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February 2004

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Mr Toad takes the road 

Kenneth Grahame’s Mr Toad from Wind in the Willows is the paradigm of the foolish, vain motorist. Some wise words were uttered about our present-day Mr Toads in a Times leader on 28 February 2004.

As a culture, we react with horror to rail crashes while accepting the far higher number of motoring casualties as a price worth paying. There is an inherent casualness in our driving culture – we are aware of the benefits, but have never properly factored in the responsibility that accompanies the potential danger posed by the automobile.
On 19 March 1998 the Daily Express published the following from me as its Letter of the Day.
As a driver myself, I was astonished to read [16 March] that the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) approves use by drivers of hands-free telephones. Edmund King, their head of campaigns, says the RAC will resist any moves to limit this. All I can say is, God help us all! It should be a serious criminal offence to use a telephone when driving - whether hand-held or hands-free. To employ a large part of one’s brain to converse with another person on the telephone is to use only a small part in attending to the road. This is suicidal, if not murderous.

I have been driving for sixty years without one criminal conviction. My mileage is nearing a million. The conclusion from all that experience is simple. When driving, you need both hands on the wheel and both ears fully attentive to the sounds of the road. At the wheel, I do not even listen to the radio or cassette player. If I did I might miss an ambulance, fire or police siren. I might fail to hear an urgent horn or cry of warning. I switch off from my passengers’ conversations among themselves, and insist they do not chat to me. I have only one thing on my mind when I drive, and that is the job in hand. The car is a killer machine, and the licensed driver is its trusted controller. Let’s remember that, whatever foolishness the RAC put out.
The reaction to this was I suppose predictable. On 20 March 1998 I sent a follow-up letter which the Daily Express did not publish.
Ageism is defined as mindless prejudice against old people just because they are old. The reactions to my letter of 19 March (about the need to concentrate when driving) illustrate this. Absurd assumptions were made just because I admitted having been an (unconvicted) driver for 60 years. Perhaps more disturbing than the vice of ageism is driver megalomania, also manifested in that reaction. No wonder thousands are still killed and injured on our roads every year, if this is the general attitude to the need for drivers to concentrate.

Twenty-five-year old James Gosnold [Letters 20 March] does condescend to accept that ‘a degree of concentration’ is required, but makes it clear in his innocence that he thinks this is far less than 100%. Your columnist Martin Samuel [20 March] parades fantasies about my wearing a hat when driving, proceeding at 21 mph oblivious to the tailback behind me, and so forth. Quite a good joke if you sit on your brain.

In fact I do not wear a hat when driving my BMW series 3 convertible, and am careful to keep up with the flow of traffic. The concentration I spoke of means I know at all times exactly what is going on behind me as well as in front. The world out there is unpredictable, and needs 100% attention.

FBBB85

Saturday, February 28, 2004

The blame for slavery 

In a Times letter today Miss Mary Ellen Synon writes from leafy Hampshire with sickening inevitability: ‘Slavery was a shame shared by all the colonies, and by Britain . . .’ What she should have written was: ‘Slavery was a shame shared by all the colonies, and by Britain, and by the African chiefs who sold their people into slavery in the first place . . .’ (See Blog FBBB56.)

What is more, while the British mended their ways nearly two centuries ago, the African chiefs are still at it. I take from my files part of an unpublished article I wrote in 1999.
A report from Robin Lodge in Nairobi (Times, 9 July 1999) reveals that a United Nations agency has accused a Christian human rights group of encouraging the slave trade in southern Sudan by handing over $100,000 (£64,000) to Arab traders to buy the freedom of more than 2,000 slaves. Julianna Lindsey, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Children’s Fund operation Lifeline Sudan, said that while she appreciated the benefits to the individuals concerned there were fears that paying money to redeem slaves could serve only to support the market. ‘The issue is the same whether it is 500 or 2,000 slaves’ she said. ‘Money in Southern Sudan is very attractive and the people involved in the trade will use that’. Her remarks followed the announcement by Christian Solidarity International, an organisation based in Switzerland, that it had paid Arab middlemen the equivalent of $50 a head to obtain the freedom of 2,035 slaves in a seven-day trip to southern Sudan - bringing the number of slaves it has redeemed to more than 11,000 since 1995.
Perhaps that will help to educate Miss Mary Ellen Synon, and dissuade her from the common feeling of many young Britons that they want to dish the dirt on their own country and forget all about the rest.
FBBB84

Friday, February 27, 2004

The language of command 

It is now politically incorrect to use the language of command. This even applies to the most commanding entity in our constitution, the Queen in Parliament.

Formerly if there was to be say a new Supreme Court the Act would say in commanding tones ‘There shall be a Supreme Court’. Today’s equivalent is illustrated by the Constitutional Reform Bill introduced into the House of Lords on 24 February 2004. This chattily says ‘There is to be a Supreme Court of the United Kingdom’, rather as one might say ‘there is to be a thunderstorm, so they say’.

When God was creating the Universe He said, according to the Book of Genesis, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. He went on to say ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters’. He used the same language each time He continued the creation process. We might follow suit, except that that too is the now forbidden language of command.

I wonder if, in Mr Tony Blair’s New Model Army, the Sergeant Major says softly to the squad of recruits: ‘There is to be a forming of fours’.
FBBB83

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Sexual autonomy 

The Government have taken up a new human rights term: sexual autonomy. OED2 defines autonomy as ‘liberty to follow one’s will, personal freedom’. It is good that we should have that liberty officially acknowledged in the sexual field, but does the acceptance go far enough? I suggest not.

Oliver Phillips of the University of Westminster points out on the Internet that the July 2000 Home Office review of sex offences Setting the Boundaries, a prelude to last year’s Sexual Offences Act (SOA), is explicitly premised on an attempt to achieve a just balance between the twin concepts of sexual autonomy and protection of the vulnerable. He says it is arguable that this is a more effective basis for defining sexual offences and protecting physical integrity than was previously the case, adding a note of warning.
But achieving this balance requires the successful negotiation of the tension that must exist between autonomy and protection and raises the difficult question of how one defines these in relation to sex, desire and pleasure. Sex and desire are both inherently relational, so how does one go about defining sexual autonomy? How can we claim a sexual autonomy that is not inevitably contingent on socio-economic, gendered relationships? Furthermore, is there not something ironic in relying on the State to preserve autonomy, particularly in the most intimate context of relationships and desire? Does an increasing espousal and articulation of autonomy simply provide the frame for an ever more normative web of state regulation?
Good question. We can glean some answers from an official follow-up to the SOA issued on 12 February by the Sentencing Advisory Panel. In this consultation paper the Panel say that violation of the victim’s sexual autonomy is the most serious form of harm caused by sexual offences and is inherent in all the non-consensual offences under the SOA, adding it may also be present in cases where the victim is coerced or exploited into taking part in sexual activity (for example, in cases of familial abuse and abuse of trust) and in commercial exploitation offences such as ‘trafficking’. The seriousness of the violation may depend on a number of factors, including especially the nature of the sexual behaviour. The fact that offences involving sexual penetration are more serious than non-penetrative assaults is reflected in the higher maximum penalty.

