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December 2003

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Lower case 

We learn from the London Times (30 December 2003) that British Midland Airways has changed its name to bmi. Not bma you notice (that would have conflicted with the British Medical Association), so we don’t have that logical help in remembering what to call it.

The bmi website section ‘About Us’ does not say why the company changed its name in this silly way. It does say-

‘bmi is the UK’s second largest full service airline and has its main operational base at London Heathrow where it holds 14% of all take off and landing slots. The airline operates over 2,000 flights a week with a fleet of 41 jet aircraft which have an average age of five years. bmi serves 28 destinations in 10 countries and in 2002 carried over seven and a half million passengers’.
You can see from this just how irritating the new name is. It breaks two firm conventions of English usage whereby (a) the initial letters of a name are rendered in capitals rather than, as here, what is called lower case, and (b) the first letter in a sentence is capitalized. When these rules are broken readers are taken aback and inconvenienced, like motorists when someone drives on the wrong side of the road. Words are used to convey a message. The message is interfered with when common conventions are flouted.

The company is still known officially as British Midland Airways Limited. It would involve some trouble for the directors to change that to bmi; it might not even be allowed. So why have they made this ridiculous unofficial change, which will cause unnecessary difficulty to everyone who has dealings with the airline? I conclude that it is simply from a desire to draw attention to itself by breaking rules, just as children do. It’s been done before of course, and for the same reason. For example the Family Planning Association now calls itself fpa, to the annoyance and confusion of all concerned with it.

This trick perhaps started with an American poet, born in 1894, who played havoc with punctuation rules and liked his name to appear as e e cummings. He once published a collection of his poems under the title &. When his poems included the perpendicular pronoun it appeared as i. Of course the only effect of all that was to ruin the message of a poem, not enhance the reputation of the poet.

My sincere hope is that because of their lower case nonsense bmi go into a rapid decline and speedily end up in liquidation. Meanwhile let all who have dealings with the company insist on using its proper title British Midland Airways Limited.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Gong Show Part 4 

The great interest currently being shown in the honours system encourages me to place on record, in case it is of use in reforming the system, three instances where I have had direct experience of its workings.

1. In 1951 I entered what was then called the Office of Parliamentary Counsel to His Majesty’s Treasury, where Government Parliamentary Bills are drafted. It is the custom to make the Head of the Office, the first Parliamentary Counsel, a Knight Commander of the Bath (KCB). ‘Keep your nose clean’ said Frank Heritage ‘and you will in due course become First Parliamentary Counsel’. It was my first day in the Office. Frank, the chief clerk, did some hasty calculations and told me that the magic year would probably be 1979. I kept my nose clean, but resigned long before the crucial date and went on to do other things. No honour has come my way from all that.

2. For two years (1959-61) I was seconded by the Office to help Ghana become a republic and draft its new constitution. At the end of that time I was officially informed by the Ghana Attorney General, a former Westminster Labour MP named Geoffrey Bing QC, that I had been recommended to Whitehall by Dr Nkrumah the President for the award of an OBE. No honour has come my way from all that.

3. The first time I resigned from the Office of Parliamentary Counsel (I am the only person who has resigned twice from that Office, having been invited back in 1973) it was to take up an appointment as Chief Executive (then called Secretary) of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), where my predecessor Sir Alexander Killick DSO MC had been knighted for his services. Like similar professional bodies, the RICS was required to have a secret committee which recommended honours to be awarded by the Monarch to chartered surveyors. I served as its secretary, and recall earnest discussions about who deserved what and when. This sometimes involved manipulation. For example it was early decided that the knighthood expected for the President in 1968, the year of the Institution’s centenary, should go to Oliver Chesterton MC, a distinguished relative of the writer G K Chesterton. The RICS had three Vice Presidents, who then (usually) went on in turn to be President for a year. It took some manoeuvring to insert Chesterton in the desired order. No honour has come my way from all that.

One thing is clear about the honours system. If you stay in the same job all your life you may get an MBE for services to say the Stretchford Fine Arts and Tramways Committee. If you move around and sit on many stools (as I must confess I myself have done), you will fall between all of them.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Welsh Police anti-racism 

Under the headline ‘Police forced to sign “no racism” pledge’, the London Times (24 December 2003) reported that new recruits to North Wales Police will be asked to sign a personal pledge worded ‘I have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own’. On the same day the Daily Mail revealed that this idea is the brainchild of Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom.

The Brunstrom pledge goes far wider than anti-racism. It covers every person on the globe except the police recruit who is browbeaten into signing it. Every person has characteristics unique to themselves (think of fingerprints, irises, and DNA for a start). Yet what ‘respect’ means (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is ‘to treat or regard with deference, esteem, or honour’.

So Brunstrom requires hapless recruits to treat with deference, esteem, or honour members of races who practise cannibalism, or voodoo, or genocide. They must show deference, esteem, or honour, should they come across them in the course of duty, for people like Ian Huntley the Soham murderer or Dennis Nilsen the homosexual who killed sixteen young men and did unthinkable things with their bodies. The recruits must show deference, esteem, or honour for people with different abilities from theirs such as counterfeiters, safebreakers, or confidence tricksters.

