Some years back, we lost our Mother to Alzheimer’s.

She was a gregarious and loveable person, and we kept her at home for as long as we could, until her confusion and behaviours made it simply impossible.

In the end, in distraction, we found her a good old folk’s home, and with great difficulty, too, as the aged care sector in Australia is a nightmare to navigate successfully. And there she duly whiled away her final months – in safety, but often in tears.

The tears weren’t just “Sundowners” – a well-known mood-shift that occurs in Alzheimer’s patients, especially around late afternoon. Fading light seems to be the trigger. The symptoms can get worse as the night goes on and usually get better by morning.

It was distressing for her, for the care-worn staff, and for us, so we often used to try and time our visits for this time of day to give her a lift.

You can read more about it here: not to mention my own musings about ageing.

But her general distress was more than that.

Like a recent report in Australia revealed, she was one of 40% of old age home residents suffering habitually from depression.

The depression was caused by psychological dislocation – a loss of friends and family, a loss of whatever she could recall as “normal”, a loss of privacy, an inability to relate to the new world around er, or to make friends.

To get away from the psychobabble for a moment, in simple terms her biggest problem was that she was lonely. And in simple terms, there was very little anyone around her could do about it.

In the UK and now in Australia, TV series have revealed how teachers visiting elderly patients with a bunch of four year old pre-schoolers in tow is good for both groups. The elderly people experience physical and cognitive improvement, and improved mood, too. The kids just seem to love it. Care workers have known this for years – taking children, especially young children, into care environments is invigorating for the residents. Ditto animals, especially if they had companion pets before. They are both a dash of welcome reality, for people for whom reality has too often become dark and bleak.

As we move into a period where our aged care services worldwide are going to come under increasing pressure as the Baby Boomers start to age and die off, we wonder if we cannot find a better model for looking after our frail friends, family members and neighbours.

In less urbanised (and often poorer) environments, the aged stay in the community much longer – perhaps throughout their final days – cared for on an ad hoc basis by those in the village around them. They can wander safely, and access their neighbours, children, and animals.

They often still engage in food preparation, or piecemeal work.

For thousands of years, such elderly people have been loved and nourished in the environment they have lived in all their lives.

As a by-product of that situation, their lives are not endlessly prolonged by medical intervention which is freely available in care environments, but not necessarily to the long-term benefit of the patient. In a village in Africa, the Steppes, or Asia, an elderly person struck with an infection, or complications from a fall, may just fade away.

But in a Western care environment they are resuscitated, whisked off to hospital and then back to their care home, and regularly pumped full of prophylactic drugs.

So the question we need to face is: just because we CAN save an elderly patient, does that mean we should, if the point of saving them is simply to return them to a place that through no-one’s fault, they are uncomfortable and unhappy in?

There is another assumption that needs to be challenged, too, which is someone with a diagnosis of Alzheimers is someone who is gaga. This is simply not true. Increasingly, people live with Alzheimer’s for a very long time, buoyed up by better medication, exercise, deliberate mental engagement, engagement with other people and more. We are going to need to educate the public about the positive possibilities for people with dementia, and organise society so they are better integrated with the world around them. It is vital to their progress. And happiness. One thing that seems sure to us is that plonking them in “traditional” aged care will do little to prolong their useful life – and this is not to criticise the dedicated and skilful people that work in the sector. They do their best.

Ultimately, we need to ask “What is the most important thing for an elderly person with Alzheimer’s?” In our view, it is surely that they live out their final days with dignity and as much contentment as possible. Our current systems may provide the former – although they often do not – but very few people would argue that they do the latter.

A little contentment in our declining years shouldn’t be too hard to devise, but in our view we need to start rethinking aged care fundamentally, and now. Because right now, we are failing our older brothers and sisters, and it’s only going to get worse.

We need to think harder, and do better.

 

 

Boris Johnson

We have refrained from commenting overmuch on Boris Johnson’s accession to the role of PM in the UK in this and other fora for the same reason that one does not comment on car crashes, especially when they are completely predictable. It’s just bad form to mock the afflicted.

But be under no misapprehension, Dear Reader – for all that his acolytes pretend he is some kind of wayward genius, Boris Johnson has now shown himself up as a blustering incompetent.

The proroguing of Parliament – denied by Number 10 for a month despite the planning for it now being revealed – is and was an anti-democratic coup designed to stifle Parliamentary oversight of one of the most crucial periods in British history since the second world war, irregardless of waffle from Rees-Mogg and others.

The British people know it, which is why they have roused themselves from their somnambular walk towards a No Deal Brexit and taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

If Johnson wanted to unite the anti-Brexit forces he can hardly have done a better job than shutting down Parliament to stifle inconvenient debate.

Charles 1 executed

Remember: as many have noted in the Twitterverse and elsewhere, the British cut the head off the last person to do that. For all that nothing excites British passion as much as a good game of football or the perennial battle for the cricket Ashes, they are rather partial to their Parliament being allowed to do its thing.

And withdrawing the whip from some of the best Tory MPs in the House who dared to exercise critical thought in the vote yesterday in London simply reveals him as both a strategic idiot for making the threat, and an even bigger fool for following through on it. The sheer hypocrisy of the move when this sanction was never applied to row after row of Brexiteers in vote after vote in the House reveals the total vacuity of the Government’s position – a fact which will now be pointed out repeatedly by the commentariat.

What we think will happen now is that the Opposition and the Tory Rebels will resist any calls for a General Election until after they have taken No Deal off the table, which act will then leave Johnson as ham-strung in negotiations with the EU as poor old Theresa May was for three years.

And even if he could subsequently successfully call a General Election – by no means certain, as the House will have to give him a 2/3rds majority to do so – there is no guarantee he will win it, as he will be effectively saying “OK, I messed up my Brexit attempt despite telling you I’d fix it … now we’re back where we were three years ago, but please give the Conservatives another chance because I’m a better Prime Minister than Theresa May was.”

Hardly a convincing call, when he’s just shown himself to be anything but competent.

The British headlines tell an unmissable story. “Brexit bomshell: Boris loses control” (The Mirror), “Humiliation for Johnson” (Guardian), “Johnson loses control” (i), “PM loses historic vote” (The Times), “Johnson strategy in ruins” (Financial Times). Overseas comment is hardly kinder: “Boris Johnson’s populist playbook implodes” said the Washington Post.

A Labour/Lib Dem/Nationalist Coalition government is at least as likely as a Tory win, especially when you consider that Brexit is much less popular in Wales and Scotland, and that the Brexit Party waits in the wings ready to snap at the Tories’ heels, splitting the pro-Brexit vote, should October 31st be revealed as the day Britain actually did not, yet again, leave the EU.

Let’s put this in perspective. Johnson just got thrashed on the floor of the House in his SECOND DAY actually in the Parliament. No amount of hairy chest-beating in the Tory leadership election or since makes up for that simple fact. Nor that he has managed to outlaw two previous Chancellors of the Exchequer, the grandson of his political idol Nicholas Soames – a harmless old fuddy duddy at the best of times – and one of the contenders for the Tory Leadership – Rory Stewart – who proved himself very popular with the public. (And who may yet replace Johnson.)

David Cameron

Credit where credit is due. Let’s never forget who foisted this chaos on the British people, and the world, in a staggering failure of political strategy and leadership.

Perhaps the Parliament should pass a law banning Old Etonians from being PM? Remember this chaos was begun by the equally politically incompetent David Cameron.

As we have always said, if Brexit ever does succeed, it will be a wishy-washy cobbled-together Brexit which achieves none of the goals of the Leave campaign – a Brexit in name only – except to remove Britain from the discussions at the heart of Europe of which it should, of course, be a part.

Our prediction is that Boris Johnson will one day be seen as an irrelevant blip on the road to that outcome.

We think a Labour-LibDem-Nationalist majority in the House whenever the next election occurs will offer the people a second referendum based on some compromise deal of which the facts are actually known, as well as the option to stay in the EU, and that this time the “stay in the EU” option will actually be in the majority.

And then, at long last, the British Parliament can get back to actually governing.

Under those circumstances, we also think it is highly likely that the British Conservative Party will break into two parties – one pro EU and one against – and they will condemn themselves to a generation of irrelevance by keeping on talking about Europe when no one else ever wants to hear about it again.

 

#Brexit #BrexitShambles #BorisJohnson

A bank in Denmark is now offering borrowers mortgages at a negative interest rate, effectively paying its customers to borrow money for a house purchase.

As reported by the Guardian and others, Jyske Bank – Denmark’s third-largest bank – said this week that customers would now be able to take out a 10-year fixed-rate mortgage with an interest rate of -0.5%, meaning customers can actually pay back less than the amount they borrowed.

To put the -0.5% rate in simple terms: If you bought a house for $1 million and paid off your mortgage in full in 10 years, you would pay the bank back only $995,000.

Oh those crazy, whacky Scandinavians, right?

Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

If the alternative is that the bank doesn’t gain market share, or their lending book dwindles, possibly through a generalised lack of consumer confidence, then it might be that the bank is better off locking in a small loss now, rather than a bigger loss later. Plus there’ll probably be some fees associated with the lending, so they can cover themselves to a degree.

Financial markets are in a volatile, uncertain spot right now. Factors include the US-China trade war, Brexit, problems in Hong Kong, and a whole heap more including a generalised economic slowdown across the world – and particularly in Europe. Some – not all – investors fear a substantial crash in the near future.

So some banks are willing to lend money at negative rates, accepting a small loss rather than risking a bigger loss by failing to lend money at higher rates later on that customers cannot meet. Essentially, lock in your customers now and help them ride out any coming storm.

Banks are probably also betting that some of those 10 year mortgagees will extend their loan or borrow more in the future, as most people tend to return to an existing lender before looking elsewhere.

But as one commentator remarked:

“It’s an uncomfortable thought that there are people who are willing to lend money for 30 years and get just 0.5% in return. It shows how scared investors are of the current situation in the financial markets, and that they expect it to take a very long time before things improve.”

So where’s the good news? Well hyper-low interest rates are putting a floor under housing markets everywhere, and making it possible for some people (such as first home buyers) to get into the market where they couldn’t before. Home renovators will also find it easier to tart up their homes, which will lend useful support to both tradespeople and building products manufacturers.

Overall, we seem to be now firmly in a low-growth economic model, with only China really bucking the trend, and even that biggest of Asian tigers is slowing down a little.

So what does this all mean for business?

  • Fight harder than ever for market share.
  • Review your pricing to stay competitive.
  • Be prepared to run efficiently on lower margins. Even take a loss for a while, if you can, if it means you can outlast your competition.
  • Innovate to add value.
  • Provide improved customer service.
  • And advertise more – not less – to grow your market share.

As for people living on their savings? Good luck. You’re going to need it.

Death penalty chamber (lethal injection)

 

News that the Federal Government in America intends resuming the use of the death penalty in federal cases with the execution of five prisoners in December has caused renewed debate on the use of the ultimate sanction.

It has to be said that the population of many countries are usually in favour of the death penalty for murder, especially when conducted against children, or as a result of terrorist activity. The imposition of the penalty has undeniable democratic validity, and especially so where the guilt of the accused seems certain or is admitted.

But it still raises very troubling questions. These are, to our eyes, the strongest reasons not to impose the death penalty.

It can be a mistake

Posthumous pardons are little recompense for someone being put to death incorrectly. And the records of those killed for doing no wrong are long and repeated. It would be incorrect to assume this is a rare occurrence, or only in cases where the verdict was circumstantial or in the balance.

 

Cameron Todd Willingham

 

Texas man Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three daughters. Following his execution, further evidence revealed that Willingham did not set the fire that caused their deaths. But it came too late to save him, even as he consistently protested his innocence.

Other cases that could have involved the death penalty demonstrate the fallibility of the system too. George Allen Jr. was exonerated on January 18, 2013, in St. Louis, Missouri, after serving over 30 years in prison for the murder of a young court reporter. Allen was convicted based in part on a false confession, police “tunnel vision” and blood type evidence that was said to include Allen, but actually eliminated him as a possible contributor. Visiting the Innocence Project website will reveal how often convictions are incorrect.

