Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Claims and Boats and Planes..Again.

While revisiting this post I appear to have accidentally zapped it. Just goes to show, the post man should never ring twice.

Against the current backdrop of all and sundry blaming Russia's President Vladimir Putin for killing all those people on board the Malaysian airliner in Ukrainian airspace, I recounted a passage from Robert Fisk's book The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. 

During the Iraq-Iran War (1980-1988), a Iraqi Mirage F1 jet fighter fired two 1,500-lb Excocet missiles at what the pilot assumed was a patrolling Iranian warship in the Persian Gulf. In fact it was a patrolling American missile-carrying frigate, the USS Stark. Thirty-seven US seamen were incinerated in the super-heated blast that followed. Ronald Reagan's Government blamed Iran, as did Margaret Thatcher and other American camp followers.  

Fisk, who was writing for The Times when this happened in May 1987, found out what really happened. The truth made no difference to the narrative that was published and broadcast. Even though Saddam Hussein sent an apology to President Reagan for the Iraqi pilot's error of judgement, the Americans continued to blame Iran.

A few months later the American cruiser the USS Vincennes fired a couple of anti-aircraft missiles at an Iranian civil airliner, blowing it up in mid-air and killing all 290 people on board, including a wedding party. You probably recall what happened next: the Americans said the plane was diving towards the Vincennes in a kamikaze-style attack.

Fisk learned that the aircraft was climbing. Subsequently, he was told that in the weeks prior to the incident, American warships had harrassed many other civilian airliners. The Vincennes was in Iranian international waters, where it shouldn't have been. No matter. Once again Iran was blamed for something it hadn't done.

Using the flimsiest circumstantial evidence a false story was fabricated and put out after both incidents. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? While America and its allies put the heat on Putin (perhaps hoping for a bit of regime change in the Kremlin), the real culprit culpable for causing the civil war in Ukraine, the European Union, stands sanctimoniously in the wings chelping about sanctions and removing the 2018 World Cup competition from Russia.


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

But What Have Wayne or David Got to Say About Isis?

The BBC's world affairs editor John Simpson is in Baghdad: therefore the situation with the masked and scarved gunmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) must be serious.

The inextricable tangle of tribal rivalries at the heart of it certainly looks ugly and hopeless. Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular used to be like that in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a wretched internicene conflict of different religious militias. Do-good outsiders who wandered between the jaws of it were taken into darkness for four to five years. Remember Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy? 

At least they survived. Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft did not. Accused by Saddam Hussein of spying, he was hanged in March 1990, a fate that was to befall the Iraqi leader after the invasion of Iraq. American journalist Daniel Pearl was captured by Al Qaida in Pakistan, that wonderful country, and beheaded by his captors in 2002. The video of it was posted on the net.

We, for whom a crisis is the telly or the boiler going on the blink or the barn owl population taking a bit of a dip, seemingly don't have the capacity to measure up to the import of these terrible events. If Wayne Rooney or David Beckham had warned (on television news, of course) that ISIS are worse than the Taliban in Afghanistan we might have take more notice.

Instead ISIS insurgents executing Shia men with machine guns came as a bit of surprise on Monday.  We thought everybody was watching the World Cup.

One consequence of all this is the turn-around in diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Why, only a few years ago Ben Afleck was making Argo - about the US hostage crisis. Now we're the best of friends with Iran it seems, with the re-opening of the British embassy in Tehran to prove it.   

Nothing should surprise us in the murky world of real-politick. Were ISIS to achieve the impossible and take Baghdad, I wonder if the EU would send envoys to the city to work out a mutually beneficial trade arrangement.  Or am I thinking of Ukraine? 

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Britons Never Will be Slaves...

And so 181 years after Britain abolished slavery in all its forms, the Coalition Government puts an anti-slavery Bill before Parliament to curb and punish more severely the practice of trafficking in human beings.

