Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Today's little diatribe...

... is about weaselly little ratbag John Terry, and can be enjoyed on the Daily Mirror website here.

Have a nice weekend, now, and remember - it's just a bit of banter.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

So what... [fill in blank here].

A FIFTEEN year old girl goes missing. So what?

Normally that leads to a police hunt, appeals for information, and hopefully finding her safe and well.

A child goes missing with an adult, and alarm bells normally ring. If the adult is a teacher, the worst is soon presumed.

But a fifteen-year-old goes missing with her teacher and people queue up to say this is not a problem. That there is little difference between fifteen and sixteen, that these things happen, who hasn't dreamed of either a school girl or a teacher, and idiots say "so what".

Physically an adult but emotionally still a girl, she is regarded as a sexual being with the requisite experience and judgement to choose her lovers wisely. If any blame is apportioned, it is hers.

Then we have an official report about something that happened to another fifteen-year-old. She went missing, too.

She went missing quite often, and eventually told the adults who were responsible for her she had been abused.

She said she had been sexually assaulted by more than one man, and asked for help.

The social workers to whom she complained did not tell the police, and did not take her seriously. Instead they told her parents she need to be given "boundaries", because if she was having sex it must have been her choice.

No-one presumed the worst. Yet the worst was what was happening.

The abuse - carried out with threats of violence, psychological pressure, drink, drugs and bribes - continued and the girl became pregnant.

No alarm bells rang.

A year after her first complaint she went back to the authorities and asked them to help again. The police gathered enough evidence to charge several men, and found other girls had been victims too.

A month later our girl withdrew her statement, on the grounds she had been threatened by her abusers and she did not believe social services would protect her if she went ahead.

Normally if a child tells the police they've been threatened they take notice. Usually when a girl says she's too frightened of an attacker to give evidence the Crown Prosecution Service will proceed against them anyway, to get them off the street.

Not in this case. The CPS dropped the charges despite having three other victims who could testify, and social services ended their involvement with the girl. She was no longer, in their minds, "a child in need".

She was described as an "unreliable witness", which is apparently her fault and nothing to do with the fact someone who's been systematically abused for years, plied with drink and drugs, bullied, terrified and raped often winds up a bit screwy.

She had the body of an adult so it mattered not in the least whether she was able to make choices in the same way as a 30-year-old. It was her fault, she was old enough to know better, and they thought 'so what'.

The girl self-harmed, she used drink and drugs, she ran away. No-one gave a toss.

A year later another man was arrested because of the girl's evidence and he said enough to the right people for local police to launch a full-scale probe in to the organised sexual exploitation of children in Rochdale.

In May - four years after that fifteen-year-old first said she'd been abused - the gang was finally jailed.

There is of course a world of difference between the case of Megan Stammers, a schoolgirl who's run off with her 30-year-old teacher, and the girl known as Suzie by the Rochdale Safeguarding Children Board whose report into exploitation has today revealed a shocking series of blunders which allowed rapists to attack a string of vulnerable girls for years.

There are different causes, villains, methods, and official mistakes.

But at a fundamental level these two fifteen-year-old girls have been treated by the world at large as being much the same - as a kind of prostitute, someone who knows all about sex, makes a choice and must accept the consequences.

Because they've entered puberty, they can be trusted to go shopping on their own or cook a meal, then whatever happens to them is, somehow, seen as their entirely-independent decision.

Have you forgotten what it was like to be fifteen? The feeling that no-one understands you, the self-loathing, the wish to fit in, to escape, to grow up? The fact that you can get away with buying booze but you don't really like it and drink it just to show your mates you can? The way people talk about sex and you laughed and joined in because you didn't want them to realise you had no idea what they were on about?

Yes, your body's doing all kinds of interesting stuff. It sprouts hair and wobbly things which you half want to hide away and half want to boast about. It doesn't mean you have much of a clue what to do with it, or more importantly what you ought to do with it.

Peer pressure has you by the throat, hormones twist up your insides, and as much as you want to be an adult you're not quite there yet.

When I was 15 my gran died, and I held my mum when she cried and felt very old indeed. I grew up a lot in those few weeks, but it didn't make me an adult. I acted as though I were, but I still cried like a baby when I thought no-one would notice.

Perhaps part of the problem is our attitude to when childhood starts and finishes. We say you can have sex and join the army at 16, drive a lethal metal box on wheels at 17, but you can't make your own mind up about things or vote until you're 18.