There was also the notorious case of Troy Davis, which this writer campaigned on for some years where it was perfectly clear an innocent man was to be executed, which duly occurred.

In 2014, a study estimated perhaps 4% of death row inmates in America are innocent. Many of these are people where there is no apparent or yet discovered doubt about their guilt.

In the USA, 130 people sentenced to death have been found innocent since 1973 and released from death row. The average time on death row before these exonerations was 11 years.

The continuous threat of execution makes the ordeal of those wrongly convicted particularly horrible.

Timothy Evans

In March 1950 The British Government hanged Timothy Evans, a 25-year-old man who had the vocabulary of a 14-year-old and the mental age of a ten-year-old.

Evans was arrested for the murder of his wife and daughter at their home, the top floor flat of 10 Rillington Place, London. His statements to the police were contradictory, telling them that he killed her, and also that he was innocent.

He was tried and convicted for the murder of his daughter and subsequently hanged. Three years later Evans’s landlord, John Christie, was arrested for the murder of several women, whose bodies he hid in the house. He subsequently admitted to the murder of Evans’s wife, but not the daughter.

He was hanged in July 1953 in Pentonville Prison, but the case showed Evans’s conviction and hanging had been a miscarriage of justice.

It can be arbitrary

One Supreme Court Justice in the USA even changed from a supporter of the death penalty to an abolitionist due to his experience on America’s highest court. He said: “The death penalty remains fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake … Experience has taught us that the constitutional goal of eliminating arbitrariness and discrimination from the administration of death … can never be achieved without compromising an equally essential component of fundamental fairness – individualised sentencing.”  Justice Harry Blackmun, United States Supreme Court, 1994

There’s much concern in the USA, in particular, that the legal system doesn’t always provide poor accused people with good lawyers. Out of all offenders who are sentenced to death, three quarters of those who are allocated a legal aid lawyer can expect execution, a figure that drops to a quarter if the defendant could afford to pay for a lawyer.

It’s not a deterrent.

There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than a prison term. In fact, evidence reveals the opposite.

Since abolishing the death penalty in 1976, for example, Canada’s murder rate has steadily declined and as of 2016 was at its lowest since 1966.

There is still the argument that the death penalty is effective retribution, but what does that then say about us, as a society? And as experts agree, revenge is not as healthy for those to whom harm has been done as forgiveness is. It’s argued that retribution is used in a unique way in the case of the death penalty. And crimes other than murder do not receive a punishment that mimics the crime – for example rapists are not punished by sexual assault, and people guilty of assault are not ceremonially beaten up.

Research conducted for the UN has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. And such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction.

As Amnesty International commented, “The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime.”

Or as anti-death penalty campaigner Dr Daisy Kouzel commented, “When they used to hang pickpockets in public, more pickpocketing was going on at the site of execution than had been done by the condemned man who was being hanged to set an example. ”

It removes the possibility of rehabilitation

For some murderers, it appears there is never any hope of rehabilitation. But stories abound of people on death row in various countries for long periods of time, decades sometimes, sentenced for horrible crimes, who become “model prisoners”, and make a sustained contribution to the well-being of their fellow prisoners. In the case of one prisoner – Edmund Zagorski – executed in Tennessee in 2018 for murdering two people over a drug deal, he was even credited with having saved the life of a prison warder.

It’s inhumane

Many styles of execution are painful – there are extreme concerns over lethal injection in the United States taking up to 30 minutes to kill the convicted criminal, inflicting feelings of fear, suffocation, and “burning up from the inside”. In Japan, the accused are only informed of their execution moments before it is scheduled. As a result, each day of their life is lived as if it was their last. This is surely mental torture.

It’s applied inconsistently

Some lawyers argue that capital punishment is not really used as retribution for murder, or even consistently for a particular kind of murder. They argue that, in the USA at least, only a small minority of murderers are actually executed, and that imposition of capital punishment on a “capriciously selected random handful” of offenders does not amount to a consistent programme of retribution.

Since capital punishment is not operated retributively, it is therefore inappropriate to use retribution to justify capital punishment. This argument would have no value in a society that applied the death penalty consistently for particular types of murder, of course, but evidence also shows that similar crimes – murder, rape, drug dealing and so forth – produce very different results in court, and that the further down the social scale you are, the more likely you are to have the ultimate penalty imposed. (See ‘arbitrary’, above.)

It brutalises individuals

Statistics show that the death penalty leads to an increase in murder rate. In the USA, for example, more murders take place in states where capital punishment is allowed. In 2010, the murder rate in states where the death penalty has been abolished was 4.01 per cent per 100,000 people. In states where the death penalty is used, the figure was 5.00 per cent. These calculations are based on figures from the FBI. The gap between death penalty states and non-death penalty states rose considerably from 4 per cent difference in 1990 to 25 per cent in 2010. It is also linked to increased number of police officers murdered. The argument seems to be that “If I am going to be killed for one count of murder, why not commit more?”

It should not be applied to the mentally incapable or the insane

This is not an argument against capital punishment itself, but against the fact of its existence leading to it being applied wrongly.

Some countries, including the USA and the UK (in the past), have executed people proven to be insane or to have been so mentally incapacitated as to be, in effect, like little children.

But it’s generally accepted that people should not be punished for their actions unless they have a guilty mind – which requires them to know what they are doing and that it’s wrong. Therefore people who are insane should not be convicted, let alone executed. This doesn’t prevent insane people who have done terrible things being confined in secure mental institutions, but this is done for public safety, not to punish the insane person.

To put it more formally: it is wrong to impose capital punishment on those who have at best a marginal capacity for deliberation and for moral agency.

A more difficult moral problem may arises in the case of offenders who were apparently temporarily insane at the time of their crime and trial but who then recover.

The existence of the death penalty leads to special jury selection

Jurors in many US death penalty cases must be ‘death eligible’. This means the prospective juror must be willing to convict the accused knowing that a sentence of death is a possibility.

This results in a jury biased in favour of the death penalty, since no one who opposes the death penalty is likely to be accepted as a juror. Whether or not that makes them any better or worse at judging guilt is imponderable. But where jurors must recommend a sentence to a judge, or order it, it biases the system in favour of death penalty outcomes regardless of the culpability or profile of the offender.

It arrogates to the ‘State’ the right to do things we might not be prepared to do ourselves.

There is a moral argument against execution if an individual apparently in favour of the death penalty would not, nevertheless, be willing to perform the execution themselves. As one MP put it in Britain, “I would not pull the lever (to hang someone) myself, so I will not instruct others to do it on my behalf.”

It brutalises society, to no purpose

If the authorities will respect life, this attitude filters down to the lowest stratum of society. Far fewer murderers are perpetrated today than when executions were a dime a dozen and gibbets a common sight at crossroads, except of course in countries where the executioner is very active and blood keeps adding to blood. Why? Because humaneness and mercy produce more of the same. As criminal law humanised so there was less crime instead of more, despite the rapid increase in populations. And if state officials carry out a death sentence, they must extinguish all feelings of reverence for life; otherwise they would never be able to carry out their task.

This would seem to be echoed by the most famous executioner in modern history, Albert Pierrepoint, in Britain, who hanged up to 600 people.

In his 1974 autobiography, Pierrepoint changed his view on capital punishment, and wrote that hanging:

… is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.

It can be applied for ‘crimes’ that do not warrant it

Notoriously, up to 9,000 homosexuals were murdered in Nazi Germany for same-sex behaviour … but in Iran, and parts of Nigeria, you can still be executed for being an active homosexual, and some other majority Muslim states. In Saudi Arabia people have been executed for throwing stones at a street demonstration when they were a child, or for cross-dressing, and in the UAE for rape. In China, you can be executed for financial corruption and 53 other non lethal crimes. In a number of countries in Asia you can be executed for relatively minor drug crime.

Most people would argue the ultimate penalty should only be handed down for the ultimate crime.

The debate will, no doubt, continue, in the USA and elsewhere. What do you think, Dear Reader?

 

Angry dog

Hard on the heels of the research that dogs have evolved to look up to us with longing eyes to get … well, pretty much whatever it is they want, in our household at least … there is now a fascinating set of research findings that suggest dogs can discern when humans aren’t nice people.

Long suspected, it now appears to have been proven, as you can read below.

Science Confirms That Dogs Can Recognize A Bad Person

We have long suspected this to be the case. When about ten years old, we were walking our Norfolk Terrier – Tim, after Dickens’s Tiny Tim – down the hill to Langland Beach in Mumbles, at the bottom of which was a large art deco public toilet block.

A man – nondescript, forties, seemingly harmless – struck up a conversation on the way down the hill, noting how nice the dog was.

Except he wasn’t. Nice. He snarled, and bared his teeth, and ran in circles on the end of his lead, and wouldn’t let the man near him to pat him or any such activity. He snarled and barked all down the hill.

As his owner, and a polite little boy, I was shocked, and apologetic. It was totally out of character for the dog.

At the bottom of the hill, the guy asked if I wanted to come into the toilets with him, as I probably needed to go to the toilet, right?

Norfolk TerrierOh no I didn’t. My child safety training had been excellent. As he went in, I hightailed it back up the hill dragging the poor bloody dog behind me, to collapse in tears at my mother’s feet.

Looking back, I saw the man come out of the toilet again, and cast around looking for me.

Fuck him. And thank you to the dog. He knew.

PS Did we mention we had a bird who used to walk to the front door when I was still a mile away in the car?

Good day, Dear Reader

We were recently thrilled, not to say mildly amazed, to have a short story which we wrote almost on the off chance, selected as a finalist for the prestigious Ada Cambridge prize at the well known WillyLitFest.

It was our first time ever submitting a story to anything, so now, of course, we will submit endlessly to prizes all over the world, not to say publishers, and probably get knocked back by every one, but in the meantime we will bask in the misapprehension that all one has to do is write and enter, and all will be well.

Many people have asked if they could read the story, which is published along with all the other shortlisted and winning poetry and stories. But for anyone who can’t get to Williamstown to buy a copy, here is my story. It has been professionally edited, so any mistakes are mine alone.

The Blitz in Swansea

SCARLET NIGHTS

The woman emerged slowly from under­­ the corrugated roof of the Anderson shelter. The dawn light was barely discernible over to the east – a lick of paint along the edge of the clouds that spread across Swansea Bay like a dirty counterpane, towards where she knew the docks would already be rousing themselves.

The sky lowered an ugly black, and she shivered, despite wearing two jumpers under her thick woollen overcoat. It had been threatening to snow for days, and yesterday there had been momentary sleet as well as the endless drizzle and rain.

She looked at the soil banked up on the sides of the shelter.British convoy attacked

He’d done a good job of it, home on leave for those four days at Christmas, though a day of that was lost travelling up and down from Plymouth.

She’d hugged him tightly, chiding him, though, for making the journey, telling him he should have stayed in Plymouth with his mates and had a couple of days in the pub. He just laughed quietly and told her he’d never do that.

All he’d thought about on the convoys across the Atlantic was making it through to see her again, and the boy. She’d expected him to just take it easy and eat whatever she managed to pull together to spoil him for a Christmas lunch, but he’d shared a small celebratory whisky with her and then gone straight to the back garden, and started burying the new shelter in soil, hacking away at the stone-hard ground with a pick-axe.

After a day, the rest of the garden was effectively destroyed, but the shelter had its extra layer of protection.

Then Christmas Day intervened, and she insisted he go to the Prince of Wales for a pint while she prepared a chicken she had near-begged from her distant cousin the butcher, with all her meat coupons for a month, and a none-too-subtle appeal to family loyalty.

anderson shelterOn Boxing Day, he disappeared for an hour and came back with seedlings of cabbage and Brussels sprouts, and showed her how to keep them warm in punnets in the conservatory for a little while, and told her when to transplant them to the roof and sides of the shelter. And then he was gone again, back to the grey waves and hunting U-boats, his shy smile playing on his face in her memory. She had planted the vegetables, and prayed they would take. Food was getting scarce, and the boy was painfully thin. Despite the bite in the wind, it looked as if some of them might make it, at least.