This, of course, has got nothing to do with the illegal transportation of immigrants in the backs of trailers. Human trafficking means the forcible coercion of others and the use of, or the threat of, physical violence or intimidation.

Seventy years ago Allied armed forces took a trot across the Channel to Normandy to abolish the Nazi enslavement of most of mainland Europe - 49 months or so after they'd been driven off the beaches of Dunkirk.

Less than 30 years after D-Day, lest we forget amid the flag-waving and bunting over the next few days, Edward Heath and his clever chums in the Foreign Office knowingly signed away Britain's sovereignty, as well as the country's fishing rights, steel making and ship building, for membership of the European Econmic Community. In reality it was the EPP: the European Political Project.

During the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979, I covered the Conservative Party rally in St George's Hall, Bradford. The main speaker in support of Lord St Oswald for Yorkshire West was Harold Macmillan, the old shaman, who spoke movingly of how Britain would once again rise like a lion strong and proud in its new role.

It didn't happen, of course. It was an illusion. The irony is the old man began his speech by describing a royal cavalcade he had seen in the streets of London when he was a child. Old Queen Victoria was passing by, the Empress of India, monarch of territories from Britain to India, Canada to Australia. "But it was all an illusion," Macmillan whispered.

Perhaps we all prefer illusions if, as T S Eliot observed in Four Quartets, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality."

The reality of human trafficking, of slavery, is not something we should bear at all. However, I am inclined to think - if that's not too grand a word for what passes through my brain - that the stiffer prison sentences and other measures in the anti-slavery bill are merely symptoms of a sickness that seems to have been allowed to get out of hand in parts of this country.

Can this be, I ask myself, because human trafficking is one of the consequences of demographic diversity that old Britannia has been obliged to embrace over the last eight or ten years especially? It's a multi-billion dollar market, so who's profiting by it? Where do the slave masters come from and what are they doing here?  

Immigration isn't merely about Africans appearing in large numbers all over the country, suburban open air high streets turning into down-at-heel, shady-looking souks or gentlemen from Pakistan grooming teenage girls in the backstreets of Oxford, Rotherham, Rochdale and Keighley. Its about criminal behaviour we thought we'd rid ourselves of in 1833 and went bankrupt fighting in World War 2.

But best not talk like that, not just now. Perhaps in another 70 or 181 years.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Don't Worry About UKIP, We're All Doomed

While clever psephologists calculate the percentage turnout of UK voters in the Euro election, comparing it unfavourably with voting in the rest of the European Union, and various deputy political editors pull faces in an attempt to calculate the likely impact of UKIP on next year's General Election, all these excitable chaps are forgetting one thing...

...The world as we know it is coming to an end. And the cause of this calamity, or happy news depending on your politics, has got nothing to do with Nigel Farage's "earthquake" and even less to do with drilling for shale gas in the South East. Nor has the coming Armageddon got anything to do with the Book of Revelations or anything remotely associated with the presence or absence, of God.

It's more serious than that. We're talking about the relentless erosion of topsoil the world over, we're talking about the elimination of the world's rain forests the size of the Duchy of Cornwall every thirty seconds. The "we" in question refers, of course, to HRH the Prince of Wales. In December, 2009, the heir to the throne gave a speech to the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in which he said:-

Over the past three decades, I have been privileged to talk with some of the world's most eminent experts on climate change and environmental issues and to listen to the wisdom of some of the world's indigenous people.

The conclusion I draw is that the future of mankind can be assured only if we rediscover ways in which to live as part of nature, not apart from her.

For the grim reality is that our planet has reached a point of crisis and we have only seven years before we lose the levers of control.

So if anyone out there is making plans for 2017 - such as a referendum on membership of the European Union for example, becoming King or taking over another country - forget it. According to Prince Charles the aircraft is going down, the ship is heading for Davy Jones' Locker, the car is spinning off the road, by December, 2016. If you happen to be a resident of Poundbury I daresay HRH has made due provision in his role as dutiful landlord.