This is a peculiar sort of ‘respect’. In fact what the Brunstroms of this world do is rob useful words of all meaning. Respect for everybody is respect for nobody.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

A magnificent book 

I mentioned in FBBB25 how in the Exeter Cathedral shop I bought a Christmas present for my wife to give me. Now I must tell you about another one I bought there, for the same purpose. The most magnificent book I have ever seen remaindered, it is Keepers of the Kingdom: the Ancient Offices of Britain. The book has many superb photographs in colour of office holders attired in their official dress, accompanied by symbols of their historic function.

The Cock O’ the North (whose ancestor was so dubbed by Mary Queen of Scots) poses before his castle with an eagle feather stuck in his tam o’shanter. The Boy Bishop of Hereford sits demurely on his throne. The Chief Butler of England stands before the arms of Edward the Confessor, and so on. There are some two hundred photographs showing us such features of our splendid past.

These are accompanied by a text that is fully worthy of them, written by Alastair Bruce. The photographs are by Julian Calder and Mark Cator. I salute all three. Credit also goes to the publishers Cassell & Co.

Why on earth was this unique book remaindered? The marked price is £16.99, but it was being sold at £6.99. Locals should rush to Exeter Cathedral. There are bound to be some copies left. It is a bargain not to be missed.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

The hazard of the die 

Do you see anything wrong with this sentence from today’s Spectator: ‘They do not know who will be calling in any given test because the caller is picked at random by the throw of a dice’. Is there anything in it that makes you wince? I do hope so.

What makes me wince is that reference to ‘a dice’. The word dice is of course the plural of the singular word die. The die is cast, remember? Or as Shakespeare makes the king say in Richard III -
‘Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.’
And yet . . . The OED irritatingly says ‘The form dice (used as pl. and sing.) is of much more frequent occurrence in gaming and related senses than the singular die’.

Who would be a pedant! (Today’s Spectator, by the way, calls me ‘the merry pedant’.)

Friday, December 26, 2003

A Christmas present 

Shopping for Christmas presents at the Exeter Cathedral shop I found one I fancied for myself. So I bought it for my dear wife Mary to give me, which she duly did yesterday (we operate like that, reciprocally of course). It was The Cambridge Daily Reading Bible. I quote from its introduction-
‘The Bible is a collection of many separate books that took centuries to achieve their final written form. The world they belong to is remote from ours both in time and in cultural background. Standing at the heart of Christianity and of Judaism, these books have attracted unceasing study; they have been offered in many translations and presented in many different forms. The Cambridge Daily Reading Bible provides the complete text of Scriptures in the New Revised Standard Version. It is divided into a series of short daily readings (one from the New testament and one from the Old), spread out so as to cover a two-year period.’
For many years I have called myself an agnostic, having previously been a practising Anglican. (In the 1950s I was churchwarden of a tiny Norman church in the Surrey hamlet of Farleigh, whose population of 93 had not changed significantly since it was recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086.) The Spectator of 11 June 1876 said that Agnostic was the name demanded by Professor T. H. Huxley for those who disclaimed atheism, and believed with him in an ‘unknown and unknowable’ God; or in other words that the ultimate origin of all things must be some cause unknown to, and unknowable by, human beings.

Now, approaching my 81st birthday, I feel it might be a good idea, during the next two years of my life (if I am granted them), to read through the 1300 pages of this book. By doing that I might effect a final check on Huxley’s ‘unknown and unknowable’ verdict. I began yesterday. The first reading included the following-
‘Happy are those who do not . . . sit in the seat of scoffers.’ [Psalm 1.]

‘ How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?’ [Proverbs I 22.]


Thursday, December 25, 2003

A poem for Christmas Day 

Today of all days I cannot put out the usual opinionated blog. Instead, here is one of my poems from the collection Poemotions. It was written at a time when I myself was a lonesome ex, and full of this sort of self-pity.
Christmas of a Lonesome Ex

Seasonable icicles
glitter at the sun
warmth from the pipes and the pinelog blaze
doesn’t get through to Jim

Kiss-and-coloured tissues
clothe the shapes on the tree
wrapped in excitement and tied with love
but little of that for Jim

Rows of shiny bottles
filled with fellowship
the pudding’s steamed and the goose is cooked
none of it’s for Jim

Jim stands in the snowdrift
nose pressed to the pane
they’re drinking a toast to the spirit of love
they don’t notice him
Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Grounds for complaint 

The Data Protection Tribunal has held that ‘information should not be retained on the grounds that it may possibly become relevant in the future’ (London Sunday Times 21 December 2003). Does anything strike you as wrong in that sentence?

Here is a clue. The Times Style and Usage Guide, originally produced to instruct Times and Sunday Times hacks in how to write good English, says of ‘ground(s)’ in the sense of a reason or reasons ‘do not use plural unless more than one [reason] is given’. In the example above the hack concerned broke that rule. For some obscure reason the rule, which is obvious enough when you think about it, is almost invariably broken – and not only by hacks. Why this should be so is a puzzle.