She heard a cry and hurried back to the shelter. The boy had been grizzling; he had been awake most of the night before falling asleep just an hour ago. He definitely had a fever, since the previous morning she thought, and it seemed to be no better despite her giving him doses of aspirin powder mixed in a little milk. Feeling his forehead with the back of her hand, she was now alarmed. It was even more clammy, and hot.

She lifted him from under the blanket with ease, his tiny body belying his seven months, and rocked him gently, but he just cried. She dipped a cloth in a mug of water and wiped his head, but he shook it and turned it away from her. So she opened the door to the shelter a crack with her shoulder, and sat down with him again, willing the cool air to make him feel more comfortable.

She moved back with him into the mock Tudor-timbered semi-detached home. She loved the little circular close with its matching houses, though she never imagined she would live there alone for any length of time. The windows hid their secrets behind the white chintz. She was but a stone’s throw from the lawn tennis club where she had played almost every day as a teenager, and St Paul’s and Holy Trinity Anglican Church within whose dank medieval walls she took solace, but days like this she felt very lonely. She made herself a cup of tea, taking care to warm the pot as her mother had taught her, and stared helplessly at the little lad turning fitfully in his cot, still crying.

When she had finished, and washed and replaced the cup on the tall boy, and leaving him in his cot still crying but near, it seemed, to exhaustion, she went next door and knocked tentatively. She didn’t know Isabella Jones well, but she knew she was a nurse at Singleton Hospital, and so might have a better idea what to do.

‘Coming! Stay there!’ came from within. After a minute, the leadlighted door swung open, and Mrs Jones was there, fastening a nightgown, her hair tied up in a towel.

‘Oh, hello there, sorry, I just got off nights, was having a bath. I thought they were sending to bring me back again. It happens. Gosh, don’t stand there, you’ll catch your death. Or I will. Come in. Come in.’

She explained she couldn’t. The boy. She’d left him. But she didn’t know what to do. Could she come? Have a look?

A few minutes later they were standing over the cot. The nurse felt his forehead as she had, but also picked him up and put her head to his chest. Then she turned him round and listened to his back. She shook her head slightly, seeming confused. Did she have a teaspoon, by any chance?

She passed her the one she had just washed up after her cup of tea, and Isabella Jones, with some difficulty, managed to open the boy’s mouth and depressed his tongue a little with the back of the spoon.

She clucked, and returned him to his cot. After a few more tears for good measure, he quietened slightly and started to fall asleep again. She stroked his growing head of hair away from his eyes, and asked the woman for a block of ice from the little freezer box at the top of the refrigerator. She rubbed his forehead with it gently a couple of times, and then his lips, and worked it between her fingers, causing the ice to melt ever so slightly, and a trickle of cold water to enter the dozing boy’s mouth. It seemed to settle him further.

When he was quiet, the nurse went to the kitchen sink and washed her hands thoroughly with carbolic soap. She turned to the woman, a worried look on her face.

‘Look, cariad, I’m not a doctor, but you know I’ve seen just about everything in my time. We get to know things when we do half the doctor’s work for them nowadays, what with so many of them being off somewhere for the war, now.’

She paused, frowning.

‘There’s no point beating round the bush: I’d bet the King’s pound to a beggar’s penny he’s got Scarlet Fever. His throat looks very sore and his tongue is all white with little red spots. It’s an early sign. It’s called Strawberry tongue.

I’d say by tonight or tomorrow morning the white will have gone and his tongue will all be bright red, and then he might get spots on his body, and you can pretty much guarantee his little cheeks will go a nice shade of bright pink. Can’t miss it.’

The woman looked at each other, concern on the face of one and something close to terror on the face of the other.

The danger, the nurse explained, was the fever. Or that the infection would spread to the organs of the little body. Meningitis. Even rheumatic fever of the heart. It used to happen a lot, less so nowadays, thank goodness. She started ticking things off:

‘You’ve just got to get his fever down, and keep him as cool as possible. His temperature might go up to 102 and stay there for a while, so the aspirin will help, and it will help his poor throat too. There is an anti-toxin but it’s a toss-up whether there’s any around. I’ll walk back to the hospital and ask. And I’ll get Dr Mullaway to come round and look, too.’

The woman was all for simply picking the boy up and walking round there with her, but the nurse firmly said no.

‘They’d lock him and you in a room, dear and you’d be there for days. It’s very infectious, that’s why I washed up so carefully. And they couldn’t possibly risk having him in a place with lots of sick and injured people in it because they’d be dead set to catch it more easily. It could kill people, just taking him there. Dear me, no, that would never do.’

Excusing herself, the nurse bustled next door, and a little while later, with a wave, she headed off down the street. After what seemed like an age, with the woman just sitting at the kitchen table staring at the little boy, and occasionally wetting his forehead, she saw the nurse return and leapt up to have the door open before she got there.

Yes, she had told the Doctor, who had promised to call on his way home that evening. Meanwhile, here was some calamine lotion in case the boy developed a rash that was itchy – ‘Their skin feels like sandpaper, gets very dry, drives them mad. Specially on their back, and they can’t reach that, of course.’ – some more aspirin powder – ‘Give him a little more, it won’t kill him, but the fever might.’ – and she passed her a very light gown made of soft cotton. ‘Put that on him, not that thing he’s got on now. It’s too hot.’ She tapped the front door. ‘And keep this open a bit, and get the temperature in the house down. If he gets even hotter, pop him in the kitchen sink and let him have a cool bath. Pat him dry, but not perfectly dry.’

The woman nodded, taking it all in. Her neighbour excused herself. ‘I have to get some sleep. I’m on again at four. I’ll drop in before that.’

The day dragged by. Outside a light drizzle fell, whipped up by the west wind beating up the Bristol Channel. Mercifully the child slept, from time to time, his rest punctuated by bursts of distress. She slept in the kitchen chair for a few minutes here and there, but found his silences when she slept unnerving. She kept checking him to be sure he was still breathing.

She forgot to eat herself, but managed to get a little warm milk into him, but soon he rejected the bottle and took to crying again. When her neighbour reappeared, the mother’s red eyes were filled with tears with frustration, and gritty from lack of sleep.

The nurse repeated the earlier examination, and this time she had brought with her a thermometer, which she held under the baby’s armpit for as long as he would permit it, and then she examined it carefully. She nodded.

‘It’s just under 102. Bang on for Scarlet Fever. And his tongue is redder. But he seems tougher than he looks, poor little bugger. He’s still strong, going by that set of good Welsh lungs on him. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Mullaway will be along, but I expect he’ll say the same.’

She waited. An hour passed. Then another. It was getting quite dark now, and she couldn’t look out of the window, with the blinds drawn for the blackout. The boy was unchanged. She listened for the swing of the garden gate and a man’s steps on the path. She listened for a very long time.

It started, with no warning, at almost exactly seven thirty.

The ground shook with repeated tremors, each followed the moment after by the unmistakeable crump of a bomb exploding, and then soon after by the boom-boom-boom of anti aircraft guns responding and the distant howl of air raid sirens. She scooped up the boy and rushed to the front door in horror, flinging it open and looking out. It was not the first time Swansea had been bombed, of course, and she knew to grab her coat, a bottle for the boy, and head to the air raid shelter in the back garden immediately. But she paused, for just a few seconds, mesmerised by explosion after explosion from the east, over by the City centre, and the docks, and now and then a blinding series of flashes and resulting fire from Townhill away to the left. Uttering a quick prayer, she rushed to the shelter, pulling it closed behind her, and sat there nursing the screaming child in complete terror.

The barrage continued for hours. Whenever she thought it might have ended, the bombs started falling again. Once she heard an ack-ack gun nearby rattling out its furious tune, and she thought it must be the one sited atop the hospital. Most of the bombs seemed to her to be falling over to the east and north, but once there was an almighty crash from … from where? From what could have been her own home for all she knew, but she was too afraid to open the door to the shelter. It seemed awfully close.

After the alarms had subsided and it seemed there were no more explosions, she dared to look out. Her hand flew to her mouth as she could see that from one side of the horizon to another there seemed to be a continuous sheet of vivid flame and acrid smoke. And right nearby, in what must be the next street, a house was ablaze, its roof already well alight. She knew that people would already be there, passing buckets of water to douse the flames, and she would have helped, but she could not leave the boy, nor could she take him, so she just stared, mutely, in agony for the people concerned.

When day came, the true nature of what had happened was obvious. A massive pall of smoke hung over everything, seemingly incapable of being disturbed by the wind, such was its thickness. A sickly-sweet smell of burning oil pervaded the air. All her neighbours were gathered in the street, huddled in small groups; the occasional car came and went. As the boy seemed settled for a moment, she left him in his cot again and approached one tight knot of women to listen.

‘It’s all still burning. My Matthew, he’s over there, they’ve called in all the wardens and police, every single fire engine, and the army, too. It’s a right bloody mess. Brynhyfryd, Townhill and Manselton got it the worst. And Matthew says they flattened the Regimental HQ for the Royal Artillery, but even so they kept fighting back with any guns they had. There’s hundreds dead, they say. Hundreds. And God knows where they’re going to put all the people who’ve lost their homes.’ She gestured to her right. ‘They’ve lost everything. Only moved in there six weeks ago. And they’d done a lovely job of the bathroom. Such a shame.’

The woman knocked on Isabella’s door, but there was no reply. She walked her kitchen, back and forth, chewing on a finger, not knowing what to do for the best. At one point she went down on her knees by the little crucifix in the bedroom, and prayed for guidance. The boy seemed no better, but no worse. Although when she took off the little hospital garment and bathed him, she saw that a bright red rash had appeared on his lower legs.

She walked to the end of the road with him, but then walked back. The streets seemed eerily quiet. She picked up the phone in her hallway, but it was dead.

Around five thirty, just as dusk was falling, with the fires still burning in the distance, there came a knock at the door. Dr Mullaway introduced himself, wearily, and apologised for not having come sooner, but …

He simply waved his hand in the direction of the events of the night before.

The words tumbled out of her mouth chaotically, the emotion of the last two days finally breaking, like a dam: his fever, he’d been alright and then suddenly, and the nurse’s advice, his tongue, see? Her husband was away, she didn’t know what to do, but how is he, Doctor? You hear these things, such terrible things, about children dying from Scarlet Fever, and I can’t get out, and I don’t know, and look, look at his legs, now the poor thing, his legs.

She sucked in a great gulp of air and looked at the Doctor, her face a mixture of worry and anger. ‘His legs! Poor little mite! Now look at his legs!’

The Doctor looked at the little nuggety woman, and for the briefest of moments his eyes blazed. But then he caught himself.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ he said quietly. Almost in a whisper.

Mullaway looked at her steadily, while she composed herself, then proceeded to examine the boy carefully. She said not another word until he’d finished.

‘Just keep doing what you’re doing,’ he said in the end. ‘Good luck.’ And he left.

And that night, the sirens howled again. And the next night.

In later years – decades later, a lifetime later – when her man was long dead, and the boy had three children of his own, she would repeat Mullaway’s words to herself. Sometimes when she would sit and watch the boy swim, or run, or playing with his kids.

Or she would just look at him when he was standing there.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ she would say. To herself, mainly.

And then she would tap the arm of her chair, or clap her hands together, and change the subject.

As if she’d said nothing, and nothing had happened.

 

HISTORICAL NOTE

The worst bombing of Swansea in South Wales occurred over three nights on 19th, 20th, and 21st February 1941. The period known as the Three Nights’ Blitz started at 7.30 pm on 19 February. My mother and brother survived the event in an Anderson Shelter in Brynewydd Gardens, Sketty Green. By the time the ‘all clear’ siren sounded after three days, major parts of the city had been destroyed, and 230 people were dead and 409 injured. 7,000 people lost their homes. The city centre suffered direct hits that started major conflagrations, destroying many commercial premises. It has still not been entirely rebuilt.