It's a shame. For extinction means there are many things we won't live to see - Wayne Rooney scoring for England in the 2018 World Cup; the fruits of a future dalliance between UKIP and Le Front National; Prime Minister Clegg's first Liberal-Democrat/Labour Coalition.

However, even blood relations to the House of Hanover can be wrong. Long before we succumb to the global apocalypse touched on by Prince Charles in wonderful, wonderful Copehagen five years ago (I think he said that to frighten his mother), President Putin might do for us all in yet another Russian-style Operation Barbarossa.

It simply doesn't bear thinking about, quite simply. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Sanctioning Food Banks

More than 900,000 food parcels were handed out to just over 37,000 people in Yorkshire and Humberside in the past year by the Trussell Trust alone. Welfare reforms or cuts combined with the rising cost of living is the reason food banks are so busy even though the rate of inflation has gone down to 1.6 per cent and more people than ever are in work.

David Ward, Liberal-Democrat MP for Bradford East, whose constituency has seen a drop in Job Seeker’s Allowance claimants of about 900 over the past year, said he wondered if scaring people into jobs was part of the overall strategy. 

“Maybe the aim is to make it a hostile environment for people who are unemployed. The trouble is, the background to all this, is that the public at large believe the welfare system is dysfunctional and needs sorting out. They are pretty unsympathetic to people who are claiming benefits - the skivers, the scroungers, as they see it.

“But the system from the Department of Work and Pensions that comes through Job Centres is inefficient. There are delays, letters get sent to the wrong address, or people try to ring up and can’t get through. One man who I saw was given 14 job inquiries to follow up in two weeks. He had been to 11. But because he had not been to all 14 his Job Seeker’s Allowance was stopped - ‘sanctioned’ it’s called. It could take you seven months before you’re back on Job Seeker’s. What are you supposed to do if you haven’t got any money?” 

Sanctioning has always been a feature of the benefits system. In Bradford, between 2009 and 2010 sanctions handed out to job seekers totalled 4,370. Two years later the figure was 9,320, implying a tightening up of the regime. The people who make the most referrals to Trussell Trust food banks, I was told, are Job Centre staff, the same people who, under pressure to meet targets, issue these sanctions. There is an appeals system, but you have to be canny or assisted to negotiate it. You have to be patient too because the backlog of pending cases is so great you can be waiting for 12 months - without money. Commonsense and discretion are not encouraged among Job Centre staff, I was told. If you are one of the lucky ones whom this part of the changing world has passed by, be grateful without feeling too self-satisfied. Being down on your luck may not have changed, but the manner of the help available has. 

Never having been in the benefits’ system I have no experience of its methods and means. I don’t know how it feels to be summarily sanctioned for contravening strict rules for the unemployed, to be told that state help will be withdrawn for four, seven, thirteen or even twenty-six weeks. 

Suppose I am not a feckless mumper acclimatised to living off the state. Suppose what little self-esteem I had vanished when I lost my job or had to stop working. Suppose being caught up in the welfare benefits command and control web with its system of sanctions and punishments and the sense of humiliation that goes with obeying Jobsworths proves unsupportable. Suppose what money I had saved up against ruin and despair had gone – there are so many ways to get financially wiped out these days.  When you ain’t got nuthin’ you got nuthin’ to lose might be a stimulating idea to those in transit from one interesting cultural experience to another, but the naked reality is, I suspect, more heart-gripping and desperate. But David Ward is right. Public sympathy is in short supply if the following online newspaper comment made recently in Bradford is anything to go by:- 

Charities should not undermine Government policy, which is to use starvation to force the lazy to get a job. It’s the only weapon left to use on benefit scroungers who think the state is just there to keep them in idleness. Poverty is a choice by the thick and the do-nothings. They have to be taught to live with the consequences. The next Conservative Government will do away with the freebies like health and education. The poor will then have to shape up or bear the consequences. (pcmanners)