I have been fighting this abuse for many years. When I drafted the Consumer Credit Act 1974 I was careful to write in section 139(1) ‘A credit agreement may, if the court thinks just, be reopened on the ground that the credit bargain is extortionate . . .’

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Sex-negative Melanie Phillips 

In the past I have crossed swords with sex-negative Melanie Phillips. In the Daily Mail (19 December 2003) she paints a dismal picture of modern sexual behaviour.
‘Children learn the rules of behaviour from their parents’ serial sexual shenanigans. Schools dish out the condoms. GPs hand over the morning-after pill. Teen magazines advise on sex. The age of consent is regarded as a joke.’
She goes on in this depressing vein. I would like to offer a contrasting analysis on sex-positive lines.

What Ms Phillips calls ‘the old rules of sexual restraint’ and ‘established codes of behaviour, law and self-restraint’ were in fact sex-negative restrictions failing to recognise that from the onset of puberty all young people are sexual creatures with sexual needs. They need to be instructed in sexual matters, and helped to avoid unwanted pregnancy, sexually-transmitted disease, and the attentions of predatory adults. Apart from that all they need is sympathetic treatment from enlightened parents and others, who understand the state they are in.

Ms Phillips rails against ‘this phenomenon of under-age sexuality’ (meaning sexuality under the arbitrary age of consent, sixteen) as though it were something other than nature taking its course. What she calls under-age sex is a natural thing, though that does not mean its exercise is not subject to moral constraints.

The question for us in the 21st century is what those constraints should be. It is not the answer, as Ms Phillips seems to think, to forbid every form of sexual activity by pubescents – even where it is between age mates and is consensual. That is futile and cruel. Parliament has just passed the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which makes even the most trifling form of sexual contact between pubescents a criminal offence punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Many people consider that disgraceful. I am one of them.

By the way I crossed swords with Ms Phillips over my book The Sex Code: Morals for Moderns (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). She dismissed it as just one man’s idea of sexual ethics and said the Ten Commandments were all that is needed. I ventured to disagree.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Class and society 

When he was Prime Minister John Major said many foolish things. One of the stupidest was that he wished to see Britain become a classless society. Such a thing is impossible, especially in our country.

I found wry humour in the fact that, in a recent BBC poll to find the best-loved British book, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice came in second behind an Oxford don’s class-ridden fantasies Lord of the Rings. I wonder what the politicians who are determined to make us all equal thought of that popular rejection of their aim.

Evidently many people of today like and appreciate the class-obsessed society Jane Austen lived in and therefore wrote about. I am currently re-reading all her novels, and have at the moment reached Emma. That is an exact mirror of English country life around the turn of the century two hundred years ago. All are graded exactly according to their fortune, income, and possessions. Nobody seems to mind this. Everyone seems (in the novel at least) to accept it with perfect equanimity as the most natural thing in the world. Here is a very small sample. Emma Woodhouse is musing on the neighbouring Cole family.
‘The Coles had been settled some time in Highbury, and were a very good sort of people - friendly, liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel. On their first coming into the country [i.e. the locality], they had lived in proportion to their income, quietly, keeping little company, and that little unexpensively . . .’
However prosperity comes to the Coles, and they rise in the world. A later passage reads-
‘Their love of society, and their new dining-room, prepared everybody for their keeping dinner-company; and a few parties, chiefly among the single men, had already taken place. The regular and best families Emma could hardly suppose they would presume to invite – neither Donwell, nor Hartfield, nor Randalls. Nothing should tempt her to go, if they did . . .’


Sunday, December 21, 2003

The trials of edspeak 

An illiteracy report on primary education in England (HMI 1973) has just been issued by Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education. The report is itself illiterate in a special sort of way: it entirely consists of jargon. It is an expensively-produced A4 document printed on such shiny paper that you cannot write comments as you wince through it (perhaps that is intentional).

The report, paid for by taxpayers, is written for specialists in what I can only call edspeak. The fact that parents of school pupils, or even taxpayers generally, might wish to read and understand it is overlooked. It is packed with unexplained acronyms, for instance NLNS, NNS, NLS, NFER, QCA. There are numerous technical terms that were baffling to me, e.g. interactive whiteboard, mini-plenary, Primary National Strategy, hot-seating, buzz group, time-line, smartboard, writing frame, twilight session. Here is a typical piece of jargon from the report-
‘The quality of teaching in the literacy hour and daily mathematics lesson continues to be good in just over half of all lessons. In a stubborn core of around one in three lessons, the teaching is satisfactory . . .’
Why should satisfactory teaching be referred to as a ‘stubborn core’ as if it were undesirable? The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘satisfactory’ as ‘sufficient for the needs of the case, adequate’. If teaching is sufficient for the needs of the case why should the report brand it as a stubborn core? As I cogitated over this, the penny dropped. In edspeak ‘satisfactory’ has a special meaning. There are four edspeak grades: very good, good, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory. So for teachers ‘satisfactory’ has a meaning akin to ‘poor’. And this is a report on literacy!