A total of nearly 14 hours of enemy activity were recorded. A total of 1,273 High Explosive bombs and 56,000 Incendiary bombs were estimated to have been dropped. An area measuring approximately 41 acres was targeted, with 857 properties destroyed and 11,000 damaged. To raise morale following the blitz, the King and Queen as well as the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited Swansea.

As I write this, just two days after the Australian election, the sense of shock in the electorate at the Liberal-National Coalition’s narrow victory over Labor is still causing most citizens to mutter, confused, “What the actual fuck?” I am not being coarse for the sake of effect. That is by far the most common comment.

It’s not just that there was a widespread sense that the Coalition, victim of recent leadership instability, was long overdue a “pull yourselves together” kicking.

It was that a Labor victory had been predicted for so long, with “two party preferred” margins of as high as 53-47 in their favour being forecast in usually reliable opinion polls as late as the morning of election day, that the eventual win by their opponents was … well, flabbergasting. Stupefying. “Shome mishtake, shurely?” (Election night in Australia is universally accompanied by parties and heavy drinking.)

In its way, this result is just as shocking (and therefore interesting) as the Brexit vote and the Presidential win of Donald Trump.

So in the end, what was it that produced a result which looks like ending up as 51-49 outcome in favour of the Coalition and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, now owners of a wafter thin majority that will theoretically allow them to continue to hold the Government benches for another three years?

There are many factors and I will try and unpick them intelligently for any election tragics out there.

Bill Shorten in Parliament

All the natural charisma of a brick.

Firstly and most obviously, the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, was an unpopular figure, in part because he had a history as a dominant and powerful head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which is not an organisation which spends much of its time cultivating the affection of the middle class centre of Australia where most Australians sit, but also because in Parliament and on TV he exhibited all the natural charisma of a brick.

Ironically a decent, engaging and friendly character away from the cameras, once they turned on he became over-controlled, lecturing, somewhat superior and just plain boring.

And as he was Labor Leader for six years, that was a long time to bore people.

The recently anointed Leader of the Liberal Party, by contrast, has been a relentlessly cheerful “ordinary bloke”, with an ever-present baseball cap perched on his head, who made no pretence of any great intellectual heft, but insisted he had plenty of empathy for the “battlers” – Aussies who want a “fair go”, or as they picturesquely put it here, “a fair suck of the saveloy”.

As one Liberal insider put it: “When he got the job last year he immediately began building his persona as an ordinary, knockabout bloke who can knock back a beer and roll up his shirt sleeves to have a go. He knew the importance of filling in the picture before his opponents defined him to the public.”

By achieving this, Morrison captured the aspiration of many working people to not actually be working people, thanks very much, but rather to ascend to comfortable middle class status.

Not for nothing was Scott Morrison’s first act after his win to go to his evangelical Church on Sunday morning, and then to go to the football on Sunday night.

Whereas the Labor Party – with a complex and substantial “tax and spend” agenda that required endless explanation – appeared mired in the class-warfare battles of previous decades, stating, in effect, “We’ll tax you what we need and then spend it on you as we see fit”, to which many Australians on Saturday clearly said “Thanks a lot, I’ll just keep me money and spend it myself”.

Whether or not a new Liberal-National Coalition government will actually do anything much to help the people who switched their votes to them remains to be seen – they didn’t expect themselves to win either, so they have a very sketchy plan for government – but painting Labor as the party of higher taxation was certainly a successful part of their pitch. It will be a long cold day in hell till a political party in Australia again goes into an election promising significant tax reform or even tax increases.

This effect was multiplied by the Labor Party’s inability (wary of offending environmentally-aware/Green voters further south) to enthusiastically support the proposed Adani coal mine in regional Queensland.

The Coalition found it simplicity itself to portray Labor as wishy-washy on the mine (which they were) and by implication, therefore, as wishy-washy on jobs for regional people – estimated as maybe as many as 15,000 jobs from Adani alone. This effect was re-doubled by no apparent solution to endlessly rising power prices and problems with water supply to regional areas.

The wash up is that are now no Labour seats left in Queensland anywhere north of the Brisbane river. And the “don’t care about jobs” message hurt Labor in regional New South Wales, too, where the impact of Adani was little more than symbolic of two very different agendas for Government, but where Labor was portrayed as having forgotten their core base (and the extraction industries generally) in favour of chasing a more ideologically-driven pro-environment vote.

The scale of the rout is notable. Across Queensland Coalition candidates in fact polled 57 per cent to Labor’s 43 per cent. Unheard of margins.

Scott Morrison Victory speech

“How good is Queensland?!” If you’re a Liberal, very, very good.

“How good is Queensland?!” roared Scott Morrison when the results were known, and he was cheered to the rafters by an audience in New South Wales. It’s hard to explain to an overseas audience quite how unlikely that is. Maybe Manchester United supporters offering to go over to Anfield and cheer on Liverpool so the Kop can have a day off. Lakers fans cheering for the Celtics. That sort of thing.

By running dead on new coal mines and talking up their climate change credentials, Labor made a bold attempt to speak to inner city Sydney and seats across left-leaning Victoria in particular, which had recently delivered a massive electoral setback to the Liberals in a recent State election.

The attempt failed.

Although the Green vote around the nation stayed roughly the same at 10.5% (approximately, counting continues), blue collar voters were resolutely unimpressed.

It’s not that they don’t care about climate change, it’s just that they want to care about it without paying more tax on a second investment home, (often called a “bricks and mortar pension” in Australia), or their parents having to give up long-established tax breaks on shares in their superannuation portfolio.

Ironically in well-to-do Coalition seats in the centre of cities there were small swings to the Greens and even to high-taxing Labor – the so-called “Doctor’s wives” effect, where comfortably off people dabble in more progressive politics because whatever the outcome it won’t really affect them. But move into the outer suburban ring and the effect was reversed, leading to a clutch of vital Coalition wins in seats in marginal seats in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania where they should, by all expectations, have been swept aside.

So it is worthwhile considering why the Liberal-National scare tactics on tax were so effective.

Australians are not, in a general sense, anti-taxation in the way that some in America are. It’s not that they are selfish. Indeed, Australians donate more per head of population to charity – including to charities overseas – than any other country in the world.

It is rather that they do not trust Government to spend those taxes wisely.

The Bill Australia can't afford.

Simple idea, cleverly expressed, and devastatingly powerful.

As part of a growing trend worldwide, Australians are deeply suspicious of Government at all levels, so when the Coalition festooned all the polling stations in the country in bunting – in stark Labour red – with an unflattering photo of Bill Shorten looking, frankly, confused, with the slogan “Labor: It’s the Bill Australia can’t afford.” it was highly effective. At no stage did Labor ever manage to convey their contrasting priorities with such devastating and effective directness.

And it was this scenario – starkly similarly to Clinton’s shock loss to Trump in America – that led one member of the public writing in to a radio station on Sunday morning to dismiss the Labor effort as having been led by “Hillary Shorten”. You could hear the heads nodding in agreement around the country’s breakfast tables.

Or in the case of those who were yet to get up having drunk themselves to sleep in either distress or celebration just a few hours previously, there was a muttered “Yeah … what she said …” from under a pillow.

Perhaps the most significant thing to say about this election is that it shows, once again, that political parties in the Western world are no longer either mere vehicles for those who traditionally made up their supporter base or even perfectly aligned to those who they seek to lead, and especially on the Left.

Pennsylvania coal miners voted for Trump. On Saturday so did coal miners in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and those who want to be coal miners in Queensland. Voters in Wales and Northern England and the South West voted against their obvious self-interest for Brexit. On Saturday so did those working in the tourism industry in Queensland who said, in effect, we’d rather have a coal mine than the Barrier Reef.

This time round, Australia’s Conservative parties portrayed themselves as simple-thinking, straight-talking managers, eschewing the internecine struggles that have consumed them in recent years (the Coalition parties have been split between hard right cultural warriors and small-l liberals, much like in Britain) and opted instead for a pitch that they were just a bunch of good old blokes on the side of “ordinary” Aussies – yes, even those who work down coal mines, milk the cows, and for those – by offering vague and very unlikely promises on road building – who are stuck in commuter traffic queues for hours every day.

By contrast the Labor Party was simply too overly intellectual, too long-winded, and they constantly beetled off down obscurantist paths – all very noble in their own right, to be sure – without taking care of their knitting. As one radio commentator explained: “I went to see the mechanic who works on my car, and I asked him who he was going to vote for, and he said Liberal because he didn’t want to lose his tax break on the one investment property his family owned. When I told him there was no chance of that, because any change to the law meant that existing arrangements were grandfathered, he looked at me and said ‘What the fuck does ‘Grandfathered’ mean?’”

Quite.

You couldn’t summarise Labor’s failures to explain their goals any more simply, nor could you sound a better warning to the Left around the world as they seek to come to terms with the appeal of populist right wing heroes.

It’s hard to know exactly what will happen next. The Coalition now have a clean slate and the thrill of a totally unexpected win, and they could take the chance to shift their party back to the centre, (especially as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, leader of the hard right, lost his seat to an Independent), deliver modest but welcome tax cuts, finally make some progress on climate change – a notable failure for some years – and de-fang Labor for a generation.

Labor will retreat and lick their wounds, but they already show little sign of having learned their lesson, as their next Leader, far from a consensus politician from the centre, will very likely be a dyed-in-the-wool tub-thumping leftie. Which will do wonders for reviving the spirits of their own members, but very little for the electorate at large. Sound familiar?

In the meantime, Australians will move on to arguing about this week’s football, and saying “Thank God that’s over for another three years.” Although with a likely Government majority of just 1, they might be counting those chickens a tad early.

Because of it’s essential nature as a “free to edit” site, Wikipedia is often referred to in jokey terms as an information resource.

But many of its articles, supported by references, are hugely useful to a wide variety of people. The project has vastly contributed to the free flow of information and opinion around the world.

While you read this, Wikipedia develops at a rate of over 1.8 edits per second, performed by editors from all over the world. Currently, the English Wikipedia includes 5,854,311 articles and it averages 564 new articles per day. This amount of data can be analysed in a huge number of ways.

What is certain is that it is a highly valuable resource to make world conversations better informed.

Which is why it is so sad that for one-third of the world’s population, it just disappeared.

Screenshot of Wikipedia ad

Wikipedia is now blocked in China.

All language editions of Wikipedia have been blocked in mainland China since April, the Wikimedia foundation has confirmed.

Internet censorship researchers found that Wikipedia had joined thousands of other websites which cannot be accessed in China.

The country had previously banned the Chinese language version of the site, but the block has now been expanded. Wikimedia said it had received “no notice” of the move.

In a statement, the foundation said: “In late April, the Wikimedia Foundation determined that Wikipedia was no longer accessible in China. After closely analysing our internal traffic reports, we can confirm that Wikipedia is currently blocked across all language versions.”

The free community-edited encyclopaedia has been intermittently blocked by authorities around the world.

In 2017, the site was blocked in Turkey and it has been blocked intermittently in Venezuela this year.

Experience shows that there is one thing that authoritarian regimes detest more than anything else, and that is losing control of the flow of information to their citizens. And experience shows that nothing forces them to back-track on these incursions into people’s freedom than their embarrassment at being found out and criticised.

The answer? Make a fuss. Stand up for the freedom of our Chinese brothers and sisters. Re-blog this article, put a link to it on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on any other platform you use regularly. Just hit one of the buttons at the end of this article.

Those in power in China will notice.