The Panel say discussion now needs to be broadened to consider whether the new sentencing guidelines for offences under the SOA should distinguish between penile penetration of the genital organs and penile penetration of the mouth and also whether they should distinguish between penile penetration and penetration with another part of the body or an object. The Panel have provisionally concluded that it is impossible to say that any one of these forms of offending is inherently a more serious violation of the victim’s sexual autonomy than another.

The SOA offence of causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent covers situations where, for example, a victim is forced to carry out a sexual act involving their own person, such as self-masturbation, or to engage in sexual activity with a third party, or to engage in sexual activity with the offender (for example, where a woman forces a man to penetrate her, which in Setting the Boundaries was regarded as ‘a serious assault on the man’s sexual autonomy’). The panel say the two main factors determining the seriousness of an offence of causing or inciting sexual activity without consent are ‘the nature of the sexual activity (as an indication of the degree of harm caused to the victim through the violation of his or her sexual autonomy) and the level of the offender’s culpability, which will be higher when the victim is forced to engage in sexual activity with the offender or with another victim than in cases where there is no sexual contact between the victim and offender or anyone else’.

In the case of the SOA offence of inducement, threat or deception to procure sexual activity with a person with a mental disorder the Panel say the level of inducement, threat or deception used is irrelevant, as a person with a mental disorder will be susceptible to very low level threats, bribes etc. ‘Their sexual autonomy is easily overborne by a manipulating offender.’

The missing factor in all this is the aspect of sexual autonomy that resides not in the right not to be invaded by others but in the right positively to fulfil one’s sexuality through one’s own initiatory actions. Here young people and those with mental disability are particularly deprived.

Footnote This is my 82nd daily Blog without a break. I shall now take a few days off.
FBBB82

Friday, February 20, 2004

More Police stroppiness 

I am writing again about what I call Police stroppiness towards respectable middle class people who pay their wages. In previous Blogs I have described the following-
· Cambridgeshire Police being stroppy towards Professor Stephen Hawking over injuries they suspect to have been inflicted on him by his wife (FBBB68).
· North Wales Police impudently questioning BBC Director-General Greg Dyke about Anne Robinson’s anti-Welsh rant (FBBB69).
· North Wales Police being stroppy to Felicity Elphick, prospective Conservative candidate for the European Parliament (FBBB69).
· Cheshire Police presuming to question the Lord Bishop of Chester about obviously harmless remarks made by him concerning medical help for homosexuals (FBBB71).
I am now going to add to that list by mentioning the disgraceful way the Cambridgeshire Police treated Robin Page last summer.

Page is the founder and honorary director of the Countryside Restoration Trust, which rejects intensive, industrialized farming and the practices which have turned so much of our English countryside into featureless and soulless prairies. It warns against globalisation and of the damage which this is doing to our small farmers, small shopkeepers and the quality of the food we eat. He used to feature on the very popular BBV TV programme ‘One Man and his Dog’. I will describe his encounter with the Cambridgeshire Police in his own words.
My apparent crime was that I had told a crowd of several thousand at a country fair at Frampton on Severn that country people should have the same rights and protection under the law as other minority groups in multicultural Britain. Free speech? Dream on. I had started my speech by saying ‘If there is a black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged, lesbian lorry driver present, then you may be offended at what I am going to say, as I want the same rights that you have got already’. Nearly all the crowd laughed and clapped. (Right Now!/Jan/Feb 2003 p3.)
Edward Canfield (Steadfast Magazine, Issue 9) continues the story.
Two police officers came to Robin’s home, arrested him, took him to Cambridge police station and threw him in a cell. The officers would not tell Robin what he was supposed to have said that justified such drastic and oppressive action. As Robin writes in the Right Now! article: ‘How quickly a free country can slide into the habits of a police state and how simple it is to intimidate and harass those of us who object’.
Canfield says it is ironic that the behaviour of the police, and of whoever in the government was behind their action, fully justifies the comments which Page had made originally in a comical or satirical fashion. Their behaviour, he adds, does indeed prove that a countryside campaigner and an Englishman no longer possesses the right to free speech which we once took for granted and which other groups and individuals in our society still do possess.
FBBB81

Thursday, February 19, 2004

A luxury we can't afford 

Can we still have what we are accustomed to think of as impeccable fair trials when the person tried is a suspected terrorist suicide bomber? The Times published the following letter from me on 13 February 2004-
The letter signed by members of the Bar (7 February) refers to three fair trial principles: a public hearing by an impartial judge and jury of one’s peers, proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and the right to know the case against one. As another member of the Bar (of 53 years’ standing) I would point out that impeccable fair trial standards can be preserved only in a peaceful, ordered society. Where national safety is gravely threatened, these civilised standards may unfortunately need to be lowered. I recall that this happened with Regulation 18b in World War Two, which allowed enemy aliens to be locked up without trial. We felt it essential to do this for our own safety.

A new situation has now developed with the emergence of determined terrorists prepared to sacrifice their own lives. Parliament, the symbol of our democratic freedom, is currently disfigured by ugly concrete barriers designed to stop their approach. Mr Jonathan Rule (letter, 4 February), says it is ‘frightening’ that, under [the Home Secretary] Mr Blunkett’s plans to get a conviction of a suspected terrorist the person deciding will need only to conclude ‘I think he did it’. Most law-abiding citizens think it far more frightening to have their lives threatened by suicide bombers.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, supported this argument in a speech to the Law Society on 17 February (reported Daily Mail, 18 February). He said the country’s safety comes before a terror suspect’s human rights, and that there are ‘no options we should refuse to consider’. He added-
Lives are at stake. The safety of the people is the first concern of any Government.
Mr Richard Fleet responded to my letter with the following (Times 18 February), which raises the essential issue in a stark way-
Mr Bennion comments, rightly, that law-abiding citizens think it frightening to have their lives threatened by suicide bombers. However, one of the prices we pay for a civilised society is the protection afforded to persons suspected of crime. There is a rule of thumb that it is better for ten guilty persons to go free than for one innocent person to be falsely convicted, and I believe we depart from this principle at our peril.
This contradicts my contention that impeccable fair trial standards can be preserved only in a peaceful, ordered society. Who is right? The fact is that in a desperate situation no society can afford kid gloves or it will go under. Is our present situation desperate enough for this to apply?