Yet the age of criminal responsibility was as low as ten for the two boys who abducted and killed Jamie Bulger, and they were tried as adults despite the fact they probably needed as much if not more care than Jamie's grieving parents.

Pubescent teenagers were jailed for taking part in last year's riots, yet when girls of similar age are married in minority cultures it's widely regarded as wrong. Perhaps we ought to just set one age for all those things, and end the confusion.

Too many people say 'so what' and leave it there, when they ought to follow it up with 'are we doing about it?'

A fifteen-year-old can be raped. They can be abucted, they can be cajoled, coerced, persuaded just as any child - or any adult, come to that - can be. They can be very mature for their age, they can be from nice homes or bad ones, they can put their personal grief to one side to comfort their mum, but it's just a step on the road to being grown-up.

Prostitutes can be raped. People who are drunk can be raped. People who think he loves them can be raped. A girl of 15 years and 364 days is not magically better at making decisions about boys 24 hours later, or 24 years later for that matter.

Childhood ends at different points for everyone, but it's generally when you realise the world can be a horrible place. That moment should be put off for as long as possible, and when it happens there's ideally an adult nearby who can help you adjust to the idea, not exploit it for their own ends.

Not just shrug, and say 'so what'.

Because what would that make you?





Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Mugs.

DOWNTON Abbey is many things.

Predictable, laughable, enjoyable, badly-written with total disdain for an audience it presumes to be stupid and a perfect piece of Sunday evening escapist television puffery.

And there's nothing unusual in any of that.

Few of us though would suggest the days of servants' halls, 18-hour days and no weekends are something we should be trying to return to.

Few of us, that is, except the man who's made millions from trite, cliche-ridden scripts which could have been cribbed from a Catherine Cookson novel.

Julian Fellowes reckons people were more polite to one another when they knew their place. He said the good manners on screen between gentry and servants should make the audience "more courteous" and added: "With any working society, one of the key factors is that everyone should have some respect for everyone else. Downton shows how that worked. I would like it back."

Yes, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, son of diplomat Peregrine Edward Launcelot Fellowes and husband of Emma, lady in waiting to Princess Michael of Kent and great-grandniece of the 1st Earl Kitchener, I just bet you do.

You can wear tweed for breakfast and tails for dinner, eat kippers and kedgeree and stuffed partridge, tinkle a bell and rely for life upon the fact you were born lucky, married lucky, and can trade on your aristocratic connections, family wealth and the land you own to ensure that you never want for nowt.

But for most people it wasn't like that. It was long and tough and thankless and pointless and grim.

Two of my grandparents were servants, and the other two were shop workers. The shop workers had a few nascent unions and better conditions, but the servants were all right only as long as their masters were.

My grandmother was a servant from the age of 15, when she arrived here from another country. She didn't work in a big glossy house like Downton, but worked for a village squire in the middle of nowhere.

She would have got up before dawn, cleaned the grates, cooked the breakfasts, emptied the chamber pots, cleaned it all away, polished floors and banisters, beat carpets by hand, prepared and served lunch, dusted, shone, laundered, mangled, pressed, helped to serve dinner and drinks, clean it all away and collapsed into bed at gone midnight. She'd have had food when she could find time in a dingy basement kitchen, and she'd have done that seven days a week with, if she was lucky, half a day off once a fortnight.

She married the first chap who came along, and who can blame her?

Generally it was women who were servants, and the more disadvantaged the better. The less educated they were the less they would argue for better wages, and if they were orphans or apart from their families like my grandmother they wouldn't demand time off or question the authority of their superiors. Servants who joined the Domestic Workers' Union and asked for regular meal breaks and 12-hour shifts were sacked and blacklisted.

Some were even given names chosen by their employers if they objected to their given ones. I can't ask her because she's long dead, but as my grandmother had a difficult-to-manage Danish name I'll bet you they called her Mary had done with it.

In short, the image of the Earl of Grantham crinkling his forehead with concern at the staff's personal woes and acting like some kind of Edwardian social worker couldn't be further from the truth if it was on a rocket ship accelerating past Mars.

Yes, people set store by good manners. But the manners only went upwards, as a rule, and didn't extend down to the working classes who were addressed solely by their surnames if they were lucky. They didn't get asked please or told thank you, and while the upper classes usually realised they needed the lower orders to maintain their position they didn't respect them for it in the least.

Downton does not show how that worked, and if it did we wouldn't like the silly show half so much.

