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The joys of golf – Ryder Cup trash talk

For those of you who know nothing about golf and care less, a chap called P J Willett is all over the social media – and the national newspapers – today because of his disparaging remarks about American golf fans in National Club Golfer, a magazine aimed at obsessive-compulsive hackers like me.

P J, or Pete, as he’s probably known to his brother Danny, the current US Masters champion, has pulled off a masterstroke. He’s made the owners of National Club Golfer very happy by increasing its readership by a factor of a hundred. He’s pissed off his brother, who is busy preparing to help European team to retain the Ryder Cup by beating those nasty Americans on their home soil. And he’s guaranteed himself everlasting fame – well, at least five-minutes-worth – for an eloquent put-down of our delightful, enthusiastic cousins who follow golf in the United States.

Here’s some of what he said:

“Team USA have only won five of the last 16 Ryder Cups. Four of those five victories have come on home soil. For the Americans to stand a chance of winning, they need their baying mob of imbeciles to caress their egos every step of the way. Like one of those brainless bastards from your childhood, the one that pulled down your shorts during the school’s Christmas assembly (f**k you, Paul Jennings), they only have the courage to keg you if they’re backed up by a giggling group of reprobates. Team Europe needs to shut those groupies up.

They need to silence the pudgy, basement-dwelling, irritants, stuffed on cookie dough and pissy beer, pausing between mouthfuls of hotdog so they can scream ‘Baba booey’ until their jelly faces turn red.

They need to stun the angry, unwashed, Make America Great Again swarm, desperately gripping their concealed-carry compensators and belting out a mini-erection inducing ‘mashed potato,’ hoping to impress their cousin.

They need to smash the obnoxious dads, with their shiny teeth, Lego man hair, medicated ex-wives, and resentful children. Squeezed into their cargo shorts and boating shoes, they’ll bellow ‘get in the hole’ whilst high-fiving all the other members of the Dentists’ Big Game Hunt Society.”

A rant of the first order, don’t you think? Actually, in the article he also says some interesting stuff about parallels between golfers and the students he teaches. But the remarks that caught the eye were not guaranteed to give brother Danny an easy ride as he tries to concentrate on his putting in front of thousands of these baying barbarians. The champ issued apologies all round. Team captain Darren Clarke huffed and puffed with outrage, and rival skipper Davis Love III affected lofty disdain.

Since then, P J has maintained a judicious silence, on Twitter at least.

Others, in an attempt to defend him, said that Americans don’t get irony. This could be true in the case of many Americans, but not Trump supporters, who cheer gleefully when their leader insults whole swathes of his fellow citizens, and even more when he says he’s only kidding. There’s irony, and then there’s rearranging someone’s face and then saying I didn’t mean it, and can’t you take a joke?

Anyway, I’m deeply jealous of P J, first because he’s a talented writer who clearly has an alternative career when he gets fed up with teaching. And second, because he has a famous brother he can take down, ironically of course. How many siblings have longed to do that after decades in the shadow of a high-achieving brother or sister? Americans will appreciate that sentiment. In the seventies, Billy Carter, Jimmy’s beer-swilling redneck brother, did a fair job of embarrassing the President. Since then, just about every celeb has had to put up with an inconvenient relative emerging from obscurity to dish the familial dirt. As for me, I’m sad to say that my siblings are all worthy people who have never known fame, and I have no old scores to settle with my poison pen.

Turning to the subject of his brickbats, P J manages to skewer several popular stereotypes – the obese, NRA members, the sartorially inelegant, divorcees, spoilt kids, Prozac poppers and people who travel to Africa to shoot animals on the endangered species list. And he manages to do all this without one reference to Donald Trump, something that I regularly fail to achieve.

Very unkind, especially as we European supporters don’t exactly set high standards of decorum. An American counterpart to P J might easily refer to the Camembert-eating surrender monkeys, the Scots with their deep-fried Mars bars, boozed-up Irish and neanderthal Englishmen who regularly patronise our great sporting events.

And I think P J knows in his heart that without the rowdies, the Ryder Cup would be as boring as a golfing seniors event, where retired colonels sip tea from their thermos flasks and occasionally pierce the silence by muttering “good shot” when a hero from yesteryear manages to remind us what once made him great.

So I say bring it on. Let the fans throw as many insults as they like. Let them crunch on potato chips and pork scratchings while the lads wind up their back-swings. As long as they don’t actually take out one of the competitors with an assault rifle, let anything go.

The Ryder Cup is a glorious competition in the most ancient traditions of “sport”, from gladiators to bear-baiting and bare-knuckle boxing. And believe me, this contest, set in the heartland of Middle America, will be the most raucous and emotionally incontinent yet. Why? Because “President” Donald has taught his fellow citizens that it’s OK to give voice to their darkest thoughts, when previously they would have kept them to themselves. So hatred, contempt and xenophobia might well be the order of the day.

Better to spew insults for a weekend at the Brits, Spaniards, Germans and Belgians in their immaculate golf shoes than spend the time cursing Mexicans, and heaping ridicule over stupid tax-payers, fat beauty contest entrants and Crooked Hillary. We need a break from that stuff.

But who knows? This year’s competition might be the last. In two years’ time the European team will no longer be able to gather beneath the European Union flag – at least not with its British contingent. And maybe, if they lose yet again, the Americans will invite the Canadians, Mexicans and South Americans to help them out next time, only to be countermanded by The Great Wall Builder.

So we should enjoy the Ryder Cup while we can. And my dear American friends, pay no attention to that beastly P J Willett. Rest assured: we’re just as ugly as you are.

The Plough and The Stars – playing the long bawl

The other night my wife and I took ourselves off to the National Theatre in London to watch The Plough and the Stars, Seán O’Casey’s epic play about the 1916 Easter Rising.