The supposed rule of thumb Mr Fleet cites is not truly that. In real life no such ten-to-one bargain is actually on offer. If the authorities had arrested ten people they suspected of genuinely plotting suicide attacks, the public would rightly expect those very dangerous people to be held in custody while the danger subsists, trial or no trial. There should be effective checks on the genuineness of the information, but a public trial establishing guilt beyond reasonable doubt may well be a luxury the state cannot realistically afford.
FBBB80

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Let’s have some literacy here 

I'm sorry to have to return to the dreaded subject of edspeak (see FBBB20) but it is unavoidable if I am to do my duty. The education of the nation’s children is in the hands of people who are unable to use the English language, and it is an alarming situation.

Yesterday a Government department calling itself the DfES (Department for Education and Skills) published what it called the Interim Report of the Working Group on 14-19 Reform. It was masterminded by Mike Tomlinson, formerly HM Chief Inspector of Schools. I obtained an eight-page official summary which is so full of impenetrable jargon as to be meaningless to one not trained and steeped in edspeak. In yesterday’s Newsnight Jeremy Paxman also confessed himself baffled by the language of the report

What, for a start, is ‘14-19 Reform’? Wouldn’t this be more than a trifle elliptical? Well yes it would. The full version, if they could be bothered, might be something on the lines of ‘Reform of the system of state education of pupils aged between 14 and 19’. This wouldn’t do for Mr Tomlinson and his colleagues however. The term ‘pupil’ is anathema to them, as is ‘student’. The word they use throughout the report is ‘learner’. No doubt when the final report comes out it will recommend the wearing of L-plates, as with novice motorists.

I could not begin to tell you what the interim report recommends, because to me its language is impenetrable. That is scarcely surprising because the language of its ‘remit’ (formerly known as terms of reference) is impenetrable. The Working Group were asked to make proposals to achieve three things. The first was ‘strengthened structure and content of full-time vocational programmes’. Next these must require an ‘overall amount of assessment manageable for learners and teachers alike’. The final requirement was ‘a unified framework of qualifications that stretches the performance of learners, motivates progression, and recognises different levels of achievement’. Meaningless, windy, waffle would be a kind description of all this.

The report calls for ‘the opportunity to combine different types of leaning’ [sic]. It requires pupils (I refuse to say learners) to acquire ‘transferable skills’ without saying what these are supposed to be. A person with a skill can only transfer it by teaching it to a pupil. Even then the teacher does not really ‘transfer’ the skill, because this of course remains with him or her after the lessons are finished.

Another atrocious piece of grammar in this document is the following: ‘Some Higher Education (HE) complain that young people leave education and training without [necessary knowledge and skills]’. The ellipsis here is gaping. Presumably what is meant is ‘Some teachers in Higher Education (HE) complain . . .’ Why couldn't they add the necessary two words?

The report says its recommendations will provide ‘a flexible ladder of progression’. This is a confused metaphor of alarming proportions. Anyone who tries to climb a flexible ladder is likely to find themselves quickly thrown to the ground. The sloppy language continues with references to ‘MAs’ (who turn out to be not Masters of Arts but Modern Apprenticeships) and ‘pre-16 learners’ and ‘post-16 learners’, which of course (unintentionally) leaves out learners who are actually 16.

The report ends by telling us that between February and May 2004 the Working Party will be engaging with a range of partners and stakeholders. The true stakeholders here are the unfortunate ‘learners’ who will have to suffer the results of this process, but I don’t think that is what they mean here. I don’t know what they mean, because they do not deign to tell us who ‘stakeholders’ are meant to be.

The Working Party sign off by admitting that their proposals will cause another bout of upheaval. However they promise to try to ensure that the upheaval is not ‘excessive’. Long-suffering teachers will have a wry smile at that.

I had my forebodings when yesterday morning I heard Mike Tomlinson try to explain his proposals on the BBC Radio Four Today programme. I wasn’t reassured when I heard him say he hoped they would result in ‘less examinations’. It’s fewer Mr Tomlinson, not less. Can we please have some literacy here. After all it’s supposed to be about education. Well isn’t it?
FBBB79

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

A mystery plaque 

I call it Lovers Lane, though its real name is Blackall Road. For me it is now Exeter’s most romantic street. It goes along the edge of a deep chasm through which runs what was once called the London and South-Western Railway, and has Exeter Prison at one end. Not perhaps where you would look for romance, but that can pop up anywhere.

There is a low brick wall along that side of the road. Attached to it, about a metre from the ground, I spotted yesterday a small bronze quadrangular plaque. I guess it was commissioned and illicitly attached by some besotted young man, for I can’t imagine a sober municipal corporation authorising it. The wording on the plaque is-
I don’t like text in art
but walking along this road
holding the hand of a girl I loved
was the happiest I’ve ever been.
No date. No name. In conjecturing how the little bronze plaque came to be there, your imagination is as good as mine (if not better).

I don’t think there is anything further to add at the moment, but I have hopes that someone who knows more might spread that knowledge and tell me about it.
FBBB78

Monday, February 16, 2004

A clarion call 

Roger Scruton has written a new book, The Need for Nations. Judging by an article in the Sunday Times for 15 February 2004 based on the book, many of his themes have already appeared in these Blogs. He argues that the secular nation state is necessary for democracy and the rule of law. Opposed to it is the theocratic whole-life dominion of the Islamic creed. This leaves no room for the state to govern because under it the imam governs totally, applying tenets of a religion which presumes to rule every aspect of its adherents’ lives.

The article begins with France, obviously with British parallels in mind. In France a law has just been passed forbidding the wearing of religious symbols by state school pupils. This is directed at the hijab worn by Muslim girls. The function of French state schools, applying the principle of laïcité, is to produce French citizens. The hijab is at odds with laïcité.

Muslims in France, says Scruton, have brought back anti-Semitism – unknown there since before World War Two. They are disloyal to their new French nationality, for their loyalty is to Islam and the fight against secularism. Scruton goes on-
The French story could be told of the other nation states of Europe. The secular order of the nation state is under threat. Freedom of speech is disappearing and the ordinary citizens of European states are deeply anxious about the long-term consequences.
In Britain the gravest feature is the enemy within. The response of our elite is not to affirm national identity but to repudiate it. This is reinforced by the ‘traitorous clerks’ in the media. [The reference is to the trahison des clercs – see FBBB51.] Scruton says that this repudiation of nationality by the elite has been a persistent voice in the European culture since the war, and is one of the factors that have made it so difficult to discuss immigration rationally and constructively. The nation state is also under attack by the European Union, with its new-found crimes such as xenophobia. In our country this was formerly no more than a tolerated state of mind.

Prescient voices have long been uttering such warnings. In 1992 Clifford Longley, then religious correspondent of the Times, said the introduction of state-funded Muslim schools was being resisted because they would not support values which the community shared, or at least esteemed, and were not thought to be a contribution to the public good. Adding that Muslims ‘want the schools to be cultural ghettos in which they can protect their children from the influences of Western civilisation’, he said that these views had to be tacit ‘because it is not “politically correct” to say so’ (Times, 11 January 1992).
FBBB77

Sunday, February 15, 2004

A daily dose of the Bible 

I am on Day 49 of The Cambridge Daily Reading Bible (see FBBB25). The language is everyday modern English, with only occasional faint reminders of King James. This indicates that it means business, and must be taken seriously as today-speak (even though there are many obvious absurdities). The old tales, learnt in childhood Sunday School, are in modern dress stripped of most of their mystique. They become even less convincing.

