonstrably, that project had failings.  But like the majority of artists, Hirst’s projects are always unique, and the management of any project that breaks new ground will always involve an element of best-guessing.  And no matter how well researched and thoughtful best guesses are, they won’t be right all the time.  When his method of preservation failed, Hirst offered to repair the damage at his own expense (an offer that the private purchaser declined).  Any self-respecting professional ought to do the same do the same, of course, but plenty wouldn’t.

The horror! The horror!

I spent a couple of hours tonight reading around the history of the Elm Guest House.  I’m not going to post links because there’s a ton of material out there, it’s easy enough to find and you’re better trawling through it yourself and arriving at your own judgement.  Be warned, there’s plenty of sifting to do; you have to wade through acres of paranoid nonsense, mendacious sophistry and – most frustrating of all – valuable research undermined by partisan language and dreadful writing.

Taking all that into account, I find a core of consistent reporting sufficient to convince me that unimaginably terrible things were done to boys and young men at the Elm Guest House and other institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, up to and including their murder, all for the sexual gratification of men. I also find convincing evidence that those abusers included senior politicians, aristocrats and keepers of the law.

The crimes that were committed in that house don’t bear thinking about, and I’m certainly not going to repeat them here.  As a father of three boys, they make me shudder.  But what horrifies me as much is the overwhelming impression that, over the last thirty years, the establishment has closed ranks and decided that we, the lumpen proletariat, need not trouble ourselves with what happened at the Elm Guest House.

Here I depart from many of the conspiracy theorists.  I don’t believe that the political elite, the landed aristocracy and the servants of the law are protecting themselves, or even their own kind; I believe that they think they are protecting democracy.  I sincerely hope, and to some extent believe, that most of those who have impeded the progress of investigations and who continue to do so, share a natural revulsion for such abuse with the rest of us.  But of even greater concern to them is their belief that acknowledging the crimes and abuses of a handful of powerful men would somehow undermine societal structure and the rule of law.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The gossamer thread that keeps us from revolution is our belief that the society we live in is reasonably just and reasonably fair.  Well, that and inertia.  But the governors and the keepers of law know – or ought to know – that if anything is going to goad us out of that inertia, it’s the visceral horror of the abuse of innocents.

The empowered few are nothing if not pragmatic.  Their predecessors have made a bad call – a dreadful call – and the new generation should have the nous and maybe even the morality to realise that this particular front of the status quo is not going to hold.  It’s still important that bad people should be called to account for their crimes, even if they are more important than the rest of us.

A foetid bag of slime

We rather like a rogue.  Think Dell Boy, Alan Clark or even Flashman; those of us who are saddled with a conscience, or even the simple fear of retribution, are somewhat envious of those who are unburdened by morality or any belief that the rules might apply to them too.

Nadhim Zahawi, MP for Stratford-on-Avon, ought to be classified under rogue.  The best efforts of his official photographer have not managed to soften the impression that he would sell his grandmother for a toffee apple.  You can practically see the horns threatening to burst through his gleaming scalp.  Most impressively, at a time where energy cartel profiteering has seen prices rise to the point where hundreds of thousands will enter energy poverty this winter – to the point where people in his own constituency will die because they cannot afford to keep themselves warm – Nadhim Zahawi has claimed more in Parliamentary expenses for heating his £1 million second home than any other MP.  Wow!  Venal, amoral, brass-necked; how roguish can you get?

You would have thought.  But something about Zahawi prevents his elevation to roguishness and condemns him perpetually to the status of something you might find under a flat rock.  I think it comes down to his niggardliness.  Because whilst we sometimes love a rogue, we always hate a tightwad: and Zahawi is as money-grubbing as they come.  The Independent reports that Zahawi claimed 31p on his expenses for paperclips,  53p on a hole punch, 63p for ballpoint pens and 89p for a stapler.

He was unable to conceal his grasping nature when he first sought to defend his outrageous expenses claim.  It would have cost the millionaire politician less than £6,000 to shut the story down.  instead, he spent almost 1,000 words arguing in his local newspaper, The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, that everybody had got the figures wrong.

Then we found just how deep his fat fingers were buried in the cookie jar.  Zahawi wasn’t just heating his million pound home at the taxpayer’s expense, but also his horse riding school stables and a yard manager’s mobile home.