The report finds (reading between the lines) that a good many teachers, even headteachers, are downright ignorant about the subjects they are supposed to teach. In edspeak this is rendered as having ‘weak subject knowledge’. The report says it is helpful for teachers with weak subject knowledge to write things down. Well I suppose it might be, but do they really need telling?

Another finding is that some schools refrain from singling out weak pupils (or, one imagines, weak teachers) because the schools are committed to ‘not discriminating’. In our egalitarian epoch all must have prizes, and none must be criticised.

I’m rather glad I no longer have school-age children of my own.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Gong Show Part 3 

Honours for leading scientists involved in animal experiments and GM crop research have been blocked by H. R. H. The Prince of Wales. Following my two previous blogs on the honours system (FBBB1 and FBBB15) I am now reporting a further item in the London Times (18 December 2003). This says that Colin Blakemore, distinguished Professor of Physiology at my own alma mater Oxford University, has been refused a knighthood because of opposition from Prince Charles (who denied the allegation and declined to comment). It is also reported that H. R. H. objected to Professor Blakemore’s presence at the launch of a schizophrenia research centre funded by the charity SANE.

The item adds that a second eminent scientist, Professor Derek Burke, has also been passed over for honours because of the Prince’s objections. The professor has been one of the strongest critics of Charles’s opposition to genetically modified crops.

The Daily Mail (same day) reports that Professor Blakemore is very angry about being excluded from the honours list. He says-
‘On the one hand, the Government specifically encourages scientists to engage in controversial issues. But in private, you are regarded as a pariah, marked down as unsavoury and your reputation is diminished. To suffer 15 years of terrorism, as I have, because you are one of the few prepared to stand up for what Government promotes, and then learn that this Government shuns you for doing so is deeply demoralising.’
Ironically Colin Blakemore is a long-standing Labour Party member (perhaps he should change his allegiance). He has endured parcel-bomb attacks and death threats from animal rights extremists, and been warned by them that his name is on their murder list. So much for the rule of law.

This blog is already too long, but I can’t resist adding some comments made by readers in yesterday’s Times. Dr John Rae says there’s no reason other than social climbing why life peers and knights should not be content with letters after their name. Professor Christopher Clapham thinks the honours mole I mentioned is so disgusted with Government duplicity that he is prepared to run great personal risk in order to reveal it. Finally Dr Michael White wryly says that ‘whoever blew the whistle on our obnoxious honours system should be given a medal’.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Sexist Mary Ann 

It must be very difficult to fill a weekly newspaper column when you have no particular skill in any direction and are just a jobbing journo, like Mary Ann Sieghart of the London Times. Sympathetically I watch her struggle to find a topic, week by week.

This week she’s taken it into her head to promote the idea that there is a difference between men and women regarding the making of lists. It was a more accomplished woman than Mary Ann, namely George Eliot, who said that general statements are generally wrong – as this one obviously is.

Mary Ann’s implausible statement is not founded on any research of course – it is all supposition and guesswork. An urge to collect, to categorise, and to rank seems to be a peculiarly male pursuit, she says. Most female readers probably couldn’t care less whether Gone With The Wind beat Apocalypse Now or vice versa. With men this list-making is maybe a form of emotional outlet. It seems to spring from the same root as autism.

What root does her tosh spring from? Certainly not from the feminists who invented sexism, the stereotyping of genders. Mary Ann has the genders stereotyped all right. Women ‘don’t tend to have the time’ to do this listing etc that men have all the time in the world to waste on. A colleague of Mary Ann’s on the Times knew his current column was his 122nd. Mary Ann says she doesn’t have the time to count hers.

But then she tells us that this list-making business starts with adolescent youths drawing up ‘lists of the girls they had snogged, with marks out of ten in the margins’. It’s a boy thing, she says. Why is she so sure adolescent girls don’t draw up such lists, just because she didn’t? Maybe she should get her newspaper to run a poll, as it is fond of doing. Then she might know the facts, instead of just giving us her airy guesswork.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Sadam in Wonderland 

Strange how bleeding-hearts liberals fail to live up to their own enlightened beliefs. In one breath Libby (what a name!) Purves impeccably says the newly-captured Saddam Hussein ‘must be treated with neutral, decent respect’ until his trial is over (London Times 16 December 2003). In the next she writes of his ‘incontrovertible, solid, unforgivable crimes’. If they are incontrovertible what need for a trial?

In its leading article of 15 December 2003 the Times says Saddam ‘must now be tried by those he tyrannised’. Prejudging this trial, it then insists that he was “responsible for the deaths of millions”, adding -
‘The man who for 30 years systematically terrorised his country, who gassed the Kurds and buried the Shia in mass graves, who led Iraq into three disastrous wars and turned a once flourishing country into a ruined wasteland, will finally have to answer for the evil he perpetrated.’
Again, what need for a trial? Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights says that everyone has the right to a fair trial, and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law. How can this civilised standard be achieved for Saddam when all the commentators prejudge the issue?