With the Old Testament section I am still in the Book of Genesis, interspersed with Psalms and Proverbs. Here the absurdities are plentiful. It is strange how some being called ‘the Lord’ interferes freely in everyday life, giving his orders person to person and usually being obeyed. At the start he is called God.

God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters. It’s not much of an explanation. The waters were already in position when the process of creation began. How did they get there?

God said ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’. To whom did he say it? There was at that moment no one there. What likeness would that be, since the image apparently embodied both sexes? We now know what the empty face of the planet Mars looks like. How could God have been talking to himself in such a landscape?

Later the first human creature is referred to as ‘the man’. The Lord God takes one of his ribs, which he makes into a woman to be ‘a helper as his partner’. The man ‘named his wife Eve’. The Lord God obligingly made garments out of skins for the two of them, thereby confirming that animals were created for the use of mankind.

The story continues. Eve gives birth to Cain, then Abel. Cain kills Abel. Then the Lord says to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain says he does not know, cheekily adding ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ We meet Methusaleh, who lived for precisely 969 years. His grandson Noah made a wooden ark of rescue when the Lord came to regret having made humankind and decided to annihilate them because of their wickedness. The Lord tells Noah to put pairs of animals and birds, one of each sex, in the ark so that they and their progeny would be saved from destruction. Then the Lord brings the destroying flood over the earth.

Later the Lord makes a covenant with Noah never to do it again; and in future to put up with whatever mankind decides to do. We are told the names of the descendants of Noah. After many generations they build a city, with a tower. What happened then?
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. The Lord came down to see the city and the tower [the Tower of Babel] . . . And the Lord said ‘. . . let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech’.
What on earth was the point of that? We are not told. I shall not continue trying to describe what the Book of Genesis tells us. But I shall go on reading it, a little bit at a time, day by day, in amazed fascination. It founded great religions which are still with us.

The other daily fare so far has been New Testament extracts from the Gospel [meaning ‘good news’] according to St Mark. It makes a remarkable contrast, and is much more realistic. For that reason it is more convincing, but it still leaves many questions unanswered.

I remember that the Roman Catholic Church used to withhold the Holy Scriptures from the laity because they needed the reader to be learned if they were to be understood. How wise that now seems.
FBBB76

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Not the way to do it 

I have received another email from Iftikhar Ahmad of the London School of Islamics (for the first see FBBB37). It is again full of unverified assertions.

Iftikhar Ahmad says the West as it exists today is the product of Islamic science, civilisation, culture and learning. He alleges that one of the teacher’s unions, ATL, regards Muslim schools as Osama bin Laden Academies.

The ATL is the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Its website says it is a professional association and trade union representing over 160,000 teachers, lecturers and education support staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. ATL members work in both the maintained and independent sectors – from early years through to further education – and include all those directly involved in the delivery of education to pupils and students.

Any Muslim teacher or lecturer can join ATL. Among its official objects is ‘to promote the equality of opportunity and treatment of its members’. So what does Iftikhar Ahmad mean by saying, without verifying reference, that ATL regards Muslim schools as Osama bin Laden Academies?

The ATL includes on its website the fact that all educational institutions (including itself) must comply with new specific orders on racial equality imposed by the Home Secretary on 3 December 2001. It reminds people in education that the Race Relations Acts place a general duty on schools and other public authorities to-

· eliminate unlawful racial discrimination
· promote equality of opportunity
· promote good race relations between people of different racial groups.
I hold no brief for ATL. My own educational body is the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT), which I helped to found and of which I was the first national chairman. But I believe in fair play, and so come to the aid of ATL against what appears to be a wholly unfounded libel.

The London School of Islamics says it wants to remove prejudice in Britain against Muslims. For an Islamic body to hurl unverified accusations against respectable British institutions is not the way to go about doing that.
FBBB75

Friday, February 13, 2004

As bad as I feared 

The Blairite demolition of the British constitution continued with the publication on 10 February of a report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs. This followed the Government's announcement last summer of proposals for a new Supreme Court and a new Judicial Appointments Commission and for the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor. I responded to that immediately with the following letter in the Times of 14 June-
If we abolish the office of Lord Chancellor we shall deprive the unwritten British constitution of one of its most brilliant and useful features. It is unsatisfactory to have a complete separation of powers between judiciary, executive and legislature, because this does not allow for the settling of disagreements between them. The British genius has been to evolve, over the centuries, a Cabinet office, that of Lord Chancellor, which allows its holder to intercede at the centre and put forward and defend the views of the judiciary at the heart of government. This is of inestimable value constitutionally. Those who consider this office an anomaly, and want to get rid of it, do not understand its nature. I fear that applies to many of the so-called ‘reforms’ instituted by Mr Blair.
This letter attracted considerable support, but was of course ignored by the wrecking crew. I do not include in that pejorative term the Select Committee mentioned above, whose report says some wise things. It points out that a major part of the role of the Lord Chancellor is the protection of the judiciary from political pressure and goes on-
The way in which these fundamental proposals were announced, as a part of a Cabinet reshuffle and therefore without consultation or advice, has created anxieties amongst the senior members of the judiciary among others, and was felt by some supporters of the changes to have been unhelpful in presenting the case in favour of them. These are not simple matters on which to legislate.
How true! As for the Supreme Court, the committee point out that the present system for appeals works. The arguments for change are mainly about perception (as to which see FBBB10). Because of delays, say the committee, the new court might have to sit in the House of Lords. ‘However, this would result in the same people doing the same job, in the same place (possibly with the same staff).’

The committee point out that the new Judicial Appointments Commission will be a more expensive way of doing what is done now. They conclude that the proposed changes consequent on the redistribution of responsibilities and proposed abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor are being bundled together and dealt with over a very short timescale as a single reform. ‘This is unwieldy and, in the case of some of the proposals, precipitate.’ The committee conclude that the consultation process has been too short and the legislative timetable is too restrictive to deal with changes which are so far reaching in their effects.