And if you want to know more about how important Wikipedia now is, go here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statistics

This story gives us the first words heard from Mohamed Noor, who shot Justine Damond when she ran to his police car for help, having heard a disturbance outside her home.

https://www.theage.com.au/world/north-america/you-die-if-you-react-too-late-noor-breaks-silence-on-damond-death-20190426-p51he6.html

Whilst anger at Damond’s stupid, awful death bubbles up very easily, quiet reflection makes it hard not to feel some sympathy for Noor and his partner, too. Yes, the license to carry a weapon and use it with deadly force is a heavy responsibility, to be sure. Without pre-judging the matter al all, merely based on what we have heard so far, we suspect Noor will likely be found guilty*, if for no other reason that taking the oath to serve also implies an ability to balance responding effectively to threats with public safety in moments of crisis. Anyhow, we shall see, and he deserves his day in court. But frankly, a greater responsibility lies elsewhere.

It is with customary police training that sends officers onto the street with a hair trigger attitude, to “shoot first” in case they are ambushed, as is laid out clearly in the story.

The parts of Noor’s defence outlined in the article above is a wake up call to all to address ingrained police attitudes to the use of deadly force.

And responsibility lies with the American public, who in a masse sense simply cannot summon up the will to reduce the numbers of guns in circulation in that country, leading in turn to a never-ending cycle of violence of which Justine Damond was just one more tragic victim.

The debate in America has become toxic, as so many discussions in that country have become. (Not uniquely, of course, but especially.) Advocates of greater gun control are called soft-headed at best and cowards and traitors at worst, but gun advocates are in turn are accused of being uncaring at best and gung ho to the point of latent murderousness at worst.

Neither attitude will encourage a move to the centre, and a desire to solve the problem. And until that happens, the litany of unnecessary deaths, of policemen, by policemen, and from the public, and by the public against other members of the public, will continue.

What is needed in the debate is evidence-based facts to balance the rhetoric. Research shows that some gun control measures reduce violence, others have a less efficacious effect. Research shows that guns can effectively be used in self-defence, in certain situations, and therefore have a moral and practical value. (Assuming no other course of action was open to the person defending themself, of course.) Evidence-based debate would reduce the toxicity and allow compromise to be considered.

America has a unique relationship with guns. Of course, jingoistic appeals to the Second Amendment are just so much hogwash. The Founding Fathers wanted to make space for citizen armies to defend against foreign insurgents – entirely unnecessary when America has the most expensive armed forces in the world – and they never imagined rifles, let alone repeating rifles, let alone near-assault weapons. But Americans enjoy hunting – often for food – as a core part of their culture. And that should be respected. Farmers need guns to reduce vermin. Ditto. And the right to self-defence is ingrained in a country which was for many years a frontier state.

But all that said, no one ever envisaged a country where inner city areas – especially – are plagued by roaming gangs of youth – white, black, hispanic, asian – locked into a cycle of crime, social despair and joblessness, with a free and never-ending supply of weapons. No one ever envisaged a militarised police force that would have to corral those dispirited and violent youths like an occupying army.

Yes, intelligent moves to rid the streets of some of their guns will be a beginning. But the ultimate answer, of course, in what is supposed to be a society based on productive capitalism, is work.

Work that gives a people a stake in their world. Work that lets people develop their lives with optimism. Work that lets people have pride in themselves.

Real work, in productive and meaningful jobs, with skills training that lasts a lifetime and makes future employment easier, mopping up the energy of the workforce.

Nothing more than a new “New Deal” will solve the crisis of America’s cities, and it will take an investment of trillions of dollars. And, of course, if that investment is made into old, dying industries it will serve no purpose, because it will not generate lasting economic growth to support – and repay – the initial investment.

If Americans weary of the never-ending cycle of violence, then here is a project around which both the right and the left in America can coalesce, if, and it’s a big if, the political will – which comes, ultimately, from the electorate – can be created.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues call for a New Green Deal to combat climate change. Well, that could combat inner city wasteful lawlessness, too. It can be a focal point for industrial renewal in cities across the USA. And there are many Republicans who, believing that the best jobs plan is economic growth, could be persuaded that capitalism nevertheless needs seed corn capital to function, and that at least some of the profits of corporate tax cuts need to be ploughed back into the economy, and not just into shareholders pockets to spend on Chinese TVs and Korean cars.

They might also consider that if the new energy technologies the world is crying out for could be invented, developed and sold by American companies, then America might start to reverse its disastrous trade deficit, which this month reached it’s largest ever figure. Which would be good for America, and the world.

Such a compact requires two things above all.

Imagination – to rise above the pointless squabbling that categorises modern American politics.

And compromise – a willingness to come together for the common good, such as one sees in wartime.

Justine Damond was just one more victim of an internal war raging endlessly in America’s cities, as, in his way, was Mohamed Noor. Redressing the collapse of those cities will require an effort just as dramatic and unifying as if the country was being threatened from abroad.

And it is long overdue. The clock stands at a minute to midnight.

*Since this article was written Noor has, indeed, been found guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Australian woman Justine Ruszczyk Damond. He was acquitted of second-degree murder.

One of the more impossible things to ask an actor to do is to play someone so well-known that everyone has an in-depth opinion of them already. The world of Bio-Pics are riddled with such traumatic tasks.

Gary Oldman’s recent version of Winston Churchill is widely considered the gold standard, as was Claire Foy’s eerie ability to channel Queen Elizabeth II in Series 1 and 2 of the Crown. Foy has now finished her stint, as the Crown rotates its cast as time moves on in the story. But Britain is now agog at the news that Series Four will include a virtual newcomer as Princess Diana, fated to captivate the world both as an iconic beauty who devoted a goodly proportion of her life to good works, as well as having endured the slow-motion train wreck of her marriage to Prince Charles.

Newcomer Erin Corrin will portray Diana, with whom she certainly bears more than a passing similarity. Whether she (and her script writers) will have the ability to make her portrayal of Diana a veritable “suspend disbelief” tour de force or a mere imitation or impersonation awaits our perusal.

Series 3 of this brilliantly made (so far) series airs in late 2019 — which will see Olivia Colman take over Claire Foy’s role as Queen Elizabeth — and will focus on the Harold Wilson era between 1964-1970. As we who lived through that, we are almost as keen to see what they make of Wilson. Lady Di arrives in the Thatcher era, presumably in 2020.

An interesting parlour game is to consider the best ever Bio Pics of all time, whether on TV or in Cinema. It is certainly a rich ouvre. Here’s our Top Ten (well, as at this moment – given a little more thought we might add others) — what are yours? And why?

  1. Gandhi – an ineffable (and apparently very authentic) central performance from Ben Kingsley and sensational mass-scale direction from Dickie Attenborough combine to create a story which bears repeated viewing. Many times. There’s always something more to see.
  2. Lawrence of Arabia – notable not only for David Lean’s sweeping cinematography but also Peter O’Toole’s mesmerising and complex portrayal of a character who didn’t bear easy translation to any medium, let alone film.
  3. The King’s Speech – notable most of all for its astounding performance by Colin Firth as the stammering King George 6th, the film also evokes its era and the stuffiness of the British court perfectly.
  4. Patton – we are not normally huge fans of war movies, but Patton is really a character portrait which happens to be set in the theatre of war. George C Scott channels the gruff American General with great skill, painting a portrait of a man who was as much a prisoner of his character as he was a man of his time who helped to shorten the war. The movie portrays him as both understood but misunderstood simultaneously, and evokes sympathy.
  5. Bernardo Bertolluci’s portrait of The Last Emperor (of China) is as wonderful for its lavish staging and massive set pieces as it is for John Lone’s deeply sympathetic portrayal of, again, an integrally flawed character caught up in events beyond his ken and abilities.
  6. A Beautiful Mind, which stars Russell Crowe in what must be his best ever performance was also notable for a restrained and remarkable performance from Jennifer Connelly as his long suffering and supportive wife, and also makes the list for shining a sympathetic light on mental illness and how people who are ‘different” can nevertheless be intensely and historically valuable.
  7. The Elephant Man suffers from the criticism that it cannot possibly be historically accurate because of our distance from events, but it was certainly utterly compelling cinema, and John Hurt as the central character turns in a performance so heart wrenching it is an example to all in how to portray suffering with dignity.
  8. La Vie en Rose tells the story of Edith Piaf, warts and all. It makes this list because of the astounding performance of Marion Cotillard as Piaf herself, who is

    Marion Cotillard as Piaf

    so realistic that one is instantly transported to her world and her struggles, and informed by both.

  9. Oliver Stone’s Nixon is another that makes our list because of the central performance of Anthony Hopkins as Nixon. Nixon was the ultimate Shakespearian tragedy in action – a man of prodigious talent destroyed by a refusal to be constrained by the rules and infected by galloping paranoia. Hopkins – who has endured more than a few ups and downs in his life himself – manages to make him both understandable and yet utterly creepy. In this context Stone’s JFK should probably also get an honourable mention, although its reliance on conspiracy theory rather than fact means it doesn’t get its own place on the list.
  10. Michael Collins was a movie that tried to make the awful somehow acceptable, in this case the murderous campaign of the IRA to free Ireland from British subjugation, which is portrayed as both heroic and cruel simultaneously, as well as effectively introducing the history of the period to a wider audience, including the short but bloody Irish Civil War, which can be glossed over in discussions of the years concerned. A very strong cast sees graet performances from Liam Neeson as Collins himself, Aidan Quinn and the much-missed Alan Rickman as the scheming but flawed Eamon de Valera. The only duff note is Julia Roberts as Collins’s lover, or the film would be higher up than 10th.

So that’s our list, Dear Reader. Yours? What did we leave off?

 

OK we loved Mamma Mia 2. Yes, yes we’re a year behind the rest of the movie world but, you know. Busy.

Yeah, the songs were from ABBA’s lesser ouvre but they were still charming and we will gladly overlook the creaky hokey artificial plot to watch that collection of stars having fun – I notice Meryl Streep called Lily James “perfect” as young Donna, and Ms Streep knows a bit about acting. And fair dinkum, Andy Garcia looks better today than 30 years ago – what??!!

Anyway, it was simple and life affirming and some nights that just hits the spot …

Paraprosdokians #3

Posted: April 8, 2019 in Humour, Life
Tags: , , ,

Regular readers – you know who you are – will know that we are particular fans of a very particular kind of joke called a Paraprosdokian.

paraprosdokian (/pærəprɒsˈdkiən/) is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence, phrase, or larger discourse is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect, sometimes producing an anticlimax. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists. Some paraprosdokians not only change the meaning of an early phrase, but they also play on the double meaning of a particular word, creating a form of syllepsis.

Anyhow, we came across a new bunch today, and they’re rather good:

You can lead a horse to water, but you’ll need help to drown it.

Too many cooks won’t fit in the broth.

A bird in the hand is a law suit waiting to happen.

Red sky at night, barn’s on fire.

Red sky in the morning, barn’s still on fire.

A fool and his money is good to go drinking with.

The lawnmower is mightier than the sward.

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw swinger’s parties.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single Internet search.

Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you.

Got any others you’d care to share, Dear Reader?

 

Screen Shot 2019-04-08 at 4.43.23 pm

I want to write a poem

Just dripping with angst

Jam-packed with pathos

With oodles of empathy

To tear the hearts out of teenage girls

and stir those of tired old men

I want to write a poem

That years later will still sound fresh

Riddled with irony

Spilling meaning everywhere

Entrancing yet confusing

Illuminating but complex.

I want to write a poem

That drags you in,

locks you into contemplation

pesters you to deal with it

like a nagging ringtone

made solely of words.

 

But you got this, instead.

I need a gin.

 

#poetry #writing #poems #creativity

PS the book is still for sale – get one when you next Amazon yourself.
https://www.amazon.com/Read-Me-Poems-One-Story/dp/1409298604

There has been widespread publicity – and volumes of commentary and angst  – about whether young women (and some not so young) who left their home countries to travel to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State should be permitted to return to their original countries.

In one case in the UK, the Home Secretary has revoked Shamima Begum’s UK citizenship, a decision supported by apparently 78% of the British population, and possibly effectively rendering her stateless – which even the Home Secretary acknowledges would be illegal.