They have already decided on the sentence for Sadam – death. It’s as the Queen of Hearts said in Alice in Wonderland, sentence first – verdict afterwards. Or the Lydford law described in an old Dartmoor poem -

I oft have heard of Lydford law
How in the morn they hang and draw
And sit in judgement after

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Why the European constitution failed 

I heard the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw say on the BBC Radio Four Today programme [12 December 2003] that the body which drew up the failed European Constitution had no power or authority regarding its content, and was given no instructions in that regard. He said it was for meetings of heads of state to go through the draft later and decide what to change, delete or retain.

As one who has drafted the constitutions of states myself I can say that this is not the way to go about it. Before they start work, the drafters of any constitutional document must be given detailed instructions about what it is intended to achieve. This European method is like baking a pudding made to an unknown recipe, and afterwards letting people pick about in it to see what they like and don’t like. The recipe should be agreed on before the pudding is made.

No wonder the London Times said (leading article December 12) that what has emerged is “a vast and incomprehensible document, baffling to readers and inaccessible to the electorates of Europe, which conspicuously fails to answer the basic question which a constitution should resolve, namely ‘where does power lie?’”. No wonder the delegates at the recent international conference failed to agree, so that the draft was discarded.

Actually it is clear that, whatever any constitution says, power will lie with the European Court of Justice. Its track record shows that the court will disregard the words in the document if they fail to conform to its own view of how the European Union should develop.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

More on the Gong Show 

I suggested in an earlier blog that there is a great deal wrong with the British honours system (see FBBB1, 2 December 2003). Now more evidence has come to light against what the London Sunday Times for 14 December 2003 calls the Gong Show. A Whitehall whistleblower has leaked a secret Cabinet Office document showing that the whole system is run by a committee of seven top civil servants, with one outsider from the private sector.

This small committee decide who gets what. Their conclusions are sent to the Prime Minister (who may or may not tinker with them a little). Then they are passed for information only to Her Majesty the Queen. Constitutionally, gongs are supposed to be bestowed by Her Majesty, who is our country’s Fount of Honour. In fact, apart from the few which are within her gift, she has no say in the matter.

The whistleblower says that the recent award of a knighthood to the ageing rocker Mick Jagger (of ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ fame) was given to make Prime Minister Blair look cool. People are not put on the list if their political stance is anti-Labour.

In a word, the whole thing stinks.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Open letter to Trevor Phillips Esq., Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality 

Dear Mr Phillips,

You are reported as saying that there are something like 10,000 Afro-Caribbean black males sitting in prison in England and Wales, but that if one looks at the university figures over the last three years there are only just over 6,000 Afro-Caribbean black males who have gone into undergraduate courses in England and Wales [London Sunday Times, 14 December 2003]. With the university drop-out rate for Afro-Caribbean black men being between 15% and 20%, you point out that there are fewer than 5,000 black men on campus but more than 10,000 in jail. The article also points out that while Afro-Caribbeans make up only 2% of the population they constitute 16% of prison inmates.

I am not surprised that you describe these figures as “alarming” and “devastating”. They obviously reflect very badly on Afro-Caribbeans in England and Wales, particularly when compared with the much better figures for the Asian population. I would have expected you to urge the Afro-Caribbeans to strive for a dramatic improvement. Obviously their community should, as a matter of urgency, look into these dismal figures, try to work out what is wrong, and resolve to remedy the situation as soon as possible.

What is remarkable, and the reason why I am writing this letter, is that in your published remarks you do not say any of this. Instead you play the racism card. All you are reported as saying on the point is that “what we cannot have is a situation where this devastating ratio is reinforced by the experience of racism and exclusion in prisons”.

Mr Phillips, one cannot reinforce a ratio. The ratio remains the same whether or not there is racism in prisons. That is a separate issue altogether. Of course I would deeply regret any racism in our prisons, as elsewhere, but that is simply not the point. As you are paid a large salary by the taxpayer to do your job I hope you will in future concentrate on that and not make inflammatory remarks in the press which can only persuade the Afro-Caribbean community that they are in no way to blame for the parlous situation you describe.

The above remarks are based on the assumption that you have been correctly reported. If that is not the case then of course I withdraw them and apologise.

Yours sincerely,

Francis Bennion

Sunday, December 14, 2003

A guilt culture? 

The Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells a good story about Thomas Watson, head of IBM. A senior manager made a mistake that cost IBM ten million dollars. When Watson sent for him, the manager entered saying “I guess you want my resignation”. Watson replied: “Are you crazy? We’ve just spent ten million dollars educating you”.

Sacks uses this to justify what he calls the guilt culture, which he praises. In a guilt culture, he says [London Times, 13 December 2003], what matters is the voice within – our conscience or what Freud called the superego, the moral values we internalise and make our own. That still small voice speaks to us of our guilt, and urges us to repent and do better in future. A guilt culture turns mistakes into learning experiences and, he says, is therefore good.

It’s the first time I have seen mass feelings of guilt praised as a good thing. In my collection Poemotions. I have a poem which reaches a rather different conclusion. It is by far the longest among the 189 poems in the book, which just shows how difficult this topic is.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Are you a PLWA? 