Every Irish schoolkid learns about the insurrection in Dublin that took place against the backdrop of World War One. Of how Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and others led a few hundred armed volunteers on an ill-fated attempt to throw off the British yoke. They had chosen a time of perceived weakness on the part of what they saw as the occupying state. But the response was not as weak as they hoped. The rebellion was crushed, the leaders were executed, and much of the centre of Dublin ended up a charred ruin. The Rising took its place in the hallowed narrative of Irish independence.

Ten years later, O’Casey’s play caused riots on its debut in Dublin, largely because it humanised the hallowed. The good folk of the capital were also not pleased at the appearance of a prostitute in Act Two, and some less than complimentary references to religion.

Ninety years on, the Catholic church in Ireland has lost its grip on the morals of the nation, partly because of its resistance to divorce, abortion and contraception, and partly because of the paedophilia scandals that have shaken Catholicism across the world. Buy an Irish tabloid and you will enter a world full of page three girls, and stories of adultery, broken marriages and unconventional sex that would make Eamonn De Valera turn in his grave.

But the heroes of the Rising are still heroes, and the dead are still martyrs – except of course for the soldiers and policemen, many of whom were also Irish, who died trying to suppress the revolt.

For reasons only partly connected to the Easter Rising, I found the play hard to sit through.

I have a passing familiarity with Ireland. My children are half-Irish, from which you can deduce that my wife is from the Republic. I love the country. I’ve always found its people to be welcoming and full of humour. It has landscape and seascape that matches anything to be found on the bigger island next door.

You’re waiting for the but, so here it is. We’re only a decade on from the latest episode of the Troubles, in which organisations such as the IRA, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Volunteers, the Ulster Freedom Fighters dominated the headlines of British newspapers almost on a daily basis. Po-faced protagonists would justify the bombings, the casual murders, the divisions of families and communities in the name of their causes. It was nasty, vicious and often motivated by factors far removed from political idealism: religious bigotry, drug-smuggling, illicit trading across the border with the south and, of course, personal vendettas and power struggles.

Were the motives of the players in 1916 pure and unalloyed? Not according to O’Casey. And it was power struggles between the leading factions that contributed to the relatively quick end to the conflict. Ireland was by no means united behind the republican uprising, and the characters in The Plough and the Stars reflect the differences. The cynical communist who sees everything in terms of the class struggle, the fighter’s wife who desperately tries to detach her husband from the cause as she sees the imminent destruction of her family life. The unionist neighbour who pours scorn on the preening volunteers.

Many British people who lived through the period of bombings on the mainland felt – rightly or wrongly – that the cause of the bombers was not their concern. They would have been happy to have seen the North peacefully united with the South. But references in the play to the organisations of 1916 – the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army and the ever-present Sinn Fein were a disturbing reminder that the most recent Troubles have deep roots. Even if the South has evolved into a mature state, the political undercurrents are still flowing, and may surface again in the North.

None of which fully explains why I found O’Casey’s work so hard to bear. I suppose the main reason was that everyone was so bloody angry with everyone else. From start to finish the play was one long caterwaul. The whole thing was enacted at such high volume that I’m amazed the actors’ voices have lasted for the run. The volume was not confined to human output. At one stage there was a bang so loud that I would have expected a couple of fatal heart attacks – or at the very least mass incontinence – among the well-heeled audience. Of course, in the best traditions of English politeness, no doubt those sitting next to the suddenly expired would have had the courtesy to wait until the interval to remove the corpses.

If you’ve ever witnessed a frank discussion between my wife and one of our daughters you might ask why I’m surprised at the emotional intensity on stage. And no doubt the tenement dwellers O’Casey portrays had much to be angry about. But two hours of unrelenting bawling was an ordeal. At least in my family the disagreements subside, just as do the stormy interludes in a Beethoven symphony.

By the time we got to Act Four – in which Nora, the wife of the volunteer fighter who loses her baby and fails to drag her husband back from the brink, becomes demented with the pain of it all – I’m ashamed to say that I just wanted her to put us out of our misery and jump out of a window. In the manner of Father Ted’s housekeeper, I longed to stand up and shout “ah goo on – yer know yer want ter”.

I daresay the Dublin worthies of 1926 were also not enthralled by the portrayal of drunkenness and looting during the Rising. Fecklessness, opportunism and love of the bottle are aspects of the cartoon Oirishness that have powered a thousand jokes on the mainland and found full expression in TV comedy series that became hits in the UK – such as Ballykissangel, Father Ted and latterly Mrs Brown’s Boys. Weave them in with the pathos of so many episodes in Irish history – the Famine, the emigration, the independence struggle, the Troubles and the recent banking crisis – and you have the basis for a large slice of Irish literature and drama over the past couple of centuries.

For the Irish, so good at laughing at themselves, being Irish is not a joke. For many, it’s a passion. I guess The Plough and the Stars reminds the rest of us of the dark side of rapture.

But boy, was it hard to watch. So hard that we took ourselves off the next night to watch Bridget Jones’s Baby, where a similar audience hooted and howled with laughter through two hours of English eccentricity. Are we English so different from the Irish? Only, perhaps, in our innate and thoroughly unwarranted sense of superiority.

A day’s browsing: superheroes, pressure cookers, politicians and an admirable prince

A bit of a smorgasbord, this post. Four different topics, vaguely connected, based on a day’s browsing.

A couple of weeks ago I started following Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Twitter. I did so largely because I was fed up with reading second-hand commentaries on the utterances of the two presidential candidates. Best, I thought, to receive the wisdom from the horses’ mouths, so to speak.