Suddenly, Zahawi was oozing contrition.  He was “mortified by this mistake” and “apologised unreservedly for it”.  But of course, his phony remorse sat unconvincingly alongside his previous bellicose defence of his greed.  Worst of all, it came across as a vulgar attempt at bargaining with the electorate.  If he gives back the money he has claimed illegally, then will we forget that which he has claimed immorally?

To make such a begrudging, mean-spirited and crudely drawn offer to the people who had voted for him, Zahawi must believe that his majority is safe: safe enough for him to not to have to bother to conceal the disdain in which he holds them.  Certainly, he will not be displaced by a Labour candidate.  But he had better keep an eye on his right flank.  It would only take a slightly less swivel-eyed UKIP candidate than most, one who isn’t tainted with sleaze and who is demonstrably in touch with the kind of voter who is struggling to warm their home, for Nadhim Zahawi to find himself having to pay his own fuel bills in 2015.

Prime Minister Brown

02_cameron_holiday_r_w

Via Channel 4

The Camerons are currently on holiday on the Algarve.  I’ve never known anybody take more holidays than David Cameron.  He’s already had a week in Ibiza and after his fortnight in Portugal he has holidays in Cornwall and Scotland lined up, all before Parliament reconvenes in September.  He always buggers off somewhere over the winter recess, too.

Presumably he sees it as a well-deserved break; well, five well-deserved breaks.  For a politician to be quite so self-indulgent, he must presumably be content that he has done all he can for the people he pledged to serve; the 52% of UK households who are struggling to get by from day to day, the businesses unable to secure loans, the unemployed and those on low pay, the young, the sick and disabled. Presumably, they’re free to go on holiday too, whenever they want.

But the Prime Minister had better take care.  When he gets home, his plump baby-pink skin bronzed by the Mediterranean sun, he might steer clear of London Underground stations for a week or so, for fear of being stopped for questioning by UKBA thugs challenging him to prove his right to stay in the UK, based upon their key operational grounds for suspicion, the colour of his skin.

Bob Lambert MBE – What a difference an imminent prosecution makes

It’s an insight into the character of Bob Lambert MBE to see how the language of the odious serial abuser has changed over the last seven days.

In a BBC piece of 28th June in which two of the victims of his abuse told their stories, his statement to Channel 4’s dispatches betrayed not the slightest suggestion that he believed he had done anything wrong:

The work of an undercover officer is complex, dangerous and sensitive and it would take some considerable time and the co-operation of my former police employers to provide the full background, context and detail necessary to address the matters which have been raised.

By the 5th of July, that bullish rhetoric has changed – almost miraculously – to abject apology.

There are two possible explanations for this change of tone.  The first is that after forty years of moral coma and in a span of just seven days, Bob Lambert MBE has undergone a damascene conversion.  He has realised that his activities as a member and later leader of the Metropolitan Police’s utterly discredited SDS squad were morally repugnant.  He is overwhelmed with contrition and the compelling need to make amends to his victims and to the public he was meant to have been serving at the time.

The other possibility is that he is lying.  Could it be possible that Bob Lambert MBE, the man professionally trained by the Metropolitan Police to lie, who lied when he took on the name of a dead child, who lied over many years to people he called his friends and his lovers, who lied when he abandoned his child and who lied under oath in court, is a liar?

Why would he lie?  It’s not hard to suggest a plausible reason.  Bob Lambert MBE is entirely aware that the legal net is finally drawing tight around him and that it is well-nigh certain that he will be prosecuted for his crimes.  He understands that the Metropolitan Police will never publicly endorse the abusive relationships he made to establish his alibis (whether they endorsed them at the time or not).  When they abandon him – as they will – his goose is cooked.  As a policeman (albeit a very bad one) he knows the importance that the expression of remorse prior to conviction plays in determining severity of sentence.

Bob Lambert MBE has demonstrated over many years that his overwhelming interest – the thing that eclipses everything else in importance – is the preservation of his own skin.  It should come as no surprise to anybody that it continues to be his primary concern.

Did I mention – I forget – that Bob Lambert was awarded an MBE in 2008 for ‘services to police work’?