A Mrs Stimson wrote to the London Times recently to say it is insulting to call a person an epileptic or a diabetic because “one is not the condition”. This is faulty reasoning. Such useful nouns mean no more than that the person in question has the quality indicated (among others). I doubt if Mrs Stimson would feel insulted by being called a woman, a Londoner, an optimist, or a philanthropist. But perhaps she thinks there is somehow a slur attached to illnesses like epilepsy and diabetes. That too would be faulty reasoning.

It reminds me of the time when a prestigious charity, the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, (known worldwide as RNID) foolishly changed its name to The Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Why did it go to the enormous expense and trouble of doing this? Because another Mrs Stimson thought it was demeaning to refer to “the deaf”.

It is all part of political correctness (PC), that scourge of our time. It is not PC to call a person with a disability or disease a victim because this suggests, through stereotyping, that all persons with a particular disability or disease suffer from it. Many disabled people, it is said by PC supporters, do not suffer because of their disability and object to being portrayed as victims. This usage is considered particularly offensive in relation to Aids. If you are PC you should, instead of “victim”, say “person with Aids” or “Person Living With Aids” (PLWA).

The disabled, of whom I am one, are far too cosseted these days. I have a poem on that theme.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Too many graduates? 

I suggested in an earlier blog that the British Labour Government’s new policy of requiring half the population to be university graduates is absurd (see FBBB4, 5 December 2003). Striking confirmation comes from soviet-educated Alexander Anichkin. He feels a chilling sense of déjà vu about Labour’s education plans. He says (London Times T2, 10 December 2003), that in the Soviet Union the political quotas for students kept rising as the Government informed the professors how many students they must admit until the professors, in despair, were signing up near-illiterates for university courses.

“ I remember”, Anichkin goes on, “how, as the number of Soviet students, graduates, bachelors and doctors grew, there were fewer and fewer people to plough fields or fix pipes”. Such was the labour shortage when Anichkin was at university in the 1970s, he says, that the students had to work on farms. Without the students there wasn’t enough labour to keep the country running.

Anichkin goes on to discuss what he considers a more serious and worrying development in Russia. By the time nearly everyone had a university or college degree the entire culture had changed.
“Since everyone was ‘educated’, education started being seen as something worthless – people started sneering at the educated. Academics and intellectuals became despised, whereas excessive respect and admiration was suddenly showered on anyone who could fix something – much as plumbers are becoming the new elite in today’s Britain.”
Anichikin says further education should be well-funded, but is not for everybody. Having the best laboratories is fine so long as you have enough people left over to dust your microscopes and wash your test tubes, he adds. One thinks of the filthy state of some of our National Health Service hospitals, and is bound to agree.

How ironic that so-called “new” Labour has stolen one of its flagship policies from the old discredited Soviet Union! I have a poem about this sort of policy in my collection Poemotions.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Mistaking form for substance 

Before the days of breathalysers it used to be a test of sobriety for bobbies on the beat (otherwise police officers) to get the suspected drunk to say “British Constitution”. There’s not much left of that once-respected monument. Largely out of ignorance, Prime Minister Blair is thoughtlessly wrecking it with his “modernist” reforms.

A blast against this destructiveness comes from one who should know, the second most senior Law Lord Donald Nicholls. Writing in this month’s issue of Counsel, the journal of the Bar of England and Wales, Nicholls says that the Law Lords, due to be swept away by Blair (or rather summarily converted into Supreme Court Justices), have for 600 years been the final court of appeal and are “demonstrably independent from the executive and the legislature in every respect that matters”. So why replace them with an untried Supreme Court, which will have to build up its reputation from scratch? This is to mistake form for substance, Nicholls says. He adds of the Law Lords-
“They are a constant reminder of the historic origins of this country’s court of final appeal. Far from being harmful, the preservation of these features draws attention to the deep roots of our legal system. Continuity is a valuable attribute of a constitution, a source of stability and legitimate civic pride. Of course this manner of doing things is unique among the democracies of the world. But being different is not yet a crime against international law and order, nor is it a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Drab uniformity adds nothing. It is not a virtue.”
Will the Blairites take any notice? Almost certainly not. If you want full details of their iniquities read my book The Blight of Blairism.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Cloud Cuckoo Land? 

Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be judicially hanged in England. It happened in 1955. Ruth had committed a crime passionel, but that has never been an excuse recognised in England. One French reporter of the time wrote that in our country passion, except for cricket and betting, is always regarded as a shameful disease.

Why do I mention this now? Because an appeal against Ruth’s conviction has just been dismissed. This may surprise you. Isn’t it rather late, you may reasonably ask, for an appeal against a conviction nearly fifty years old? Well yes, in a sane society that might be so. But ours is not a sane society. It is full of madnesses, and one of these is trying to turn the clock back and reverse things in history we do not like.