In one supermarket we go to they’ve taken to security coding bacon, cheese and better cuts of meat because people have been stealing them. Two or three years ago a manager in another store told us that thieves nicking electrical goods was costing the store about £3,000 a week. I assumed this form of daylight robbery was connected to drugs. I don’t think people nick rashers to buy heroin, besides most of it has already been smoked. People are stealing food because they’re hungry.West Yorkshire Police, I was told, were after the addresses of food banks in Bradford so they could refer petty felons to them; evidently they saw no point in charging hungry people with stealing food. 

If ever there was a suitable time to revive Edward Bond’s play Bingo, this is it. In this play a mumbling, stumbling Shakespeare, retired to his New Place mansion in Stratford-upon-Avon, wondering if his writing career really amounted to much. “Was anything done?” he keeps asking rhetorically.  Bond draws a telling parallel between the insights into social injustice and cruelty uttered by King Lear and Shakespeare’s personal implication in Stratford land enclosures and the consequent poverty and hardship that came from it.

The old monstrous King gives his kingdom away to two of his three daughters and they, after proscribing his followers and blinding his ally the Earl of Gloucester, abandon Lear to the elements. In the midst of a terrible storm Lear is struck by a lightning bolt of insight which reveals the true state of his kingdom to his shattered but reorganised wits:-

Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have ta'en
Too little care of this...Unaccomodated man is no
More but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.  

Bingo was first published by Methuen in 1974. My battered 1976 edition contains, just about, a seven-and-a-half page introduction by Bond. In it he says this:- I wrote Bingo because I think the contradictions in Shakespeare’s are similar to the contradictions in us. He was a ‘corrupt seer’ and we are a ‘barbarous civilisation’.  Because  of that our society could destroy itself. We believe in certain values but our society only works by destroying them, so that our daily lives are a denial of our hopes. That makes our world absurd and often it makes our own species hateful to us. Morality is reduced to surface details and trivialities. Is it so easy to live like that? Or are we surrounded by frustration and bitterness, cynicism and inefficiency, and an inner feeling of weakness that comes from knowing we waste our energy on things that finally can’t satisfy us?

It might explain why in a welfare state democracy, when people are stealing food to survive and others are being denied the means of survival by the state, painting pictures, writing books, listening to music and going to the theatre, feel self-indulgent activities. Socially we have come a long way from the England of Elizabeth 1, where terrible things occurred every day. The England of Elizabeth II in which I grew up encouraged the belief that the state would always offer a safety net to those who fell on hard times; that in spite of those who selfishly exploited it, having it there was a better idea than not having it there. I never had to use it, wouldn’t have had the first idea how to exploit it; but just knowing that a safety net existed allowed my generation to live a bit more courageously, to charge off all over the world or take up ventures that didn’t necessarily lead to a retirement pension and a silver cigarette case after fifty years. In short, old buggers like me have no experience of this brave new world of welfare sanctions, food banks and people nicking bacon and cheese to keep themselves going.

The likes of cpmanners  can’t wait for the day when the mumpers, the skivers, the scroungers – the poor – are dealt with once and for all. But even Hitler’s final solution backfired. His attempt to turn European Jewry into smoke resulted in the creation of state of Israel: the leader of the Third Reich was Israel’s true founding father. The mistake that pcmanners and all those like-minded make is that they will never be poor, that they have enough of the right stuff, the moxie, the will, to triumph over the worst that adversity can throw at them. Am I alone in hearing in that stentorian voice of malice – They have to be taught to live with the consequences – the angry, self-justifying, note of fear?  

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Taking Up the Hitchens' Challenge...

Years ago I went into a trendy bookshop outside Bradford and asked if they had any biographies of General Gordon (of Khartoum). The bearded bookseller gave me a surprised look which I read as:  ‘A book about a British military imperialist? Pah!’  On the way out I noticed plenty of biographies about Adolf Hitler. 