In the USA, Donald Trump has instructed that another bride, Hoda Muthana, should not be allowed to return to America.

But perhaps there is a more nuanced reaction that should be considered.

Firstly, both these women, and others, claim they were brainwashed into originally heading to IS, and then for supporting it.

In the case of Muthana, she unquestionably urged violence against her American compatriots. In the case of Begum, she reported seeing “a decapitated head in a waste bin” and not being “fazed” by the experience, and that the terrorist bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester was “retaliation” for Western bombing.

However, despite these being utterly abhorrent opinions, it may still be that there are arguments in favour of such people being allowed “home”.

The problem is by no means limited to the West.

As the BBC reported in May 2018 more than 2,000 Russian women have disappeared in Iraq and Syria. Some will be dead. Some will be held by the Governments of those countries, (some of the Russian women and others are rumoured to have been taken to prison in Baghdad, where they face execution), or by anti-IS militia such as Hashd al-Shaabi. Some will be in hiding, or in refugee camps. Is some cases, when captured with their husbands, the husbands have been executed.

So can anything be said for allowing such people to return to their countries of birth or citizenship?

Their age

Most people would concede that decision-making at the age of 15, as in the case of Begum and the two friends that went with her (both now dead) would be wildly different from even a few years later.

Or when, as in Muthana’s case, (she left when 19), she was making decisions in a cloistered and very severe background with little or no external input. For example, she says her family in Alabama were deeply conservative and placed restrictions on her movements and interactions, factors she claims contributed to her radicalisation. “You want to go out with your friends and I didn’t get any of that. I turned to my religion and went in too hard. I was self-taught and thought whatever I read, it was right. I look back now and I think I was very arrogant. Now I’m worried about my son’s future. In the end I didn’t have many friends left, because the more I talked about the oppression of Isis the more I lost friends. I was brainwashed once and my friends are still brainwashed.”

Whilst Begum says she does not regret travelling to Syria, which has been widely reported, she also says she came to believe that IS deserved to be defeated because it was corrupt and cruel. That is a much more nuanced attitude. Such an attitude expressed openly in the ‘Caliphate’ would have seen her executed.

In Muthana’s case, she speaks of having made a great mistake in travelling to join IS, of being manipulated, of being ignorant.

Do we believe them? Are they sincere? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Would it make any difference if they were?

The essential question here is should we punish people for life, effectively, because of errors made – even egregious errors – when they were children, or when they say they were misled?

The pressure on them inside IS

There is ample evidence that IS placed such “brides” under huge pressure.

They were rigidly kept under lock and key until they married a fighter, to which they would not have been introduced, simply shown a photograph.

Once released into marriage, their movement was severely restricted, and any attempt to live an independent existence could result in terrible punishment. Soon after Begum’s marriage, (just three weeks after she arrived in the area), her husband was arrested, accused of spying, and was imprisoned and tortured for six and a half months.

It is not impossible to imagine that women such as Muthana would, effectively, have continued being “brainwashed” during their time in IS territory, or become too afraid to change their minds or express any different opinions. Whilst Muthana does not deny sending inflammatory tweets when she first arrived, and after her first husband was killed, she then claims her Twitter account was run by an IS fighter. Why did she stop sending her own tweets? Should we at least ask?

Are they actually guilty of any crime?

There is an argument that the women gave succour and sustenance to a terrorist organisation through their very presence. But other than this somewhat nebulous charge, have they actually broken any laws that would justify them being permanently excluded?

in 2015 Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said the three girls would not face terror charges or be treated as criminals. And in Begum’s case specifically, Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said at the time there was a “difference between the person running around northern Iraq with a Kalishnikov” and three schoolgirls who had been duped into travelling to Syria. However as Ms Begum is now 19, she is legally an adult. If she was under 18, UK authorities could argue they still had a duty of care to her. That might be more complex now. Then again, Security minister Ben Wallace said last week: “As a British citizen she has a right to come home here. We are obliged to make sure our citizens have rights, no matter who they are,” he told Sky News. But he dismissed any suggestion of sending officials to meet Ms Begum, saying: “I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go and look for terrorists in a failed state. Actions have consequences.”

Should they be obliged to face prosecution?

Though it might be unclear what they would be charged with, it may well be that the women concerned should be prosecuted in a court of law.

Sir Peter Fahy, a retired senior police chief who was the leader of the Prevent terrorism prevention programme at the time the girls left the UK, told BBC Radio 4 that if Begum was to now return, British authorities would first detain her and investigate whether there was enough evidence to prosecute her.

He said it was understandable why the government was “not particularly interested” in aiding her return. “If the woman was showing complete remorse, it would be completely different,” he said.

However this begs the question, should an individual’s guilt or innocence, whatever their actions, not be judged by a jury of their peers? Is there actually any more basic premise for western societies which support the jury system?

Fighters returning to their countries of origin are routinely taken to court, judged and sentenced. Why is one course of action right, and another wrong?

If it is simply because there are actually no laws under which to charge the women, that is surely not a reason to sentence them to exile in limbo in absentia.

Do we want them just running around anywhere?

Many IS brides are in camps (or areas) controlled by America and/or her allies in the region. European countries show no great enthusiasm to bring captured IS fighters home to face prosecution, nor to go to dangerous areas to interview or assess them.

But President Trump has publicly asserted that if the Europeans don’t steep up he will simply open the gates and let them go. In which case, will the women be released as well? To go … where? With what attitude or future actions?

So much is unclear.

Can they be rehabilitated?

The answer to this question is ‘probably’. De-radicalisation programs around the world actually show high levels of success.

The question is what is actually of more use to our society – de-radicalised people who were given a chance to atone for their behaviour, or permanently locking them out of sight overseas?

It is, of course, impossible to predict what future contribution they might make, but it is equally impossible to argue “None”. They might end us as useful members of society. They may even be part of an effort to help to prevent other young people becoming radicalised. In that sense, bringing them home would start to redress their foolishness.

Last but not least: what about the children?

Both these women – and many others – have very young children. No one would argue the children have done anything wrong, apart from having the misfortune to be born in a war zone.

Do the sins of their parents require them to be punished too? Surely not. And many people have said that their children should be allowed entry. But if we are to then obdurately refuse to take their mothers back, is that morally supportable? There is no evidence that the mothers are abusive towards their children – rather the opposite, in fact. So on what grounds can we or should we separate them?

At least 730 children have been born inside ISIS territory to foreign nationals, including 566 born to Western Europeans. Are they all to stay in refugee camps in Syria or surrounding countries?

Our conclusion?

It is often said that it is easy to forgive those that we agree with, or who are essentially good people. But it’s harder – and perhaps more relevant – to forgive those that we do not like.

Both of these women, and others, have expressed hateful opinions, as well as more complex ones.

But the issues they pose go to the heart of our judicial system. And they also talk to who we are as people, and how our attitudes to them define our societies, and how we wish to behave. Decisions about their future should not be made on the basis of pandering to mob disgust, even if that disgust is perfectly understandable.

Our view is that it is far too simplistic to argue, as social media has done, “Pah! They made their bed, let them lie in it.”

Why? Well, for one reason above all.

If we eschew totally the opportunity for rehabilitation – or even for measured punishment that fits the crime – then there would only be one sentence for all transgressions or crimes. And that sentence would be life in jail, or execution.

Now who does that sound like?

Our regular Reader, and Facebook friends, will know that we are somewhat exercised over the collective insanity that is Brexit. Wandering around the world wide interweb thingy, we saw this: To us, it seems remarkably apposite:

Leavers “We voted for Brexit, now you Remainers need to implement it”

Remainers “But it’s not possible!”

Leavers “The People Have Spoken. Therefore it is possible. You just have to think positively.”

Remainers “And do what exactly?”

Leavers “Come up with a Plan that will leave us all better off outside the EU than in it.”

Remainers “But that’s not possible!”

Leavers “Quit with the negative vibes. The People Have Spoken.”

Remainers “But even you don’t know how!”

Leavers “That’s your problem, we’ve done our bit and voted, we’re going to sit here and eat popcorn and watch as you do it.”

Remainers “Shouldn’t you do it? It was your idea. We were happy.”

Leavers “It’s not up to us to work out the detail, it’s up to you experts.”

Remainers “I thought you’d had enough of experts?”

Leavers “Remain experts.”

Remainers “There are no Leave experts.”

Leavers “Then you’ll have to do it then. Oh, and by the way, no dragging your feet or complaining about it, because if you do a deal we don’t want, we’ll eat you alive.”

Remainers “But you don’t know what you want!”

Leavers “We want massive economic growth, no migration, free trade with the EU and every other country, on our terms, the revival of British industry, re-open the coal mines, tea and vicars on every village green, some nice bunting, and maybe restoration of the empire.”

Remainers “You’re delusional.”

Leavers “We’re a delusional majority. DEMOCRACY! So do the thing that isn’t possible, very quickly, and give all Leavers what they want, even though they don’t know what they want, and ignore the 16 million other voters who disagree. They’re tight trouser latte-sipping hipsters who whine all the time. Who cares?”

This was created by Ishtar Ostaria and kudos to Ish.

We’d like to engage in one more bit of speculation.

The best intelligence at the moment seems to be that May will bring a deal back to the UK Parliament to pass which leaves the situation virtually as it is now, with Britain inside the EU, except Britain will lose all influence over the EU by not having any input in the EU parliament or ministerial conflabs. How that improves Britain’s standing is beyond us, even though it is what we speculated would happen years ago.

OR May will come back to the Parliament and say “This can’t be done, we need to defer Article 50, possibly for quite some time.”

This will create a political furore in Britain, even if it actually makes sense.

May might then go to the country for a renewed mandate, and with Labour languishing because of their leadership’s inability to oppose Brexit, and the Lib Dems seemingly unable to make up significant ground on them, she will probably get it. Which won’t make Brexit any easier, but which will entrench probably the most incompetent Government in recent British history in power for another five years.

British civil discourse is being rent asunder by political toxicity, and the country is led by donkeys. It’d be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 1.14.17 pm

The world is going through convulsions currently about the just-released new movie Mary Queen of Scots, primarily because of the acting skills of the remarkable Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, both of whom apparently light up the screen, and admiration for the lush staging of the story, both in terms of the gorgeous countryside and the recreation of medieval court life.

You can view the trailer for the movie below:

From Ronan’s powerful screen presence and mastery of a Scots accent to Robbie’s ineffably emotional performance, audiences seem set to love the film. Alex Hudson of Exclaim! wrote, “The real star here isn’t Mary at all, but Elizabeth — brilliantly played by Margot Robbie, who conveys a thin veneer of confidence disguising a deep well of neuroses.”

The danger, though, for all that both leading ladies’ offer masterful performances, is that people will mistake it for history, which it is not.

As Benjamin Lee in the Guardian said:

“Historians have already labelled the film problematic from Mary’s Scottish accent (apparently her real accent was French) to the film’s dramatic in-person confrontation between the two queens (apparently it never happened),” he writes.

But your annoyance with these deviations will depend on how you view the gap between history and historical drama and while there are some embellishments, they’re embellishments that have been added to previous adaptations and the primary facts appear relatively untainted, the truth shocking enough to propel the plot by itself.”

 

It’s an interesting point. Mary and Elizabeth never met, but a personal meeting between the two of them is pivotal to an understanding of the story. Does that really matter? Perhaps not. As one commenter pointed out in the comments for the trailer: “No one is watching this for educational purposes. Nobody’s gonna pay to watch a movie about (people) passive aggressively writing letters. ”

The same is true of one of the best films we have seen in recent years – certainly the finest leading performance – with Bohemian Rhapsody.

The film plays fast and loose with the chronology of events in Freddie Mercury’s life. For example, it appears to criticise Mercury for attempting solo albums, but ignores the fact his fellow Queen members were doing the same. It places the revelation of Mercury’s HIV infection as just before the seminal Live Aid performance, where band members confirm they knew a lot sooner than that.