It is all turning out just as badly as I feared.
FBBB74

Thursday, February 12, 2004

The truth about Kelly 

I have been reading the House of Lords debate on 4 February concerning Lord Hutton’s report on the death of Dr David Kelly. I myself took an extreme view about the behaviour of the BBC, sending the following letter to the Times on 1 February (which was not published).
I suggest that the time has come for the Government to advise Her Majesty to revoke the royal charter establishing the British Broadcasting Corporation. It is no longer appropriate for this country to have a state broadcasting organization. It should be left to the free market to provide a variety of TV and radio outlets each advancing its own point of view. I make this suggestion because the BBC now work on the assumption that patriotism is no longer a factor in our national life. On 8 July last year you published a letter in which I said-
When I was serving as an RAF pilot in the Second World War it was not expected that the BBC would be impartial as between Churchill and Hitler. Why in the Iraq war do they think it right to be impartial as between Blair and Saddam Hussein?
The BBC never answered this. In his letter to the Prime Minister of 21 March last year, revealed in yesterday’s Sunday Times, Mr Greg Dyke insisted that the BBC’s coverage of the Iraq war (and presumably any other war in which this country is engaged) must be ‘balanced’, by which he clearly meant impartial, rather than aimed at supporting the British war effort in which our troops are engaged. This stance is inappropriate for the state broadcasting organization. The massive support for Greg Dyke shown by the BBC staff shows that its personnel would not support an abandonment of its stance of impartiality as between this country’s enemies and its Government. Therefore it is time for it to be disbanded.
Lord Birt, the BBC Director-General before Greg Dyke, spoke in the House of Lords debate. He said he was deeply troubled to see an institution he so revered suffer the worst setback in its history. He added that at the root of this crisis was a slipshod piece of journalism by Andrew Gilligan, and went on-
Let us be clear: it was not ‘mostly right’ [as Gilligan claimed].The central thrust of the story was unfounded . . . the BBC’s treatment of the story was deeply unsatisfactory. Faced with a tip-off on a contentious matter, experienced journalists test their sources rigorously. They proceed with watchful scepticism, scrutinising the emerging information from every angle. Through further inquiry, they build up their knowledge. They put the allegations to those involved. Painstakingly, they build up the fullest possible picture . . . One reason why this did not happen is that the programme itself [the Today programme] failed to exercise due editorial scrutiny over its reporter. Moreover, when grave allegations are to be made—and especially when there is a risk of libel—the programme's senior editorial staff need to bring into play the organisation's best editorial and legal minds. That did not happen either . . . Rather, we had blind defence and sophistry. We heard the story being supported on the grounds that it was sufficient to report a source, provided that the source was reported accurately, whether or not the story was true.
Lord Desai, who followed Birt, put his finger on the crux of the matter.
Mr Gilligan shopped his witness. When Dr Kelly realised that, he responded as anyone would when told that he was the source of a story. He felt exposed and humiliated. In my view, that is why he committed suicide.

FBBB73

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

How dry do you like your Martini? 

When asked by a kind friend the other day how dry I liked my Martini I replied that the question does not interest me. It has not interested me since the day in August 2003 when for medical reasons I gave up alcohol. Before that it would have interested me a good deal, just as it did Dorothy Parker. She said-
I like to drink Martinis:
Two at the very most.
Three, and I’m under the table;
Four, and I’m under the host.
The cocktail was a potent potation of our recently lost civilisation, a that word comes from ‘civility’ - a concept scarcely recognised in Blairite Britain. Cocktails go back a long way. OED2 gives an 1806 reference: ‘cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters’. Not far out, even today. Myself I would substitute gin for ‘spirits of any kind’. Some would allow vodka.

A drenched Robert Benchley said ‘I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini’. James Bond wanted his cocktails shaken not stirred. Not a bad principle to follow, though some would allow exceptions. There is more to it than that however. In the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in the United States following the end of Prohibition, it was considered that a gentleman should be expert in mixing cocktails for his guests. This even applied to Presidents of that country. A gratified Noel Coward humbly put on record that, on joining Franklin D. Roosevelt for cocktails in his study, he found that the great man skilfully mixed him a Martini without showing the slightest contempt for his lowly origin.

The essence of the recently lost art of cocktail mixing and tippling is that one does not merely look for the powerful hit of raw alcohol. The drinker is also prepared to bring to the raised glass and heightened spirit a sophisticated knowledge of the true nature of gin, and an awareness and appreciation of its subtleties. It does have subtleties, though entertainment must come first. Gin has within its essence many subtle flavours. That partly accounts for what I call the dry Martini syndrome. It is usually accepted that a dry Martini consists of a very large proportion of gin and a very small proportion of dry Martini or similar vermouth. Here lies the problem. Not only does gin consist of complex, carefully adjusted, ingredients; but vermouth does too.

Allesandro Martini and Luigi Rossi founded their famous vermouth company in Turin in 1863. For many years they printed on their labels an account of the wondrous mixes within their bottle of ‘extra dry’ Martini. Successors have ceased to enlighten their public in this way. That does not apply to the French Noilly Prat, another celebrated mixer and marketer of vermouth essences. On their bottles they claim a foundation date of 1813 and still say that their vermouth is mainly based on the ageing in oak, in the open air, of the Picpoul and Clairette white wines, followed by the blending and infusing with them of twenty different herbs. Mark that.

Mark also that from its earliest days London dry gin has been flavoured with a dozen or more different botanicals (as the cognoscenti call them). Juniper berries are the best known, but we also have the dried skins of bitter and sweet oranges and lemons, almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, fennel, and other spices. Those who worship the dry Martini, or used to, are or were persons of taste and discernment. Possibly without knowing very much about it, they are or were uneasy at the thought that gin (carefully composed of a scrupulously measured variety of ingredients) should in their favourite drink be promiscuously mixed with uncertain quantities of vermouth equally so composed (but of course in a different way and with different ingredients). The result of these scruples was the ultra-dry Martini.

The tale began when at the Red Lion on Duke of York Street near St James’s Palace in London the barman began coating a cocktail glass with vermouth before adding the gin. At Yale University in the United States students went further and substituted for vermouth a dash of bitters. On that famous train the Twentieth Century Limited, running from New York to Chicago, passengers celebrated, to quote a contemporary account, ‘the red carpet laid across the platform, the obsequious coloured porters in their white coats, the deep armchair in the club car, and the superlatively dry, dry Martini before dinner’.

Ernest Hemingway named his very very dry Martini the Montgomery, with the ratio of gin to vermouth being 15:1. This arose because the British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was reputed to have said he would only attack his German opposite number the desert fox Rommel if the odds in Montgomery’s favour, in terms of military forces, had reached fifteen to one. Hemingway’s novel Across the River and into the Trees has the following order by a Colonel Cantwell to the waiter in Harry’s Bar.
‘Two very dry Martinis. Montgomerys. Fifteen to one.’
The waiter, who had been in the desert, smiled and was gone.
The ultimate nature of the ultra-dry Martini is shown by the story of the Texan who told the bartender how he wanted his Martini mixed. ‘Half fill the shaker with ice’, he said. ‘Then top it up with gin’. His only other instruction was that before replacing the lid (prior to shaking) the bartender should whisper into the shaker the words ‘Dry Vermouth’. The bartender carried out this manoeuvre to the best of his ability, and then poured out a drink. The Texan took a sip, pondered a moment, then said: ‘Loudmouth!’.