After two weeks of following Trump I’m left wanting a steam clean to rid myself of the poisonous stench that this hateful character spreads with every mean and bombastic utterance.

With Hillary, I want to go see a priest to confess my sins, even though I have no religious affiliations. Her tweets range from censorious school-mistress mode (usually when referring to Trump) to inspirational vacuities of the kind you see fifty times a day on Facebook.

It’s not surprising that Trump’s social media campaign attracts more attention than Hillary’s. Muck, dirt, hate and anger is far more compelling than high-minded. Why otherwise is every second movie and TV series made in America about crime, murder and mayhem?

After all, The Joker was always more interesting than Batman. In this era of endless super-hero movies, Hillary will always be one-down to the chest-thumping Donald.

On to other matters.

It might seem strange to say this, but each of the attacks in the United States over the past couple of days is a symptom of success, not failure, of the security measures in place around the country. The fact that those who want to terrorise America can do no more than to detonate a pressure cooker or a pipe bomb in a dustbin is a measure of the difficulty lone wolves and organised groups face when trying to pull off atrocities.

The trouble is that these attacks pay off a thousand times by intensifying the fear of terrorism. So in that respect they are highly effective. They provoke reaction. They incentivise politicians, governments and citizens to marginalise communities from which the offenders spring. And they give people like Trump the excuse to campaign on simplistic solutions such as heavier vetting of immigrants.

The awful truth is that most of the perpetrators, both in the US and Europe, are home-grown. They either arrived in the country and were subsequently radicalised, or were born in the country they turned against. That’s not to say that ISIS didn’t manage to plant some of their sympathisers in among the flood of refugees entering Europe. But they are a tiny minority of the people who subsequently went on to carry out atrocities.

So “intensified screening” might catch a few, but it won’t make much difference if the poison brews up from within. The result? The cost of catching an occasional infiltrator will be the curdling of the melting pot as whole communities end up mistrusted and discriminated against.

The other and even more important awful truth is that attacks, whether lone wolf or group actions, will not end until the conflict in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan ends. And that’s not likely during the lifetimes of many of us. So get used to the new normal, people of America and Europe.

Back in my country, Theresa May’s government seems to be focused almost exclusively on the issue that sunk David Cameron and the Remain campaign: immigration. Maybe that’s why Jeremy Corbyn is reported to be putting Labour on a general election footing. Immigration is undoubtedly an election issue, and May is determined not to be on the wrong side. Her persistent banging away at the subject, to the exclusion of other pressing items, certainly sounds like campaign rhetoric.

The government also seems to be in kite-flying mode. An inquiry into police behaviour during the Orgreave riots during the 1984 miner’s strike? Mooted then stamped on. Questions about the Hinkley Point nuclear power project? Delayed for a micro-second and then waved through with a few eye-catching conditions.

I wonder how much attention May and her advisers are paying to events within the EU – the rise of the right-wing fringe parties, financial instability and a disaffection with governance – especially among member nations that are not among the core group of power-wielders. There may well be armies of civil servants now beavering away on working out the British position on Brexit. But are we also gaming contingency plans that take into account the fissures within the club we are leaving?

The other question is whether we truly understand that we see the EU as an economic project, whereas for those nations still recovering from the fundamental disasters of the recent past, the social dimension is equally important. If you’re interested in a discussion on that theme, the thoughts of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, published in Social Europe, are well worth considering. How many British philosophers match his knowledge of voting trends in the EU referendum with their understanding of the demographics of the Rhineland? For a pretty self-obsessed nation, we would benefit from the occasional glimpse of how others see us, I suggest.

Finally a reminder that not every famous person spends their life jumping up and down like a demented gorilla spewing insults at all and sundry. Today’s BBC website ran a video feature on the work of Prince William. Not the part of his life where he opens art galleries and says the right thing to people with ostrich feathers on their heads, but his job as an air ambulance pilot in East Anglia.

It’s a portrait of a bunch of down-to-earth people who are dedicated to saving lives. William, as he goes to some length to point out, is just one of a team. He’s not the first member of the royal family to do a “real job”. His brother risked life and limb in the army for several years. But William will be our king, and I suspect that when he is elevated to that exalted plane, he will bring with him memories of his life as a pilot – of the people he helped to save, of his interaction with ordinary people doing extraordinary jobs – that will leave him more connected with common humanity than many of the cabinet ministers who will one day line up to kiss his hand.

He comes over as unshowy, intelligent, humble and humane. Not a bad set of qualities for a monarch. His Mum, were she still alive, would be proud of him.

Brexit Britain – Welcome to the Kingdom of the Blind

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Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant, 1919.

Political policy-making, except in countries with overwhelming power and ruthless leaders, is largely a matter of informed guesswork. Can we be certain that a policy or a decision will produce the desired effects? Of course not, because we can’t anticipate all the factors and events that might derail the outcome.

We can only work on the basis of probability and risk. Our political masters make their decisions by taking account of the known unknowns. Or at least we’d like to think so. And as far as the unknown unknowns are concerned, well, as Donald Rumsfeld said, stuff happens. Nobody got fired for failing to anticipate Krakatoa.

In Britain we are now three months into the post-Brexit era. Except that we aren’t, because we haven’t left yet. And nobody seems to have a clue what the Brexit deal will look like. Every piece of good economic news is hailed as proof that the Remain camp were spreading fear for no reason. It seems that confidence is holding up, but that critical long-term decisions that will depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations are not being made. In other words, business as usual, but with a large dollop of hedging.

The government, meanwhile, is getting on with business that it can control, such as its new proposal for grammar schools, thereby distracting us from thinking too much about the stuff it can’t.

But I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that we are currently dealing with more unknowns – partly thanks to the Brexit decision – than at any time since World War 2. Here are a few of them.