See the trailer here – and see the film. We cannot recommend Rami Malek’s performance highly enough. It is utterly mesmerising and well deserves to win the Oscar for Best Actor.

 

Other noted movies to depart from strict historicity include recent efforts like Outlaw King (about Robert the Bruce), and the Darkest Hour (with Oscar-winning Gary Oldman as Churchill), and many others that are great movies, not so great history.

Churchill never rode the London Tube, for example, but the scene where he chats amiably to working class travelers is central to understanding his motivation to keep fighting the war with Hitler. Similarly, Churchill is portrayed as a hero for standing up to the defeatism of Chamberlain and Halifax, which he was, but ignores the vital role played by Labour Leader Clem Attlee, who was vital in bolstering support for Churchill.

The interesting question for all movie goers and critics is whether these mild changes to actual historicity really matter much, or whether compiling a compelling story is the higher priority, a story which contains within it deeper truths about the people and events concerned.

It will be interesting, in particular, to see what people make of Mary’s character in this film. Critics have argued that the film has strong feminist overtones, and it has certainly been promoted as such, portraying both Mary and Elizabeth, to a degree, as victims of the patriarchy in their society.

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 2.27.04 pm

Mary of Scotland in France

But that would surely be a case of too easily dismissing both women. They were both extremely strong-willed, eloquent, extremely well-educated, frequently sure of their personal direction, often capricious, sexually aggressive, charismatic and very often arrogant. Neither were especially merciful to those who opposed them.

Mary in particular undoubtedly endured bad luck. The early death of her first husband, Francis II of France, very possibly robbed her of a peaceful and contented future. (That she was deeply in love with Francis seems undoubted.) His death, and her subsequent return to Scotland, landed her in the middle of a deeply charged and volatile situation, riven with competing forces and religious tension, for which nothing could have adequately prepared her.

But she didn’t help herself. As history would have it, and with one eye on the English throne, she managed to annoy both her Catholic and her Protestant subjects.

Mary’s real downfall – which is often portrayed as due to her scheming (history being written by the victors, in this case Elizabeth’s advisor William Cecil) – was her obvious claim to be the rightful successor to Elizabeth, and as such her inevitable role as the lodestar of hope for English Catholics still smarting after the death of Mary Tudor and the accession of the protestant Elizabeth.

Even though Elizabeth would not name Mary as her heir – fearing being supplanted by her if her legitimacy was too strongly endorsed – she assured the Scottish envoy Maitland that she knew no one with a better claim than Mary. It is questionable, at least, whether Mary could ever have escaped her fate once landed in Scotland. She was simply too important – or too dangerous – for too many people.

What is certain, though, is that Mary’s own choice of male partners was largely the single most obvious factor in her undoing.

Mary made a fatal error in falling in love with and marrying Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, which infuriated Elizabeth who felt the marriage should not have gone ahead without her permission, as Darnley was both her cousin and an English subject.

Elizabeth felt especially threatened by the marriage, because as descendants of her aunt, both Mary and Darnley were claimants to the English throne and their children, if any, would inherit an even stronger, combined claim. In being ruled by her heart rather than her head Mary shows herself as much less circumspect than her cousin, who more than once put away from her men she clearly loved, but who were not suitable as husbands.

The marriage to Darnley, another Catholic, also prompted a Protestant rebellion. Thereafter Darnley’s dubious character and cack-handed meddling in politics led directly to Mary fleeing Scotland and her eventual death.

Similarly, her subsequent dalliance with and marriage to Lord Bothwell was also a disaster. Far from pacifying the Protestants, the marriage shocked Protestants and Catholics alike, with many people believing Mary had conspired with Bothwell to murder Darnley. Whether or not this was actually the case has intrigued historians, who do not agree on her guilt. What is certain is that Mary badly miscalculated the effect of her relationship with Bothwell on her long-term survival as Queen of Scots.

Elizabeth proved by far the more wily of the two Queens.

For many years, with Mary captive in England, she balanced what seems to have been genuine concern for Mary’s well-being with a desire to see her either restored to the Scots throne within a Protestant state, or simply to neuter her threat. But whatever she did, the Catholics of England – encouraged and abetted by Mary herself – simply wouldn’t settle down. Rebellions in her favour in the North of England, the Ridolfi plot, a plan to marry her to the Spaniard Don John of Austria who would then invade England from the Netherlands, (that one was directly down to the then Pope), the Throckmorton Plot, the William Parry plot and finally the Babington plot made it clear that Mary was actively plotting to replace Elizabeth, and her assassination. Indeed, it could be argued that with evidence repeatedly piling up Elizabeth was remarkably patient with her wayward cousin.

Mary’s eventual execution was inevitable. It was required to secure the realm.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that she does not deserve our sympathy, and her courage at her execution undoubtedly plays into the sympathetic view of her held by many people.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had she ever become Queen of England. When her son by Darnley, James I of England, succeeded Elizabeth, he came down hard on the English Catholics in a way that Mary probably would not have. James’s severity kept a lid on the ever-bubbling cauldron of religious strife in the country for 22 years, and it is arguable that Mary would not have been as successful, and may even have returned to the violent religiosity of her namesake, “Bloody” Mary Tudor.

But James’s son, Charles, who seems to have shared many emotional characteristics with his grandmother, clearly failed to manage the fault lines in English society, and he, too, paid with his head.

Nothing in Britain would ever be the same again. And the much-mooted union of Scotland and England would not actually occur until 1707.

Oh those crazy, whacky Catalonians.

In Catalonia – that’s the bit in the North East of Spain constantly arguing with Madrid – think Barcelona and surrounds – don’t be surprised if you’re admiring someone’s nativity scene and there, hidden among the traditional nativity characters, is a little figure, trousers down, doing his business right in the middle of the holy scene.

As the BBC report, a pessebre, a Catalan nativity scene, contains all the usual suspects. There’s Mary and Joseph gazing down lovingly at baby Jesus, sleeping in his manger. There are the oxen, gently lowing, and perhaps some shepherds. But look closer, and hidden among the traditional characters is a little figure, trousers down, “taking a dump” right in the middle of the holy scene.

 

Yes, he’s doing what you think he’s doing.

 

The caganer – literally ‘defecator’ – is a staple of Christmas in the area. The traditional figure depicts a peasant wearing black trousers, a white shirt and the classic red Catalan cap – the barretina. He may also be smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper. As you do, when …

“It’s like the funny part of something that is supposed to be very serious – the nativity,” laughed caganer collector Marc-Ignasi Corral, 53, from Barcelona. Yes, the figure is so popular it even has its very own society, the Friends of the Caganer Association (L’associació Amics del Caganer), of which Corral is a proud member. Founded in 1990, the society has around 70 members – some from as far afield as the US – who meet twice a year.

Traditional caganers are made from clay, fired in a kiln of more than 1,000C, then hand-painted. As the industry has grown, the caganer has evolved; now there are many different kinds, both in design and material.

“I’ve got ones made of soap, I’ve got chocolate ones, but those are meant to be eaten of course,” said Corral, whose bookshelves are dotted with his collection of more than 200 caganers. “I’ve got glass ones… I’ve seen them made from Nespresso capsules.”

Firmly planted in folk tradition, the roots of the caganer are vague, but generally agreed to date from around the late 17th or early 18th Century when the prevailing Baroque tradition, both in Catalonia and beyond, focused on realism in art, sculpture and literature.

In their book El Caganer, authors Jordi Arruga and Josep Mañà write: “This was a time characterised by extreme realism… all of which relied heavily on descriptions of local life and customs. Here, working conditions and home life were used as artistic themes.”

The reason it has been passed down the generations, however, is clear: the idea of defecating has traditionally long been linked to everything from good luck to prosperity to good health.

“Excrement equals fertilisation equals money equals luck and prosperity. Or so say the anthropologists,” said historian Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, emeritus professor at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University“It is said that to not put a caganer in the crib will bring bad luck,” added caganer maker Marc Alos Pla, whose family runs caganer.com, the world’s biggest caganer producer. This year he predicts sales will surpass 30,000.

And far from seeing the caganer as uncouth or even graphic, Catalans have a relaxed view of them as merely depicting a natural act.

“We don’t see it as rude. I mean as rude as when you go to the toilet,” Corral laughed. “We hide things – we’re in a society where we’re hiding everything. We hide death for instance.”

Furthermore, Catalans do not stop at one unusual Christmas tradition.

 

Give the poo log a whack!

 

Caga Tió, literally the ‘Defecating Log’ (also called the Tió de Nadal, the ‘Christmas Log’) is also a staple in many Catalan homes in the run-up to Christmas. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, on 8 December, families start ‘feeding’ Caga Tió scraps of food. He is covered with a blanket to keep him warm until, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, when he has had enough to ‘eat’, the children hit him with sticks while singing a song that encourages him to defecate:

Caga tió / Poo log
Caga torró, avellanes i mató / Poo nougat, hazelnuts and mató (cheese)
Si no cagues bé / if you don’t Poo well,
et daré un cop de bastó / I’ll hit you with a stick
Caga tió / Poo log!

Of course the log doesn’t produce any old excrement … he defecates Christmas presents.

Before hitting the Tió, children go to another part of the house to pray for him to bring them gifts, while their parents take the opportunity to stash small treats like Christmas sweets under the blanket.

“The Tió seems to be a pretty old Christmas idea… in medieval times it was found all over Europe, from Scandinavia down to the Western Mediterranean: the idea of a ‘Yule Log’, which lasted until about World War Two,” Ucelay-Da Cal said.

What is it about these traditions, which in other parts of the world might be seen as explicit or rude, that attracts so many Catalans?

“I love the transgression of norms, the tradition they represent and the artwork in itself,” Corral explained, while Ucelay-Da Cal said the caganer “has a pleasantly subversive quality, naughty but nice, as it were.”

In fact, the themes of defecation are reserved not only for Christmas, but run like a common thread through Catalan culture, from idioms to art.“This fits in with a Catalan (and Spanish) taste for egalitarianism: everybody [poos], however important they may be,” said Ucelay-Da Cal.

When it comes to language, Catalan is filled with stool-related sayings and idioms. Where in English we might say two extremely close people are ‘as thick as thieves’ and in Spanish that phrase would be ‘como uña y carne’ (like [finger] nail and flesh), but Catalans cheerfully say two are people are like ‘cul i merda’– backside and excrement.

“There is a cliché that Germanic languages are [full of] faecal metaphors, while Romance languages stress virility. But certainly the Spanish tradition – and very specifically Catalan scatological custom – would deny this assertion,” Ucelay-Da Cal said.

Defecation has also appeared in Catalan art and literature going back hundreds of years.

In his book, Barcelona, which looks at Catalan history, art and culture, art critic Robert Hughes writes that the figure of the caganer “makes an unmistakable entrance into 20th-Century art” in the work of Joan Miró.

Really? Look closely at Miró’s 1921-22 painting The Farm, and you will see what looks like a small child squatting close to his mother while she does the washing.

This boy, Hughes writes, “is none other than the caganer of Miró’s childhood Christmases. It may also be Miró himself, the future painter of Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement (1935).”

A whole new take on Santa

Christmas is full of funny stuff.

At our business, Dear Reader, Magnum Opus Partners, we have had some fun this year with the Santa Claus tradition.

Did you know the image of Santa we know in many parts of the world today was crafted by ad agencies – and especially Coca Cola’s team of creative thinkers?

He’s not even the same the world over – the traditional British Santa is actually supposed to wear green and has a wreath of holly on his head, and in Russia Santa is a demon accompanied by a snow maiden! In Sweden Santa is a dwarf, in Iceland he’s thirteen naughty elves, and in Holland Sinterklass is a saintly character wearing a bishop’s hat.

In Germany, Austria, and the Czech and Slovakian regions, Santa Claus isn’t even male – children are visited by a female “Christ Child”, who is a benevolent gift-bringer with long curly blonde hair! In Spain and other Hispanic countries, kids welcome Three Wise Men bearing gifts. And it doesn’t even happen on Christmas Day, but on January 6th, the day the Three Wise Men supposedly arrived at the stable.