Ah, I have many memories of the dry Martini. Memories of it are all I’ve got left.
FBBB72

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Now the Cheshire Police are at it 

Arising out of my attacks on police impertinence in FBBB28, 68 and 69 my attention has now been drawn to a further example, that of the Cheshire Police in presuming to question the Lord Bishop of Chester about obviously harmless remarks made by him concerning medical help for homosexuals. The BBC website reports that the Bishop said-
Some people who are primarily homosexual can reorientate themselves. I would encourage them to consider that as an option, but I would not set myself up as a medical specialist on the subject, that’s in the area of psychiatric health . . . All the sociological evidence is that children fare better when raised in a traditional home by a man and a woman who have committed themselves to life-long marriage.
This was reported in the Chester Chronicle and someone was foolish enough to complain to the police about it. As a result they questioned the Bishop, then consulted the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) ‘at length’ (as a police statement stressed). In the end they were satisfied that no criminal offence had been committed. I should think so too. That should have been clear from the start.

So far as the police are concerned, there seems to be little left of free speech in this country. Quite obviously the Bishop’s remark was a reasonable, even helpful, comment on a notoriously difficult problem. The police and CPS really should not waste their time and resources on troubling innocent people just because some idiot complains. That is not what we pay the police to do, and they really must behave better.
FBBB71

Monday, February 09, 2004

Religious idiocies 3 

In FBBB25 I said that 'agnostic' was the name demanded by the Victorian Professor T. H. Huxley for those who disclaimed atheism and believed with him in an unknown and unknowable God. Atheism on the other hand is the faith of those who firmly believe there really is no God of any description (it must be a matter of faith, for that proposition certainly cannot be proved).

Around 25 years ago I wrote for an atheist journal The Freethinker, which used to describe itself as ‘Freethought and Humanist Weekly’. Now it is a monthly describing itself as ‘Secular Humanist monthly founded by G W Foote in 1881’. Is atheistic freethought in decline? (Despite its open-minded name, the journal does not really welcome people who do not call themselves atheists. Being an agnostic, I was merely tolerated.)

The editor in my day was Bill McIlroy, an Ulsterman strongly committed to the atheistic cause. He made me uncomfortable with the crudity of his anti-religious fervour, so I stopped writing for the journal. The present editor is Barry Duke, who lived in South Africa in his youth. In his column in the current issue he writes about a 19th century incident on the Cannibal Islands, now known as Fiji.

I learnt the facts from the Internet. In 1867 a Methodist missionary Thomas Baker was clubbed to death and eaten on the island of Nabutautau. The 200 islanders believe that has caused the population to suffer ever since. The village still has no school, no medical facilities and no roads. So they recently held a Christian service and traditional Fijian apology ceremony, which they believe was the only thing that could absolve them of the crime of their ancestors and free them from the resulting curse.

Ten descendants of Thomas Baker, joined by Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, made the trek to attend the ceremony. Starting shortly after daybreak, it began in a circle of tents erected on a space of cleared land in the middle of the village with traditional kava drinking rituals. Fifteen stages later, it culminated in ‘the symbolic cutting of the chain of curse and bondage’ by the Baker family’s release of balloons. For the locals the highlight was a play performed by village youths and led by local chief and pentecostalist pastor Thomas Baravilala, during which he carried an axe he claimed was used to murder Baker.

Some locals say the island has been cursed more, since the killing, by its treatment by fellow Fijians. Every request to government for help has been rebuffed. Barry Duke’s comment is that there was absolutely no reason for the villagers to apologise for the murder and eating of Thomas Baker.
Of course, he had it coming to him. He was, after all, intent on destroying their culture and beliefs and supplanting them with his own pernicious brand of superstition . . . Alas, his death did not serve as a warning to other missionaries, who continued peddling their dangerous myths among non-Christians throughout the world, and in the process destroyed societies who would have been better off without their silly, intolerant religion.
Barry Duke evidently thinks the islanders would have done better to remain cannibals, which must be nonsense. The Freethinker retains its crude anti-religious approach, which apart from denying its emancipated title is surely counter-productive.
FBBB70

Sunday, February 08, 2004

More on the North Wales Police 

I promised in FBBB67 to return to the attack on the North Wales Police, which I began in FBBB28. There is plenty of material.

I start now with how they questioned Greg Dyke about Anne Robinson's 2002 anti-Welsh rant. Anne upset some Welsh people when she told Paul Merton on Room 101: ‘The Welsh are always so pleased with themselves. I've never taken to them. What are they for?’ The BBC website says police officers from the North Wales Police with nothing better to do travelled to London to question BBC chief Greg Dyke about this remark. They took a copy of the Race Relations Act with them and were studying it on the trip. Later the notorious Chief Constable, Richard Brunstrom, wrote to Greg Dyke explaining that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to take the matter to court. I wonder what that little piece of nonsense cost the taxpayer.

I turn to a piece in the Welsh Daily Post for 13 August 2003. It is by Ed James, and is headed 'North Wales Police is a laughing stock'. An anonymous police constable claimed his colleagues are fed up with being branded a national disgrace, adding that media coverage of the controversial police chief Richard Brunstrom has exposed frontline staff to abuse.
People think we are a joke because of all the publicity. Almost every time we attend an incident we're getting complaints and abuse. It's natural for people to have a go at us. We turn up to burglaries where law-abiding people have had their homes broken into and they tell us 'You caught us speeding but you won't catch the people who did this'.
James adds that Mr Brunstrom has sparked controversy for his tough anti-speeding campaign, his calls for drugs to be legalised and his politically correct policing methods.

On 8 August 2003 the Wrexham Evening Leader published a letter by Elfed Wynn Roberts, a former Assistant Chief Constable of North Wales Police, and holder of the Queen's Police Medal for distinguished service in the Police Force. He said-
I am deeply saddened after serving 30 years with great pride in the North Wales Police to hear many serving and retired officers express deep shame at the decline in performance and also in officers' personal appearance standards since Mr Brunstrom's appointment as Chief Constable. North Wales Police performance always stood high among that of leading forces in the country. Just look at it now; lower burglary detection rates in rural North Wales than metropolitan Manchester and London; serving officers complaining of the creation of a planet of extreme political correctness; a force obsessed with speeding motorists whilst failing miserably to bring dishonest and threatening criminals to justice. It's time for Mr Brunstrom to suppress his natural inclination to court publicity and to get a grip on the really important police performance and public perception issues before the lack of public confidence in him seriously damages the fine reputation the North Wales Police has enjoyed over so many years.
Finally I have been given a copy of a letter sent on 5 January 2004 by Chief Superintendent G Anwyl of the North Wales Police to Felicity Elphick, prospective Conservative candidate for the European Parliament. It concerned an incident at a public meeting in Llandudno about the treatment of drivers by North Wales Police. Mr Anwyl complained that Mrs Elphick told a police spokesman ‘You’re not dealing with the people of Caia Park here, these are middle class business people’. This referred to the troubled Caia Park estate in Wrexham. It is the largest local authority housing estate ever to be built in Wales and consists of some 3,000 properties housing around 14,000 people. Formerly it was patriotically called Queen’s Park. I do not know what ‘Caia’ means.