This has happened before. In 1998 I wrote an article of which the opening paragraph was-
“The Times front page on 31 July 1998 carried the untruthful banner headline ‘Bentley is innocent’. Its law report for that day spelt out how the Court of Appeal, headed by Lord Bingham of Cornhill CJ, had overturned not only the Derek Bentley murder conviction but also a fundamental principle of English law.”
Derek Bentley had been hanged for the murder of Police Constable Miles on the night of 2 November 1952. Like Ruth Ellis, Bentley was tried and executed by the standards of his day. I well remember the public feeling at the time, and the anger aroused by the foul murder of a young constable at the hands of Bentley’s warehouse-breaking accomplice the 16-year old thug Christopher Craig. Bentley too was armed, with what his executioner Albert Pierrepoint called ‘a knuckle-duster with a vicious spike upon it - in itself a lethal enough weapon’. I ended my article with the following words-
“Our generation needs to be reminded of that pregnant saying of L. P. Hartley’s in The Go-Between. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Or to put it even more succinctly: you can’t change history, and you shouldn’t even try.”
Albert Pierrepoint also hanged Ruth Ellis. The result of the appeal was different in her case; it was thrown out by the three senior judges who heard it. It cost the taxpayer £200,000. One of the judges, Lord Justice Kay, said it had to be questioned whether this sort of thing was a sensible use of the limited resources of the Court of Appeal (judge-speak for “the whole thing is a waste of public time and public money"). As the judge pointed out, Ruth Ellis herself had consciously and deliberately chosen not to appeal at the time. Why did those responsible foolishly think they knew better nearly half a century later?

The answer may be that we are all living in Aristophanes’ prophetic creation Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Doubly irritating 

I found doubly irritating the following item in the latest issue of the London Sunday Times-
“David Blunkett [the Home Secretary] is to call on parents to teach their children respect for different cultural and religious groups. He will make the plea at a convention organised by the Scarman Trust in central London on Thursday.”
It used to be news that the Home Secretary had said something important. Now it is presented to us as news that he is going to say something important next Thursday. Will what he says on Thursday be reported to us on Friday, after he has actually said it (he might change his mind)? No of course it won’t, what a stupid question. On Friday they will report what the Home Secretary is going to say the following Wednesday. There is far too much of this sort of nonsense.

The other point of irritation is more substantial. On Thursday Mr Blunkett is going to have the ripe gall to call on parents to teach their children respect for different cultural and religious groups. What a sauce! Even if it were a good idea for parents to teach their children respect for different cultural and religious groups (which it is not), that would be no business of the Home Secretary. That is not what he is paid a large salary for out of money forcibly extracted from us taxpayers. Let Mr Blunkett stick to his proper business, and earn his salary.

What should its parents teach a child about different cultural and religious groups? They should teach it to look very narrowly and carefully indeed at any cultural or religious group other than its own. There are some funny people out there, and some who are not so funny. There are people who think you shouldn’t have a blood transfusion even if you will die without one. There are people who think it is their duty to have their female children mutilated in a very private place. There are even people who consider themselves justified in strapping a bomb to their body and blowing up perfect strangers to whom they have not been introduced. It’s very, very dangerous out there. You need to be very, very careful with whom you mix.

In any case respect is a thing that has to be earned, not handed out wholesale at the behest of politicians. No sensible person automatically respects a culture or religion just because it is there. It must be examined to see what its beliefs are and how its adherents behave. There used to be a Flat Earth Society. Would Mr Blunkett have had respect for that?

Postscript I am informed by the Internet that there still is a Flat Earth Society, indeed several of them. Which just goes to prove my point.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Tact, truth, Aids and homophobia 

I read in yesterday’s London Sunday Times that the President of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa, is “not known for tact”. This reputation apparently rests on how, when winning an award (at the last CHOGM summit) for curbing aids in Uganda, Mkapa explained in his acceptance speech that his success was largely due to the fact that his country has no homosexuals.

Dismissing exclamations like “My dear, how can he possibly know?” I pass to the question of truth. It is surely accepted as true, even by promiscuous gay men, that the Aids pandemic started with their tendency to indulge in unprotected anal intercourse. So it may very well be true, as Mkapa said, that Uganda was helped in its fight against the disease by having few if any homosexuals among its population. If it is true why was it “tactless” for Mkapa to mention it? The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edn) has a splendid definition of tact-
“Ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others, so as to avoid giving offence, or win good will; skill or judgement in dealing with men or negotiating difficult or delicate situations; the faculty of saying or doing the right thing at the right time.”
Why was President Mkapa regarded as not saying the right thing at the right time when he explained that his success in defeating Aids was largely due to the fact that his country had no homosexuals? Presumably because his remark was regarded as homophobic. But can it ever be homophobic to tell the truth?

It is also part of the truth here that anal intercourse is not confined to some gays; it is also practised by some heterosexuals. It is a filthy, unnatural practice, but it is really nothing to do with homophobia. Many gay men loathe it just as much as many heterosexuals do. So let’s get our facts straight before we cast stones at poor President Mkapa.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Doors, chimneys and windows 

Browsing though a pamphlet I wrote 13 years ago about the Northern Ireland problem I came across the following.