So what, we wondered, what would Santa look like if his legend was being created by some groovy lunch of creatives today? No great big rotund guy with a white beard, that’s for sure!

Have a look and see what you think of our musings!

 

 

And a very Merry Christmas to all Wellthisiswhatithink readers.

May your Christmas-time be filled with wonder, joy and contentment. And may 2019 bring you at least some of what your heart desires.

 

 

Regular readers will know (a) that I think Brexit is a really, really bad idea, and (b) I have blogged about why often, or waffled about it on Facebook, or whatever.

But after the shambles in the UK Parliament yesterday (Australian time) I thought this BBC graphic might be useful for anyone trying to understand what on earth happens (or can happen) now.

Brexit next steps

The UK Parliament yesterday was a seething mass of regret, ambition, determination and anger.

The problem, as one Brexiteer friend complained to me this morning is that Prime Minister Theresa May was never a Leaver, and therefore the entire negotiation has been bumbled along incompetently in order to leave the British sort of still in the EU and sort of out of it. As Aussies would say, paraphrasing a famous old advertising slogan: “It’s the Brexit you’re having when you’re not having a Brexit.”

Theresa May under pressure in the UK parliament yesterday.

There’s only one problem with this analysis, which is that the current situation could well cost Theresa May her job, and politicians don’t generally engineer a situation which seems tailor-made to see them sacked.

If May wanted a Brexit deal that left the situation essentially a status quo, one suspects she would have dressed it up better to mollify the right-wing anti-European segment of her party, rather than enrage it. (Which presumes that they were capable of being mollified, which is by no means certain.) But when the Minister in charge of the deal enunciated yesterday, as Dominic Raab did, that he’s resigning because he can’t support the deal he himself negotiated, then we are in uncharted political territory.

It is likely that the Brexiteers in May’s party (by no means a majority, but incredibly determined and vocal) were simply waiting for this moment to topple her in favour of one of their own. They won’t get one of their own, but they will succeed in making their party look ungovernable and fractured. Why they would want to do that you will have to ask them.

Nevertheless, putting a deal to Parliament which seems to please no-one apart from a small core of May loyalists seems a failure of political strategy. Doing something to unite the right wing of the Tories, the increasingly marginalised Lib Dems, the much more significant Scots Nats, large swathes of Labour (if not its increasingly unimpressive leader) and even the DUP (nominally part of the government, in effect) is quite a feat.

It may simply be that May has simply run out of time, and had to do something. She may, indeed, prefer to go down fighting on the principle that the people voted for Brexit, and she’s going to deliver the Brexit she can, or die trying. Certainly her performance in the Commons – against a barrage of criticism unlike anything seen since Chamberlain was removed in 1940 – was bullish, determined and courageous.

The problem, of course, is that in terms of what is right for Britain, this is a disaster.

If the deal cannot survive the Commons, then a “No Deal, Crash Out” outcome becomes very likely. Passionate opponents of the EU will say (are saying) “Well, so what? We survived two World Wars, we can manage a bit of trade disruption!” The problem is that this is mere wishful thinking – “magic thinking” – and terrifyingly naive.

The UK currently trades with the EU under rules set down by the EU customs union, which is an agreement that goods can be traded freely, and the single market, which sets a common regulatory structure and allows the free movement of goods, capital, people and services.

Leaving these two arrangements overnight would, first, mean the UK would trade with the EU on the basis of rules set down by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This would end the free movement of goods between the UK and the EU, and mean that tariffs, or special import taxes, would apply on some products. Secondly, customs checks would also be immediately needed between countries where they aren’t currently. Chaos.

Aviation is an example of another key area where problems will arise. At the moment the UK aircraft industry operates under EU regulation both within the EU and for flights to other countries such as the US. If the UK leaves suddenly next March, then some new regulatory arrangement would be needed. This could be worked out in advance, or could ground flights between the UK and EU countries for a period if not. On some scenarios, flights might halt for a few days before things are worked out – but much will depend on what the mood is between the two sides at the time. Any any such disruption would cause untold problems. Similarly in pharmaceuticals, the UK is part of the EU regulatory regime and questions would emerge over pharma exports from the UK,and vice versa. Stockpiling of vital drugs in both the UK and EU countries is already at the planning stage as a fallback. The UK Health Secretary reportedly told the Prime Minister and her cabinet that he ‘could not guarantee that people would not die’ if no Brexit deal was agreed. Matt Hancock is reported to have said that lives will be at risk due to a shortage of medicine in a no deal scenario during the stormy No 10 five-hour meeting on Wednesday.

Britain is also highly dependent on imported food. By value, imports make up more than 90% of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK and half of the meat. A “hard” Brexit is expected to suddenly and substantially increase trade costs and make food imports more expensive, something that could lead to changes in diets and dietary risk factors that influence health. In fact, Brexit could lead to up to 5,600 diet-related deaths per year by 2027, additional healthcare expenditure of £600m, and increase the GDP losses of Brexit by up to 50% according to estimates Florian Freund and Marco Springmann published in a new Oxford Martin School Working Paper.

The stupid thing about all this is that it is only Theresa May’s dogged determination (although disgracefully supported by the grinning idiot Jeremy Corbyn) that “Brexit means Brexit” and therefore there is nothing for it but to “keep on buggering on” in Churchill’s famous aphorism, that is the real problem here. She is full of Thatcher-like passion that “there is no alternative”. But there is an alternative, which is commonsense.

During the Brexit process, and increasingly as the negotiations have become mired in the very complexity that many of us predicted from day 1, the British people have gradually woken up to the fact that they don’t really like the look of what they voted for.

The original referendum was advisory only, and even if we elevate that to the level of Holy Writ as some have (with no basis in law), arguing that it places a moral obligation on the Government to deliver Brexit (this is May’s oft-stated position), this does not allow for the very obvious fact that people change their mind.

When a Government is elected, it undoubtedly has a mandate (of some strength or other, depending on the details of a result) but that Government is elected in sure and certain knowledge that it can be removed if it loses the confidence of the House, or a subsequent election. So why should the result of a referendum be somehow locked eternally in stone, when no other Governmental process is?

The Government has struggled hard to deliver Brexit. And failed. It was always a quixotic and incredibly complex goal.

The terms of the deal May has now put on the table actually leaves Britain economically worse off than staying in the EU, but with none of the advantages that Brexit was supposed to deliver. Far from “taking back control”, it actually cedes further control to the bureaucrats. Crashing out without a deal would be political and economic insanity, although it would be the preferred option for the Brexit fanatics. But in reality they have never truly been in a majority, either in the Conservative Party, or the country as a whole.

Opinion polls now suggest that there is a solid majority of the British electorate who have changed their minds on Brexit as the details have become clear. An even larger majority want the chance to vote on the terms of the deal in a so-called “People’s Vote”. May stubbornly refuses.

It is simple ornery-ness to deny them that chance, especially as it might well produce a result – staying in the EU – which would instantly resolve the current impasse. Such a result would not, of course, prevent the UK seeking to continue to renegotiate any of the terms of membership which it finds especially onerous.

Sadly, such commonsense is in short supply at the moment. Götterdämmerung works in Wagner operas. It’s no way to run a country.

So, the much-discussed mid-terms are over and done with, and the US stock market is up about 2%, as it usually is when the uncertainty of elections is over.

As we predicted a year ago, the Democrats handily won the House, (probably by more than estimated in early reports), and there was an “as you were” result in the Senate, which is likely to leave the Republicans in control. (We say “likely”, because a number of races are still toss ups, but it’s by far the most likely result.)

But what happens next is vitally important to the health of the US economy, and more broadly the world.

Nancy Pelosi, who despite some rumblings is certain to hold onto her job as head of the Democrats in the house, (if for no other reason than she is both a wily negotiator and a fundraising ballistic missile), has spoken warily of the need to work with the White House across the “aisle”.

In return, President Trump has said he wants to work with Pelosi on boosting infrastructure spending and lowering prescription drug prices, two rare policy stances of agreement.

“I think she’s a very smart woman. She has done a very good job,” Trump said at a press conference Wednesday, adding that the two didn’t discuss the prospect of impeachment in a phone call. “A lot of people thought I was beings sarcastic or joking, I wasn’t,” Trump added, in reference to a tweet saying Pelosi deserved to be speaker. “There was nothing sarcastic about it, it was really meant with good intentions.”

But – and it’s a big but – two things are likely to impede both sides’ vaunted good intentions.

Firstly, the desire to impeach Trump for something – anything, frankly – may prove irresistible to many Democrats who are still smarting from two plus years of insults from the Cheeto-in-Chief, after what they consider to have been a stolen Presidential election, and would love to hurt him back.

And Trump does not take well to assaults on his person. If war is declared, it will be fought bitterly.

Secondly, despite some areas of agreement, the Democrats are distant by a country mile from the Republicans on healthcare and will also seek to spread the benefits of a moderately booming economy to their own middle class base and away from the 1% and rustbelt industries that they fell deserted them in 2016.

So whilst the two sides may co-operate – and let us all fervently hope so – the stage is just as likely set for a “do nothing” period of government akin to when Obama lost control of the House.

If the reality of so-called gridlock sets in, then it may limit the current “relief rally”, added Nigel Green, founder and chief executive of the financial consultancy deVere Group. Of such a gridlock, he said: “This will halt deregulation legislation, which in turn will hurt sectors such as banking, energy, industrials, and smaller companies that stood to gain most from looser controls.”

Green’s concerns would be just the beginning, though. The Democrats may choose to wade in on the nasty little trade war going on with China, introducing yet more uncertainty. (Whilst the world might welcome a move to free up trade again, uncertainty on policy settings is what drives stock markets down.)

And what is absolutely certain is there is no appetite in Washington to do anything serious to tackle the ever-ballooning American government debt, from either side, but most definitely not from “tax and spend” Democrats.

Failure to do anything serious about the debt is the ticking time bomb at the heart of the American economy, containing within it a potential fall in the value of the dollar through a general loss of confidence in the essential health of the economy and its currency, and a possible subsequent stoking of inflation. That inflation then causes more uncertainty, and so on we go …

In summary, a fall in the value of the dollar:

  • Makes US exports cheaper to foreigners importing US Goods.
  • It is cheaper for non-US citizens to go on holiday to the US.
  • US consumers face higher price of imported goods.

However a devaluation is often just a temporary increase in competitiveness. Devaluation often causes inflationary pressures which reduce a temporary gain in competitiveness.

Also, as exports become more competitive (ie cheaper to foreign buyers) without firms having to make much effort to make that increase happen, then therefore there is less incentive for them to cut costs and boost productivity, and so in the long run costs will increase and therefore inflation will increase. If firms are well run and they cut costs when times are good then this may be avoided, but there appears to be little appetite for that in the USA at the moment.

If there is a devaluation in the value of the US dollar then there will be an increase in the price of goods being imported to the USA. After decades of manufacturing decline, imports are now quite a significant part of the country’s CPI, therefore increasing their prices will contribute towards cost-push inflation.

It is possible that retailers might not pass the price increases onto consumers but choose to live with lower profit margins, but if the devaluation is sustained, prices will inevitably go up.

The Financial Times have estimated that as a rough rule of thumb, a 10% devaluation may increase prices to consumers by 2-3%, affecting confidence. The components of the CPI most affected by a devaluation in the dollar are:

  1. Air travel (-1.29)
  2. Vegetables (-1.22)
  3. Gas  (-0.71)
  4. Fuel (-0.54)
  5. Books (-0.35)

Numbers 2-5 hit ordinary consumers hardest, of course. That won’t help the party in power.

And after yesterday’s results, that means both of them.

The price of a war between the House and everyone else will be international market instability. That doesn’t help anyone, inn the USA, and beyond. Let’s hope Pelosi and Trump can work that out.