The European Union will not preserve itself in amber during two years of negotiation specified after we invoke Clause 50 of the European Union Treaty. It’s quite conceivable that both France and Germany will have new political leaders in place before the negotiations conclude. If so, will they seek to tinker with what is in the process of being agreed? Movements in other member countries to change the nature of the union might also gain in strength. Juncker might be junked. In short, the EU that we leave in 2019 might be radically different from the one we voted to leave three months ago. It might even be an entity that we feel able to be a part of.

Then there’s the financial system. The frailties of the Eurozone have not gone away. It would not take a crisis of the magnitude of the 2008 event to upset the financial applecart. Italian banks appear vulnerable, and it’s quite conceivable that the lid will again blow off the Greek economy. It’s not impossible that Greece might leave the EU before Britain. And what political and financial dominos might fall thereafter?

The conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya show no sign of abating. The knock-on effect of further migration might blow the EU’s treasured freedom of movement principle into smithereens. Turkey is more unstable than it has been for decades. China might face economic meltdown. Putin might try a new adventure in Eastern Europe. Donald Trump might, if elected, fatally destabilise NATO. South Korea might attempt a pre-emptive strike on North Korea before Kim Jong Un develops the means to deliver his nukes. Saudi Arabia and Iran might move from proxy war to direct conflict. And we haven’t even factored in Israel and Palestine.

With all these factors in the mix, Theresa May, if she ever read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, must be yearning for Hari Seldon’s psychohistory, the magic algorithm that produced a Plan to limit the damage to humanity as the galactic empire crumbled.

Meanwhile, back in our soon-to-be independent homeland, we face uncertainties of our own making.

The Government is having to cannibalise the civil service to create two new ministries – one to deal with trade, and the other the Brexit negotiations. One wonders where these new people are coming from. After all, we apparently have no civil servants capable of negotiating trade deals.

The two ministers appointed to run the new departments are ideologues, not pragmatists. The next few months will see fissures in government as the “Hard Brexiteers” battle it out with the Remainers, who want to compromise with the EU in order to preserve Britain’s status in the single market.

Liam Fox, the trade minister, blunders around the country sounding off about fat and lazy business leaders who prefer to play golf on Fridays instead of working to boost exports. Very supportive. No doubt his department will come up with measures intended to bolster the UK’s export capabilities. But the question we should be asking is why they weren’t taken a long time ago. Brexit makes it harder for new businesses in areas that the government wishes to encourage to grow, since they will face import tariffs virtually everywhere.

He will also be looking to incubate new business sectors in economically deprived areas. It’s unfair to say that his predecessors have ignored this issue – the Northern Powerhouse and the National Graphene Institute in Manchester are example of previous initiatives. But they are long on aspiration and short on results.

And what of the skills we need to create blockbuster industries that will out-perform those in the five national economies larger than ours? We are cutting back on visas issued to foreigners who wish to study in our country, thus starving the universities of funds and depriving ourselves of the skills we have helped to develop. If we are unable to import or develop the skills we need to grow these businesses, they will grow more slowly. Restrictions on those wishing to study in the UK will mean that talent goes elsewhere.

We still do not know what Brexit means. Our representatives in parliament will have no say in the timing of our exit, and, as far as we know, no opportunity to vote on any deal that the government comes up with. Another referendum might not be the answer, but scrutiny and approval by parliament of the terms is a must. Since the European Parliament will need to approve the deal, why shouldn’t our parliament have the same opportunity?

The voters must be given an unbiased view of the implications of each aspect of Brexit. This view should not be delivered by the politicians, who have proved themselves incapable of presenting credible, objective arguments. Perhaps it should be formulated either by the civil service or by an independent commission of experts who are capable of evaluating arguments free from political and emotional interference.

Therein lies an even bigger concern. Throughout Whitehall, government departments are planning, debating, fighting turf wars and hopefully coming up with solutions – but in secret. We voters are not privy to the deliberations. By and large, we are presented with decisions and arguments to support them. Occasionally we might be thrown a consultational sop in the form of a white or green paper, or a public inquiry. Those of us who follow the business of parliament can study the proceedings of parliamentary committees, but these often degenerate into bouts of political mud-throwing and inquisitions of public figures.

Unfortunately, only a tiny minority of voters pay attention to policy debates, and even if they do, they are rarely presented with arguments unencumbered by interest groups, political spin and media owners with axes to grind.

All too often we are presented with solutions without serious discussion of the alternatives or reasons why the preferred option is superior to the others. These discussions are taking place within government departments, but we, the electorate, are not privy to them. Or, if we are, the documents of public record are so complex that they are indigestible to those of us who don’t have the time, the inclination or the knowledge to figure them what they mean. We end up forming opinions based on mediated content we get from TV, the web and newspapers.

Opinion-shapers frequently brush over perfectly viable alternatives. Party policy and Rupert Murdoch’s prejudices don’t necessarily allow a full exploration of the issues.

The EU referendum, so full of lies, distortions and false certainty on both sides, is a classic example of what now constitutes political debate.

There are two reasons for this. Genuinely independent thinking is hard to come by. And emotion has become the dominant currency of debate.

Take the Hinkley Point nuclear power project. When was the last time a government commissioned a national review of energy policy, and presented it to the public in terms easy to understand? Have we fully explored the cost of the project, the security implications, the alternative measures we could consider in order to make up our imminent energy shortfall? Is there a publicly available review that takes into account emotional (meaning political) impact – fear of nukes, fear of China’s involvement, destruction of our environmental back yards by renewable energy technologies – as well as the economic and geopolitical risks of each approach?