Recently I had a somewhat similar experience in a bookshop in Bradford. I asked yet another bearded chap if the store had books by Peter Hitchens and Christopher Hitchens. “I don’t think we’ve got any by Peter Hitchens,” he replied quickly, in case I was a left wing spy checking out the shop’s PC credentials.  But he went off and helpfully came back with three or four volumes by the late Christopher Hitchens.

One of them was a large volume of essays at nearly £15. Another was his autobiography Hitch-22, which cost just under £10. “If you were on a desert island and could only take one of these books, which one would it be?” I said. He hummed and hahed for a bit, then proffered the less expensive autobiography, assuring me that it was brilliant. I liked him for that.

“Michael Gove said the same as you,” I added somewhat slyly. “Michael Gove!” he said, seemingly astonished by the idea that David Cameron’s Education Secretary, the man who pushed through privately-run academies and free schools, should  approve of a book by a self-proclaimed revolutionary socialist and militant atheist. “Hmmm. You shouldn’t under-estimate people,” I said sententiously. Of course, that’s precisely what I do all the time.

It was Gove’s written recommendation in a newspaper that had sent me into Waterstone’s in the first place. I am so pleased that I followed my instinct. An encouraging review, especially from an unexpected quarter, is a god-send. I’ve been reading chapters of Hitch-22: A Memoir in Caffe Nero before work, on the bus home after work, and, on one occasion, in work, with great pleasure to coin a cliche. It's a history of his life and times written with generous, self-examining intelligence. I like that in writers. Those who turn their critical eye upon the world only are too needy and sometimes too nerdy.

Anyway, last night I Googled up a two-hour debate between the Hitchens brothers that took place in a church in the United States two years ago. They had been invited to argue the case for and against the Iraq war and the case for and against the existence of God. The difference between them was clearly evident in the way they carried themselves. Peter was edgily combative, nervously forthright. Christopher was charming in a deadly kind of way, turning statements into questions, daring the audience to take him on, trans-Atlantically confident in his ability to take on and defeat all-comers.  

During the course of the exchange Christopher issued a public challenge. The old polemicist must have done this dozens of times, judging by the way he relished his calculated effects. Like an after-dinner raconteur aiming for the final word, he asked the audience if anyone could come with up an example of a religiously-inclined person doing a single moral act beneficial to mankind that could not have been done by a non-believer.

Okay, how about Tony Blair and George W Bush? The former British Prime Minister and US President, both believers, sent armies into Iraq to defeat the forces of Saddam Hussain - a decision warmly supported and defended by Christopher Hitchens, in spite of the falsehoods about WMD, in spite of the killing of thousands of civilians, in spite of the consequent chaos and instability. His only regret was that the decision to invade had been in 2003 and not earlier: the world was most definitely a better place without the fascistic Ba-athist party of Saddam in power in the Middle East, he said. Bush and Blair didn't have to be believers to go to war, but they were/are. Did he ever ask them the question he asked his audience, I wonder.

If that's out of order, then what about President Abraham Lincoln? Without his 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States slavery would not have been abolished by Congress in 1865. Then there's the Reverend Martin Luther King and all those God-fearing political activists among the Freedom Riders who took on the apartheid-approvers of the Deep South at the risk of physical injury and death. Lincoln and King, of course, were both murdered for their troubles, as was Mahatma Gandhi - not a Christian, admittedly, but nevertheless not an atheist either.

I don't know if Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans thought that God was on their side when they set up the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany to publically oppose Hitler. They were both guillotined. German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenberg concentration camp in April 1945 - two years after being imprisoned. He was an active anti-Nazi dissident who helped Jews escape to Switzerland and supported attempts to assassinate Hitler. Pastor Martin Niemoller was another anti-Nazi clergyman who was  imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945. Nearer his own life and times, Christopher Hitchens could have recalled Polish Roman Catholic priest Father Jerzy Popieluszko, an active supporter of the banned shipyard trades union Solidarity during the time of martial law, who was murderd by Polish Communist Party security police in 1984.