In his letter Mr Anwyl is very rude indeed about Mrs Elphick’s harmless remark. Here is a brief extract.
It is my considered view that your brief intervention to what was an open debate on Policing was at best grossly offensive and highly discriminatory. At worst it could be described as having sinister racial undertones . . . In the event of further similar inflammatory conduct you can be assured of a swift Police response.
This is the most disgraceful letter I have ever seen addressed by a senior police officer to a member of the public. It merits the severest disciplinary action, and I shall endeavour to see that it gets it.
FBBB69

Saturday, February 07, 2004

More on the right to be let alone 

I wrote in FBBB65 about the right to be let alone (or left alone – same thing). By coincidence Mick Hume was writing on that theme in yesterday’s Times. He told of the strange case of the injuries inflicted on the severely disabled physicist Professor Stephen Hawking. Apparently the Cambridgeshire Police suspect that the professor’s wife is inflicting the injuries. The professor contradicts this, saying that he and his wife love each other very much and request respect for their privacy. The police on the other hand seem to think the Hawkings are guilty of obstructing the police in the execution of their duty when the Hawkings try to gather evidence to defend Mrs Hawking. Mick Hume comments-
We hear a lot about the right to privacy when it comes to photographing celebrities, or trying to get trivial information from official agencies. Yet real privacy – the liberty to be left alone to sort out one’s life – can be deemed a problem, and those defending it accused of ‘outrageously’ obstructing the law.
I wrote about the North Wales police in FBBB28. Now Chief Constable Brunstrom is at it again. He said on the BBC Wales programme Dragon’s Eye that heroin should be legalized, adding that it is perfectly possible to lead a normal life for a full life span while addicted to it. Quite rightly a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) rebuked the officious Brunstrom, saying that it is not the role of the police service to advocate measures which require expert medical and scientific opinion. Nor, one might add, is it the job of policemen to push for drastic changes in the law.

I shall be saying more about Mr Brunstrom and the North Wales police later.
FBBB68

Friday, February 06, 2004

Bennion on Google 4 

Googling today for references to myself I came across the American academic website http://wings.buffalo.edu/law/bclc/bclrarticles/5(1)/Roberts.pdf.pdf. This contains the following-
Commentators, too, were broadly in favor of the enterprise, and impressed by the Code team’s achievements. Bennion’s evaluation could speak for many: ‘That a criminal code of the right kind is much needed there can be no doubt. That the SPTL Committee have got the project off to a good start is equally certain’. It was inevitable that points of detail would be criticized, and rightly on some counts. But there were also grumbles of a more general and far-reaching nature. Bennion, for one, proceeded to inquire: Is it right that a body like the Law Commission, entrusted by Parliament with an important statutory duty, should as it were palm it off on a small body of unpaid academic lawyers, however eminent and devoted? Should not a thorough preliminary enquiry be conducted as to the nature of the various codification techniques used by other countries, and the degree of success or failure they have encountered?
I had found an article by the British academic Professor Paul Roberts. The Nottingham University website tells me that since 1995 he has been a consultant to our Law Commission’s project on consent and criminal liability, and contributed to their paper LCCP No. 139 Consent in the Criminal Law (1995). His quotation was from my 1986 article ‘The Technique of Codification’. The Law Commission had asked the Society of Public Teachers of Law (SPTL) to help it perform its statutory duty of drafting a Criminal Code. I was, and am still, a member of the SPTL, which recently changed its name to the Society of Legal Scholars. I did not however take part in its work on the Criminal Code.

It affects us all that our criminal law should be in neat and tidy form. It is nearly fifty years since I helped the late Sir Noël Hutton to draft the Act which set up the Law Commission. We were both keen to ensure that codification was among the functions conferred on the new body, and this was done. The result has been a disaster; and very little codification has been achieved. Why?

This is not the place to go into detail on the answer to that question. The article by Professor Roberts tells part of the story. Another of my articles, ‘The Law Commission’s Criminal Law Bill: No Way to Draft a Code’, tells another part. To sum up the answer in a few words I would say the following.

A Criminal Code is highly desirable. It is difficult to draft successfully because it is very technical and needs to cover a wide field. Governments do not like the idea of legislating it because this takes up a good deal of parliamentary time without pleasing the mass of electors. MPs, as it goes through Parliament, will insist on wrecking its careful formulations by amendments of substance, often ill-judged. The judges are lukewarm because a code reduces their power to make law. The civil servants are cool because it hands control to the lawyers. The academics ruin it by endless disagreements on technical points. Even the drafters have historically shown themselves indifferent to reform.

Other countries overcome these problems but we British cannot. I really don’t know why.
FBBB67

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Inter arma leges silent 

Some very stupid things are written in newspapers, even the respected London Times. Yesterday’s issue had a goodly crop on the main editorial pages.

Magnus Linklater wrote a facile pack of nonsense about the language of the law, fully justifying his opening statement that he gave up reading law at university because it made his brain hurt. He criticised our legislative language by reference to an Act of 1952 and a criticism by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Doesn’t he realise that time marches on and legislative language has improved?

Just above Linklater on the page, Alice Miles was equally inept. On his recent six-day trip to India and Pakistan the Home Secretary Mr David Blunkett said he wants new anti-terrorism laws to make it easier to convict British terror suspects. This would mean lowering the criminal standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) to the civil one (balance of probabilities), keeping sensitive evidence from defendants, and secret trials before vetted judges. Alice Miles foolishly says of all this-
Marvellous stuff. A Blunkett ban on justice. The punters will love it, especially once they realise that it will mostly apply to Muslims.
On the opposite page a reader, Mr Jonathan Rule, says it is ‘frightening’ that to get a conviction of a suspected terrorist the person deciding will need only to conclude ‘I think he did it’, and that the defendant’s lawyer will have to be chosen from a list vetted by the Crown Prosecution Service (an independent body, incidentally).

Most law-abiding citizens think it far more frightening to be threatened by suicide bombers. The Houses of Parliament are now disfigured by ugly concrete barriers designed to stop their approach. Mr Rule attacks the Blunkett proposals as a reduction in our human rights. What about the human right not to be murdered by Al Queda thugs?

It needs to be recognised that impeccable fair trial standards can be preserved only in a peaceful, ordered society. Where anarchy and murderous force threaten to take over, these civilised standards may unfortunately need to be lowered. This happened with Regulation 18b in World War Two.