The same question might equally apply to policies on education, defence, social inclusion, infrastructure and a host of other areas. We boast about our impartial judiciary. Is it impossible to find impartial expertise? Not people wheeled in to support your argument, to be deployed against experts engaged by “the other side”.

More often than not, we rely on our elected representatives to carry out due diligence on our behalf. But delegating power to Parliament is one thing. Expecting our representatives to display independence of thought in the face of the coercive power of party whips is quite another. Barring the occasional referendum, our view only really counts once every five years. Yet the British electorate is probably better educated now than at any time in our history. Isn’t it time that we were treated as more than just gullible bystanders?

As for emotion, we are not quite at the point where politicians are elected purely on grounds of how we the voters feel about things, as seems to be happening in the US at the moment, but we’re getting there. The Brexit campaign proved that.

Emotions have their place in politics. Of course they do. They should be used to inspire, unite, galvanise and celebrate, not to elicit fear, contempt, envy and hatred. Dark emotions are the tools of demagogues like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. Those who use them to create rather than destroy – and for all their flaws, politicians like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama come to mind – are somewhat thin on the ground these days.

It would be wrong to blame politicians for all our ills. They are after all fallible creatures of the systems in which they operate. Other contributing factors include our increasingly short attention spans, shortfalls in critical thinking skills, failures in communications across cultures and geographical space, and the deep reservoir of fear and uncertainty in most parts of the world that sits ready to be tapped by unscrupulous persuaders.

But I do believe that while we are going through the Brexit process, British politicians have the opportunity to reverse the tide somewhat. They can do this by admitting the risks of the solutions they propose, by explaining the probabilities and by stating the alternatives. They should let us in on some of the debates going on behind closed doors. They should be less squeamish about admitting to awful truths, such as things they can change and those that they can’t. They should stop treating us like children who crave the security of knowing that our parents know best and have everything under control. And they should stop manipulating us with fantasy, factoids and outright falsehood.

Above all, in two years’ time or however long it takes, whether it be through another referendum or some other form of national consultation, they should ask our opinion about the deal they’ve negotiated – warts and all.

Perhaps then we will cease to be the kingdom of the blind, in which the one-eyed man is king.

The future of death – why I will never die (sort of)

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Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply, 1991

I have seen the future of death. Well, if not the future, certainly a future.

No, I’m not a prophet, but the other day I did have a bit of a revelation about what death will come to mean to the millennials and their children.

Let me explain. I’ve long been aware that there’s a huge number of dead Facebook users. Anyone with the password of the deceased can continue to post in the person’s name, until Facebook finds out. Likewise on Twitter.

A few months ago, an old friend passed away. His family launched an appreciation page on Facebook. Several months later, the page is still being populated with pictures and stories about him.

Then I saw a story about a woman who inserted into her wedding photo the image of her brother, who had died shortly before the wedding. His smiling face – slightly ghostly – shines out from the family group.

A few days ago, I read a piece in the London Times about teenage girls who spend most of their waking live outside school on their smartphones. Instagram and Snapchat mainly, Facebook only occasionally (yuk, that’s for parents, it seems).

And then I thought about Big Data, sucking all this chatter into all those huge digital islands. The islands are getting bigger and bigger. Even moderate users of the internet have launched gigabytes of stuff into cyberspace.

Take me for example. Over six hundred blog pieces, tens of thousands of emails, website visits, online searches and e-purchases. If you digest all this stuff, you will know pretty well what I think about life, what I like doing with my time, what I like buying, the kind of books I read, movies I watch. You’d probably even discover that I buy my underwear from Marks and Spencer.

So when I shuffle off, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that some smart data aggregator will be able to raid each of the islands and assemble a near-as-dammit a comprehensive digital picture of me, run it through a few algorithms, and turn Steve back into a living, commenting, reacting and feeling digital entity. Assuming anyone would want to approach me for wisdom and guidance, which is highly unlikely.

Be that as it may, future entities with which you will be able to communicate might not be alive, but permanently pickled in cyberspace.

In the real world this is nothing new. In some parts of the world shamans communicate with the dead on behalf of the living. In those cultures, the dead are as much a part of everyday life as the living. Even in my little country, you can go to a medium and talk to your granny, deceased cat or whatever.

In other cultures, mummified grannies hang out in people’s front rooms, and are wheeled out to take part in family occasions. In the movie Gladiator, Maximus talked to the little figurines of his dead family on a regular basis. But when the dead talk back, do they say much beyond sage pronouncements, and reminders to loved one to repair the broken ballcock in the downstairs loo? Computers, quite conceivably, will be able to go many steps further.

So will we have social media sites populated by the dead and the living, where the living maintain the personae of the dead, consult them, photo-shop them into family occasions, such that it will be impossible to distinguish between the living and the dead? And will this come naturally to those millennials who spend more time with friends online than they ever do in person?

As computers get to know more and more about us, will they be able to predict how we might react, emulate our humour, and at some stage become the person, who thereby gets to be immortal? So that one day, cyberspace becomes one vast forum populated by departed personalities busy talking to each other and the living.

The implications are many and varied.

Will the living be able to consult a cloudy oracle to get advice from their departed parents, sisters and best friends? The desire is definitely there, as we have seen with the shamans, the mummies and the mediums. And a couple of days ago came the sad story of the best friend of a woman who killed herself accidentally doing the same thing because she though that by dying temporarily she would be able to see her friend. Only she didn’t make it back.

Will the living be able to befriend the dead in order to tap their wisdom? What if we could talk to Einstein, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and Steve Jobs? Perhaps. Plenty of source material for our animating algorithm to work out what the Bard might have to say on a number of subjects. The others? I guess it would have to dive into biographies to supplement the animation. But what of the philosophers, artists and leaders of tomorrow, whose every waking hour plays out on the social media. What of Donald Trump, for that matter?