"Until modern times the nine counties that make up historic Ulster were cut off from the South of Ireland by 'the necklace of Ulster', a chain of mountains, lakes, bogs, drumlins, rivers and forests. It was a natural barrier, that led many Ulster folk to regard Scotland as closer to them than the South. It produced contrasts still noticeable today. In 1756, on a journey from the South, John Wesley wrote in his journal: 'No sooner did we enter Ulster than we noticed the difference. The ground was cultivated as in England, and the cottages not only neat, but with doors, chimneys and windows'."

Is that why so many Ulster folk still regard themselves as British rather than Irish?

Today's quote on the Northern Ireland problem is from Prime Minister Tony Blair. He is reported in this week's Spectator as having said to members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (the constitutional face of nationalism): "You guys - your problem is, you don't have guns". Apart from the fact that no British Prime Minister should address a respectable body of men as "guys" - especially when on duty - this is a shameful gibe. Only a politician seasoned in treachery through constant dallyings with a bunch of IRA murderers could stoop this low.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Highly procreative territories 

People often distort the meaning of words in order to advance their argument. In a letter in the London Times of 3 December 2003, Professor Sir Kenneth Stuart, former medical adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat, complains about ‘poverty’ in ‘the developing world’. In both cases he distorts the meaning.

The word ‘poverty’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edn) as ‘[t]he condition of having little or no wealth or material possessions’. Sir Kenneth uses it as though it meant ‘less well off than those in richer countries’, thus importing a sliding scale varying with time. Sir Kenneth talks of ‘the developing world’ to denote backward countries whether they are developing or not (most are not). Thus is language debased and made less useful.

The difficulty with highly procreative territories like many countries in Africa is that raising their prosperity level simply leads to higher populations, still living in the same dire conditions. It is an uncomfortable fact that famine and disease have always been Nature’s way of keeping populations down to sustainable levels. In many places they still are. In the rich countries they have been replaced as controls by education and contraception, but it’s a slow process impeded often by religious bigotry.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Should half the population be dangerous? 

The British Labour Government have adopted the absurd policy of requiring half the population to be university graduates. The concept of a university was weakened by the previous Conservative Government when by the stroke of a pen they abruptly doubled the number of English universities by turning the polytechnics into universities. Here they forgot their great 19th-century leader Disraeli who said that a university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning. By that last word he did not just mean that a university is a place where pupils learn.

Of course it is that; but it should be much more. Hazlitt said that learning is the knowledge of that which none but the learned know. Pope famously warned that a little learning is a dangerous thing. When half the population are graduates will our country have too many dangerous people?

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Bennion undraped 

Years ago Karl Miller said he admired my writing and would I review for his new baby the London Review of Books? I stumbled at the first hurdle when the assistant editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, now the editor, interfered too much with my copy (as I thought).

I called Karl the other day and asked him for a quote to puff my recently-published collection Poemotions: Bennion Undraped. Apparently I admitted to him that this volume was ‘embarrassing’. (No one should grow old who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous, said John Mortimer.) Karl wrote back to say that the poems are indeed embarrassing ‘but they are also interesting’. He said he was not on their wavelength. He was sorry not to be more helpful ‘but have the feeling that the poems will do all right without words of mine’. Hope he’s right about that.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

World’s Policeman in the Maghreb 

The value of the United States as the World’s Policeman is illustrated by the current situation in the Maghreb, the name given to the area of North Africa comprising Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. The State Department said last week that the regimes in these countries are under threat from fanatical Islamists, adding that the co-operation of all three regimes in the War on Terror has been ‘excellent’.

In return there has been economic help from the United States, coupled with encouragement towards more democratic processes and enhanced human rights. For example Morocco, enjoying a burgeoning economy, has had its aid from Washington quadrupled and has extended women’s rights. Colin Powell yesterday started a series of meetings in the area.
[See London Times 2 December 2003, leading article.]

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

The British Honours system 

A man whom I shall not name has insulted Her Britannic Majesty. She offered to honour him by admitting him to the Most Honourable Order of the British Empire with an award of the OBE. He rejected the honour with contumely, saying mention of the British Empire reminded him of slavery. (He might remember that slavery still flourishes in the part of Africa with which he is associated.)

Why do we British cling to our absurd honours system? The London Times reported on 25 November 2003 that supporters of the system argue it rewards talented and ambitious civil servants who would otherwise have to be paid much more to prevent them defecting to the private sector. As I said in a letter the Times published on 29 November, this suggests that for those civil servants the prospect of an honour from the Queen is in effect a bribe which is practicably quantifiable in monetary terms. I pointed out that in a leading article (same day) the Times carried this wider, saying an important motivation for many good deeds is a hoped-for award of honours.

I added that, in order not to prejudice a prospective honour, many people feel obliged to tailor their conduct accordingly - as J. B. Priestley brilliantly showed in his play An Inspector Calls. I suggested that this appeal to vanity is an unhealthy feature of British society, since its effect is to bolster foolish pride and restrict people’s freedom of action.