One recalls the old maxim Inter arma leges silent (when the army takes over civil law ceases).
FBBB66

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

The right to be let alone 

The year was 1928. In the United States, Prohibition was in full swing and Roy Olmstead was a suspected bootlegger. Without judicial approval, federal agents installed wiretaps in the basement of Olmstead's building (where he maintained an office) and in the streets near his home. Olmstead was convicted with evidence obtained from the wiretaps. In subsequent judicial proceedings it was said that the case was about ‘the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men, namely the right to be let alone’. This dictum was cited in Bowers v Hardwick 478 US 186, 199, a 1986 case concerning the right to commit sodomy in one’s bedroom with a willing adult partner.

In FBBB7 I pointed out that anal intercourse is not confined to some gays but is also practised by some heterosexuals. Bowers v Hardwick was concerned with the fact that in 1964 the US state of Georgia widened its criminal law so as to reach heterosexual as well as homosexual sodomy, defining sodomy as committed when a person performs or submits to any sexual act involving the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another. The US Supreme Court held that this statute did not infringe the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution because that did not confer any fundamental [sic] right on homosexuals to engage in consensual sodomy.

So in that respect the Supreme Court held that the right to be let alone did not extend to this particular activity. Reading the case started me thinking. Would it not be a splendid thing if the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain, Mr Michael Howard, made it party policy to restore to the full our right to be let alone?

We can scarcely expect Mr Blair to do that with his party. Nor do I have much faith that the Liberal Democrats might do it.
FBBB65

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Religious idiocy 2 

In FBBB8 I reported that the Home Secretary David Blunkett is calling on British parents to teach their children respect for all religious groups. How can anyone have respect for a religious group that organizes the ridiculous system of poles and wires I reported on in FBBB50? Now we have another religious idiocy, the throwing of pebbles at pillars in a place called Mina during the Muslim pilgrimage known as the Haj. An Islamic website instructs pilgrims as follows.
When you reach Mina, you should begin with throwing seven pebbles, each of which should be a little larger than a chick-pea, consecutively at Jamrah Al-‘Aqabah; you may pick these stones up from wherever you want. Upon throwing each pebble, pronounce the Takbeer (i.e., Allahu Akbar – Allah is the Greatest) and know that the wisdom behind this is to establish the remembrance of Allah and His glorification. Do not believe that you are throwing at the devils as is commonly believed by some, rather you throw pebbles at certain stones in certain places, solely to glorify Allah and follow the conduct of the Prophet.
This is a very dangerous idiocy. The Times for 2 February 2004 says that in 1990 1,426 pilgrims were trampled to death during the stone-throwing ceremony. In 1997 343 were killed when fire consumed 70,000 tents at Mina. In 2001 35 died in a stampede. In 2003 14 were crushed to death. This year, when around two million people have been performing the Haj, there have just been at least 244 deaths at the Mina stoning. Iyad bin Amin Madani, the minister in control (?) of the event said there were more than 400 metres of people pushing in the same direction. He added: ‘all the preparations are always made, but we don’t always know God’s intentions’.

Doesn’t it demean the whole idea of God to suppose that He would wish such lethal nonsense to be conducted in order ‘to establish His remembrance and glorification?’ Indeed do such words have any meaning?
FBBB64

Monday, February 02, 2004

Bennion on Google 3 

This is the third Blog where I report the results of trawling Google for references to my books or myself. The previous two were FBBB36 (Freedom Under Law) and FBBB43 (PROFESSIONAL ETHICS). This one is concerned with my book THE BLIGHT OF BLAIRISM.
Ann Lyon is a lecturer in the Department of Law at the University of Wales Swansea, with a particular interest in constitutional law and constitutional history. Her website tells us that she cannot remember a time when she was not interested in history, particularly mediaeval history. She asked for ‘a history book’ for her seventh birthday - and got one. She read history at Newcastle University and went on to an MA at York and an MPhil at Durham before training as a solicitor, finally moving into academic law in 1993. She has published in various academic journals on matters relating to the monarchy, including a critique of the 1999 Demos report on ‘Modernising the Monarchy’, and on military law, and is currently completing a one-volume constitutional history, designed primarily for law students but intended to be of general interest.

I was intrigued to learn that Ann was a member of the Territorial Army from 1978 to 1984, and has the distinction of being only the second woman to serve with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers - the first was an enterprising eighteenth century lady named Phoebe Hessle who disguised herself as a man. Outside academic life Ann is writing a novel about Richard III, and enjoys hill-walking, photography, listening to classical music, and curling up with a good book.

Ann seems to think she curled up with a good book when she picked THE BLIGHT OF BLAIRISM. I found her views on this political essay set out at http://www.baronage.co.uk/2003b/blairism.pdf. She says that those who shrink instinctively from weighty legal works and self-important lawyers will be relieved to find that the book is light in tone and not a book likely to be recommended by academic lawyers to their students ‘except (by this academic lawyer at least) as a tool for encouraging students to think’. She adds-
It is a book to be dipped into and enjoyed, preferably over a glass of wine or gin and tonic [there’s my girl!], but at the same time it carries a serious message. Recommended not only to anti-Blairites, but also to those Blairites (alas, they seem to be thin on the ground), who might be persuaded to think again.
Thanks Ann.
FBBB63

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Babu English triumphs 

The sort of English that is spoken by Indians in India was once unkindly known as Babu English. The OED2 describes this as the ornate and somewhat unidiomatic English of an Indian who has learnt the language principally from books. Arthur Mayhew, author of The Education of India (1926), said-
The [Indian] matriculate’s mastery of English, despite all the ridicule unjustly bestowed on Babu English, is far more complete and practical than that shown by the normally intelligent and industrious English boy at the same stage.
Mayhew, a scholar of Winchester and New College and an Oxford Double First, spent twenty years in the Indian Educational Service before going on to become a beak at Eton. He would have been intrigued at the current call centre revolution whereby Indians in India are doing, at a tenth of the wage, jobs which until very recently were done by English in England. In the Times for 30 January 2004 Michael Binyon describes what is happening.
The Indian caller could not have been more polite. ‘I am sorry to disturb you. My name is Alfred and I am calling about an unpaid account . . .’ It was 10 pm in India but only 4.30 pm in Britain. In the airy, well-lit call centre automatic diallers were calling up all parts of Britain. ‘May I enquire the nature of your business?’ There is a guffaw at the British end. ‘It’s drinking. This is a pub’.
In another part of the Times on the same day Ben Macintyre discusses the same topic. He gives us some telltale dialogue from Salman Rushdie: ‘Proper London itself, Bigben, Nelsoncolumn, Lord’s tavern Bloodytower Queen . . .' He quotes a character in Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Black Album: ‘They gave us the language, but it is only we who know how to use it’.

It is humbling for the British, but they still shout irritable obscenities at the polite, well-behaved and slightly shocked call centre staff in Delhi.
FBBB62