Will machines get to know so much about us that they will be able to create a digital DNA built from our experience, likes, dislikes and opinions? And ultimately, as close a replication of our personalities as makes no difference? Will our descendants be able to get the answer to “what would Jesus do?”

Take out the digital bit, and this is nothing new. After all, a sizeable proportion of the world’s population order their lives according to the supposed acts and thoughts of no more than a handful of profoundly influential men. The hard work of interpreting and rationalising those deeds and utterances was undertaken over centuries by thousands of scholars.

What if the work of those scholars could be undertaken by computers? Could we be about to witness the birth of the first digital religion?

Think also of the arts. Computers are already creating movie trailers automatically. Some bright sparks recently came up with the anatomy of a fiction best-seller by analysing the themes and language embedded in five thousand successful novels. So it can’t be long before a computer can produce an endless series of James Bond novels without the publishers having to pay excessive royalties to high-profile authors such as Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd.

And what if there are algorithms that work out what moves us in the works of the great composers? Wouldn’t we welcome Beethoven’s Twenty Ninth Symphony and Mozart’s Seventieth Piano Concerto?

And then, if machines can replicate the thoughts, the creative process and the beliefs of the dead, why not do so for the living? So that we can set our avatars to work running countries, businesses and families, while we sit around watching box sets of Game of Thrones? Avatars that remember our “better nature”, and don’t get side-tracked by illness, depression and hangovers. At which point, as Stephen Hawking suggests, our avatars question the point of having us around wasting money and resources, and decide to dispose of us. They simply carry on doing their thing after we die, slowly degrading though lack of updates.

At which point there will be no more living, only the living dead.

Even if the computers leave us be, there are downsides, of course. Imagine the dead fighting the dead, and bringing the living down with them. Imagine still having to deal with cantankerous relatives poking their noses into our business long after their physical deaths. At what point do we replace a digital leader with another one? And how about giving the living a chance?

If you think this is all crazy stuff, you’re probably right. But do you suppose that the Taliban wouldn’t have digitally re-animated Mullah Omar after his death three years ago? After all, it was only recently that his followers admitted that their reclusive leader had expired. What’s more, you can’t snuff digital leaders out with drone strikes.

And what of the clique around Uzbek leader Islam Karimov? It took his courtiers three days to admit to his death. What if they could have kept him “alive” for a couple of years while they worked out the succession? And what would Venezuelans not give for the return of Hugo Chavez, even in a digital form?

Are we moving to an age when there are no more living, only the living dead?

Yes, I know none of this is startlingly original, but hey, it sure is fun thinking about it.

Burkini ban in Britain? Wrong target, wrong gender, wrong discussion

Sikh Soldiers

Sikh Soldiers in France, World War 1

I’m writing this from a farmhouse in rural France – a place we’ve visited many times and will continue to visit in the future, all being well. We arrived the other day at the small regional airport outside Bergerac that serves the area. The Ryanair flight disgorged its usual complement of late season visitors. Cashmere-clad, middle-aged, middle-class Brits who have come to enjoy a couple of weeks of late summer warmth, wine and good eating. In amongst them, a smattering of people who looked like celebrities but probably aren’t – not that I could tell the difference. A ravaged rock star here, a best-selling novelist there.

There were few signs that times have changed since the attacks on Paris and Nice. The flight was full. The car rental companies were doing a roaring trade. The main difference was the presence of a lone soldier, heavily armed, patrolling the car park. Oh, and in the window of the local Mairie, there’s an A4 leaflet telling you what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. In French, of course.

But otherwise, situation normal. And since we were here last year, some enterprising chap has even opened a Lebanese restaurant in our local town. When we tried to get a table, he told us with a hint of arrogance that he was full. One import from the Arab world that the French are unlikely ever to reject is the cuisine.

No burkinis here – we’re a hundred miles from the sea, and there’s only one lake within a ten mile radius. In the local producers’ evening at the town square there wasn’t a hijab in sight. Only French and British families, mostly white, happily mingling as they tucked into their frites, escargots and brochettes.

I suppose this would be just the sort of place where the lone wolf might strike. A beautiful bastide where traditional France cheerfully blends with its British visitors as if the Hundred Years War had never taken place. There are plenty of small towns in France for the wolf to choose from, which lowers to minimal the likelihood of AK-47s ringing out on this town square. Minimal enough for us, anyway.

I suspect that the fear factor is somewhat less than minimal in France’s major cities. But no amount of fear justifies empty gestures such as the ban on burkinis. Some years ago I wrote in this blog a piece about face veils: The Veil of Fears. It was written before the coming of ISIS and its attacks in various corners of the globe, but I still believe that the central theme – that drawing attention to a style of dress turns that style into a gesture of defiance on the part of a minority against what the wearer considers an oppressive majority – still holds true.

The French ban – now overturned – made such an impact that the real winners will be the makers of burkinis, whose sales most likely will have rocketed.

As someone who used to wander through his student union in the early seventies dressed in an eighteenth century frock coat obtained from a source I have long since forgotten, I can testify that clothes differentiate. I certainly wouldn’t have been mistaken for a civil servant. Even though I didn’t really feel like a member of an oppressed minority, it still gave me a kick to watch the horn-rimmed specs twitch in indignation in my local high street.

Eventually my rather silly sartorial defiance melted away when I had to get a job. Nobody told me not to dress like a Georgian clerk. I just got bored of it.

So here’s the thing. If the far right politicos in Britain want their country back, they should remember that apart from a brief period in the Middle Ages, when a law was passed dictating permissible clothing for various social classes, for most of our history, governments have not sought to regulate styles of dress, however bizarre they might seem. Such regulation as has existed has been on practical grounds – those pertaining to uniforms, for example. Even in the choice of uniforms, we have always recognised diversity, as the picture of Sikh soldiers in World War 1 demonstrates. And when regulations are manifestly stupid – such as the ban in the Sixties on Sikh bus drivers wearing turbans – they have usually been repealed.