Were all these people "slaves of a celestial tyranny", as Christopher Hitchens was wont to describe believers? Slaves, however, were what Thomas Jefferson had at Monticello, his Frenchified mansion in Virginia. Hitchens, who greatly admired the co-author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, doesn't flinch away from this in his memoir. That's partly why I found myself warming to the book. For what it's worth, I am happy to endorse Michael Gove's recommendation.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Hot Air

As I was pounding the treadmill in the gym on the eve of the second Farage v Clegg European Union lightweight title fight, it was my misfortune to be confronted with BBC Television's Six O'Clock News.

I should explain that these instruments of self-torture face a wall on which there is an array of nine flat-screens showing a variety of programmes about sport, food, chat shows or quiz shows, pop videos and news. The screen on my left was showing the news.

And top of the agenda was the air pollution over England. In BBC speak this seemed to mean London. An obsese woman in a cafe was talking anxiously about the difficulty of breathing. Lose some fucking weight, I nearly shouted, and you wouldn't have trouble breathing.

That wasn't the point of the story, of course. Here was yet more eco scare-mongering to frighten the timorous and vindicate planet-saving warriors. It followed hot on the heels of the previous day's lead story about the world being on the brink (yet again) of a man-made global warming holocaust - according to yet anaother scary report emanating from the discredited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This tale was given the full treatment by the BBC and, to their shame, by ITV.

That same day the Heartland Institute's Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change in America had published a report of more than 1,000 pages taking issue with everything in the UN report. But this document was totally ignored by the media. I only got to know about it on Richard North's EU Referendum blog.

Of especial irritation was the news wangle linking mm global warming with the recent flooding of the Somerset Levels. There wasn't a whisper, of course, about the EU directives on wetlands, wildlife and drainage that just might have been a teeny-weeny bit influential in the drowning of the ground where King Alfred took refuge from maurauding Danish Vikings in the ninth century.

Anyway, 24 hours later that IPPC report was yesterday's news as warm winds from the Sahara blew more fine powder over the head of that fat woman in London babbling on about the difficulties of breathing. Today, I hear, our own Prime Minister cancelled his morning jog for fear of ending up with Arab dust in his lungs. And this is the man who says he's going to face down Angela Merkal over the EU and Vladimir Putin over Crimea. I think not. Rich Londoners spend so much time stuffing fine powder up their noses you wouldn't think they'd be bothered by a bit of dust from Lawrence of Arabia land.

This stuff blew over Bradford as well, giving the sky the same scoured whiteness as on the cover of the U2 album, October. I walked to the station this morning and here I am, Mr Cameron, to tell the tale.

I didn't watch the Clegg-Farage scrap. Highlights on the news were enough to irritate me even more (which is why I don't normally watch the news). The BBC pitched it as a debate about whether Britain should stay in Europe of leave it. For the love of Holy Christ, the argument is about leaving the bloody European Union - not the continental landmass across the Channel, which has been integral to our history since the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans came, saw and conquered.

Farage-Clegg might have picked up a hint of this had they watched Professor Robert Bartlett's lucid three-parter The Plantagenets on BBC 2 - Henry II to Richard III. Europe has been part of our consciousness for centuries. Cressy and Agincourt, the Black Prince and Henry V, victories against overwhelming odds in unpropitious circumstances - isn't that what we pride ourselves on? One hundred years ago British soldiers went back across the Channel to die in their thousands for the sake of Europe.

We are deeply embedded in Europe and Europe is deeply embedded in us. All the talk of the EU representing a pan-European consciousness as against what is caricatured as a little Englander mentality just doesn't hold water - unlike the Somerset Levels. That's where you'll find the reality of the meddling EU.