Changes to dress conventions have usually come about through social pressure and gradual changes in the law, not because some local mayor has determined that being covered up when going for a dip in the sea is offensive to his constituents.

Our laws do not condone arbitrary bans on apparel covering the head, or even the face. That should be a matter for the wearer. We should be worried less about appearance and more about mindset. Those who seek to change our society through threats, intimidation and violence are not the ones who cover their faces. More often or not they are men who dress and look like any other men.

We have more than enough laws that criminalise acts and expressions of hate, sufficient to lock up the likes of Anjem Choudary and his followers. And tempting as it might be to criminalise symbols of culture and religion, be they face veils, burkinis or even long beards on men, by doing so we go against the very traditions that those who “want our country back” seek to reinstate.

By banning burkinis and face veils, how do we differ in this respect from groups like ISIS, whose ideology we seek to eradicate, and who order women to cover up and men to wear long beards?

I’m not “in favour” of face veils. But nor do I like tattoos, Y-fronts and bling. And I’m not too keen on moustaches, for that matter. What really matters is the stuff that goes on inside peoples’ heads, not what they wear on their bodies.

Unfortunately, whether we like it, the seed of a distinctive kind of violence has been planted that is yielding its first crop. Snipping away at everything surrounding it above the ground will not eradicate the roots. We are not a country that is in the habit of applying sweeping measures to destroy an enemy within. We don’t do purges, ethnic cleansing or deportations, no matter how much the authoritarians among us would like us to.

We can’t force people to think differently. So the sooner we recognise that each generation faces different threats – real or perceived – to its well-being and security, and that this particular nightmare might take a decade or more to dissolve, the better we will come to terms with those threats and deal with them in a realistic and sustainable manner.

This is our world, and obsessing over what people wear over their hair and their faces isn’t going to change it.

Late Summer Idleness – plucky Brits, enemies within, spies, street vendors…and Death

Sunflowers

August for me has always had a dream-like quality, especially in Britain, my home country. You could easily imagine that half the world shuts down, as politicians, journalists, neighbours and schoolchildren disappear on their holidays. The roads are almost civilised in the morning, thanks to the lack of cars delivering little ones to their places of education. And when we get a run of decent weather, as we are at the moment, we seem to go into a strawberry trance.

This year we’ve been blessed with the sight of rowers, shooters, hockey players, gymnasts and synchronised swimmers going through their bizarre routines in Rio. Sporting mayflies emerging into the spotlight of prime time television for their quadrennial moment of fame. No matter that we won’t see them again until 2020, and that most of us slumped in front of our tellies in holiday resorts, pubs and quiet sitting rooms at home watched with bemused fascination as judges judged on criteria beyond our understanding, and referees intervened to enforce rules so arcane that they could only have been created by committees of Pharisees.

gb-hockey

I suppose we all got a bit of a lift when our plucky Brits bumped the Chinese from second place in the medal table – about the only way we “pull above our weight” these days. And it was genuinely heartening to see these athletes, professionals to a greater or lesser extent, succeeding through determination, expert coaching and liberal doses of money, courtesy of the nation’s enthusiasm for the National Lottery.

While we bask in the post-orgasmic glow of all those smiling faces bearing medals, the occasional reminders of the ludicrous reality we have left behind for a short few weeks begin to surface. Boris Johnson running the country. Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor of one of Richard Branson’s trains. And Nigel Farage milking the applause at a Trump rally.

No doubt more serious stuff awaits us in September. In fact, the world has never stopped being deadly serious, even if we haven’t been paying attention to it.

Several national newspapers have been busy alerting us to the new Yellow Peril. No, not hordes of Japanese soldiers kicking us out of our empire and forcing our soldiers to build railways. This time it’s China’s attempt to build stuff within our shores. The Hinkley Point nuclear power project, we are warned, is not only a bad deal commercially, but dangerous because the Chinese, who will be a partner in the project, will thereby gain a foothold in the UK’s critical infrastructure. They have already bought a large chunk of our North Sea oil production. What next? Will they soon be building our warships and missiles, and running GCHQ on our behalf? Unlikely, but you never know.

Certainly it doesn’t bode well for the future of post-Brexit Britain that we no longer have the expertise to build our own nuclear power stations. For the Faragists among us, it must be almost as mortifying that we have to rely on France, our prickly enemy/friend, for the engineering capability to make Hinkley Point happen.

Further afield, the multidimensional war in Syria and Iraq is becoming more baffling than ever. Has there ever been a more complex matrix of interests, ambitions and alliances than in the Middle East today? The only constant is death.

Then there’s the turmoil in Turkey. Despite the post-coup purge of the armed forces, the government has still managed to summon up enough troops and tanks to overwhelm ISIS in a key Syrian border town, not – if you believe some narratives – to destroy ISIS but to take the town before the Kurds get there.

And is it any wonder that the average observer outside Turkey fails to understand the paranoia about the Gülen Movement. Why should Mr Erdogan be so obsessed by this seemingly mainstream Muslim organisation, whose followers believe in religious toleration and liberal education? Is it a cult? Is it a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Did its leader, an elderly and seemingly avuncular cleric, orchestrate the attempted coup from his eyrie in Pennsylvania? Is he a Trotsky or a Khomeini, plotting and planning in exile to bring about the downfall of the established order? Or is he just a convenient scapegoat, whose followers are a convenient enemy within?

I don’t know enough about Turkish politics to judge with any confidence, but one thing’s for sure: in the West, his PR is more effective than Erdogan’s. The President is seen as an increasingly authoritarian figure, locking up journalists and purging thousands of army officers, judges, civil servants and teachers suspected of being Gülenist sympathisers. But if you believe the Gülenists, they are no more threatening to the established order than the Methodists were in eighteenth-century Britain.

A Strangeness in my Mind.jpg

In any event, I’m hoping that A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel – which I’m ploughing through at the moment – will give me more insight into the current mindset within Turkey. The book traces the life of an Anatolian street vendor in Istanbul. Through his eyes we see the growth of the city and the evolution of the wider Turkish state since the late Sixties. Two things are already apparent. First, the gulf between the cosmopolitan Istanbul elite and the conservative societies in Anatolia from which most of the city’s new population have come. And second, the corrosive effect of successive military coups and of the authoritarian regimes that followed. No wonder the Turks pushed back with great courage against the latest attempt.

Another tome I’ve just finished serves as a reminder that the kind of multidimensional conflict we’re currently witnessing in the Middle East is by no means unique. Max Hastings’ latest book, The Secret War – Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945, does what it says on the tin.

The Secret War

Hastings sets out to provide a panoramic view of intelligence activities of all the main participants in the Second World War, as well as the various partisan movements and embryonic special forces deployed by the combatants. So we learn about the familiar stories – the Ultra decryptions by Bletchley Park, the bumbling German Abwehr organisation and the far more effective spies of the Soviet NKVD. We also encounter the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunners of the SAS and the CIA respectively.

What emerges is that the masters of these organisations, in particular Stalin and Hitler, rejected much of the intelligence presented to them because it ran contrary to their own views. Thus Stalin ignored overwhelming evidence that Hitler was about to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. And Hitler fell victim to deception tactics in advance of Operation Bagration, the Soviet offensive in 1944. He also swallowed the Allied deception designed to convince Germany the invasion of France in 1944 would centre on the Pas de Calais. Similarly, the US ignored compelling evidence of Japanese plans for the attack on Pearl Harbour.

What is perhaps less well-known is the infighting and rivalry between the intelligence services within each of the combatants – the mutual contempt between the British MI6 and the SOE, and in the US, between the FBI and the OSS. Perhaps more surprisingly, the fact that in the latter part of the war, intelligence and special forces activities, especially those of the Soviet Union and the US, were largely focused on the post-war future. To that end, allies spied on allies, and on the odd occasion carried out hostile acts against each other. For example, US fighters shot down two British aircraft carrying French forces on their way to infiltrate into Japanese-occupied Indo-China.

During the Asian conflict, rivalry between the British and the Americans centred on Roosevelt’s anti-colonial views. He was determined to thwart British efforts to re-establish dominion over the colonies they lost to the Japanese, and sought instead to establish areas of American economic influence. The OSS was one of his tools for achieving this end, with the result that it and its British counterpart the SOE hardly spoke to each other. The Soviets, of course, were focused on penetrating the Manhattan Project that resulted in the development of the atom bomb. This they did with some success.

In case we imagine that World War Two was a conflict in which the allies were solely devoted to winning the war, Hastings reminds us that the victors were also determined to act in their own long-term interests in anticipation of the post-war order, even if that meant acting against each other during the conflict.

In reading terms, Pamuk and Hastings are not exactly summer salad for the mind. But I’ve always been a meat eater, so that’s fine. For a little dessert, I’ve turned to Dead – a Celebration of Mortality, by Charles Saatchi. I picked it up for five quid in a local charity shop. It had not been opened, so clearly someone didn’t relish someone else’s idea of a cheery gift. Perhaps it was an eightieth birthday present.

saatchi-dead-book

Anyway, despite my misgivings about the author, who grew rich coming up with natty ads for Margaret Thatcher, cornered the market in modern art of questionable merit, and was caught on camera with his hands around his wife’s throat, I am interested in his chosen subject. After all, I’m closer to that momentous event than many.

And very appetising it is too. Saatchi has come up with a hundred-or-so short vignettes, mostly factual, on various aspects of death. No turgid philosophising, though I imagine he sees his choice of subjects as a philosophical statement in itself. He writes with dry wit about Russian gangsters, gallows humour, near-death experiences, of living Indians in Bihar declared dead by relatives to get hold of their meagre inheritances and a host of other subjects. The book cover looks like a tombstone, and the layout reminds you of a Word document in the hands of someone who couldn’t use the table of contents and footer features. Except that it’s clearly a deliberate effect.

Dead is an entertaining, even if rather a cold and cynical, study of the fate that awaits us all. Its bite-sized chapters are easy to read and never boring. The last chapter is short and sweet:

SOME LIVES LEAVE A MARK. OTHERS LEAVE A STAIN.

ALMOST EVERYBODY LIVES A LIFE OF LITTLE CONSEQUENCE TO MANKIND.

BUT WOULDN’T YOU PREFER TO HAVE SPENT YOUR YEARS RATHER USELESSLY, BUT ENTERTAININGLY – EVEN IF YOUR EXISTENCE DIDN’T ACHIEVE ANYTHING MEMORABLY SIGNIFICANT AT ALL?

I wonder if that’s how Saatchi sees his own life. Certainly, it seems to me, his final words are those of a melancholy man. Be that as it may, Dead is perfect fare for the fading days of summer. Available from a charity shop near you, no doubt.

I for one will continue to enjoy my ant-like existence, blissfully unaware of the manner in which the Great Foot will descend on me, but newly enlightened on the vast array of possible exits.

And now, September approaches and the kinderpanzers get ready to reclaim the morning roads. Our attention turns from burkinis to Brexit, as the politicians continue to flounder in the mess they created.

Time to go on holiday.

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