Besides which the Right Honourable The Lord Fellowes of West Stafford has failed to spot the blindingly obvious truth that the hierarchy of the Downton days has never gone away.

It might be the 21st century but most people can only get elected to public office by putting in thousands to get selected by their local parties, and unless you have a wealthy benefactor or union backing there's no way the average worker is getting into government any time soon.

People who went to the best schools and made the best contacts get the best jobs, and funnily enough the people who have the most money and land - bankers and those who have inherited family wealth - have the loudest say in how the country is run.

People who were flooded out last year and are being flooded out again this year are still waiting for flood defences which they'd have already if they lived in Chelsea rather than Morpeth. Someone who passed on what the Queen told him about a news story he was covering has had to publicly grovel for getting a scoop, the problems of the nation are blamed on the feckless poor, and a tycoon can spend £150,000 on a chicken coop while half a million people are sleeping on the streets as winter's closing in.

An arrogant Chief Whip who never has to travel more than a few hundred yards along Whitehall can demand a state-funded, armour-plated and grenade-proof £300,000 Jaguar to ferry him about, while a delivery worker with stomach and bladder pain, who's had an operation, needs a stick to walk and has been assessed as unfit to work, has been re-assessed by the same firm, declared as fit as a butcher's dog and told to get off his arse.

If we could go back to the days of Downton with everyone fit and healthy, a village hospital, occasional worries about where the next million was coming from and Dame Maggie Smith making waspish comments we wouldn't need to take seriously I'd be all for it.

But instead we live in a time and a place where the good bits of our past - the structure, the manners, the seasonal food - has all but gone and we're left with the snobbery, division, off-handedness and sense of entitlement which is just as offensive in the poor when they adopt it as it is in the rich when they are bred to it.

Downton life, in short, is great - so long as you're not one of the plebs.

It's a mug's game.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Lessons in life.

IT'S perfectly normal to be a slave to your hormones.

It's perfectly normal to think you're in love, to believe only good things happen, and life always turns out for the best.

It's perfectly normal when you are wondering who and what you are to bloom when someone who says you're special, that they agree with you, and understands all the problems you face.

It's all perfectly normal - when you're fifteen. As we get older cynicism seeps in like damp, and most of the business of adulthood is stopping it taking you over completely.

Having a pash on a teacher is almost a rite of passage, regardless of your gender or your school. Even if sex isn't involved, there will - if you are lucky - be a teacher you look up to, want to please, and earn the praise of.

It's a normal part of growing up to slavishly admire someone other than your parents who by that point in your life seem as boring as hell and want to keep you subordinate. Teachers who treat you like an adult are not only appreciated, they're a vital part in you becoming an adult yourself.

I fell in love with teachers a couple of times. One was young and absolutely beautiful and stood out among the ranks of middle-aged men with dandruff, and I would stare at him for whole afternoons and not hear a word he said. Another was very clever and treated me like his star pupil, so I wrote awful poetry and moped around after class.

Nothing ever happened with either of them, because I was the kind of teenager with braces and NHS specs who found the world was much nicer if viewed from behind a curtain of hair and a book. I spoke only in grunts and when I was in love I made no sound at all.

But at that age love explodes like a bomb, whereas when you are older it is something you negotiate. One is indiscriminate, and the other is very discriminating indeed.

Teachers know all about that sort of thing. Apart from the ones with really bad dandruff they all get it at some point and most can differentiate between a favourite pupil who stands out more than the others, and a confused, hormonal child who can be led to the bedroom.

There is always one who can't, though.

Megan Stammers disappeared last Thursday along with her married teacher Jeremy Forrest, who was under investigation by education bosses. They seem to have fled the country to France before the authorities could uncover their seven-month romance and put a stop to it.

Police and their families want them home safe, and there are people all over the country saying "well it's not kidnap" and "she's almost an adult" and "we've all been there, haven't we?"

Well, we've probably all fallen in love with someone we shouldn't have, but how many of us ran away from home, broke up a marriage and went on the run?

Not many. It's extremely unusual, just as it is that a 30-year-old married man thinks it's reasonable behaviour to take a child put into his charge by her parents and skip the country to escape the consequences of his actions.

And his actions, when you look at them, are shattering.

Jeremy Forrest was in loco parentis - he was paid by the state to look after children and teach them things their parents couldn't. He has destroyed that trust not just in Megan's case but that of the hundreds of other pupils potentially in his care.

He enabled a child to leave her safe and happy home, causing the parents who have cared for her since birth unspeakable anguish and worry. There's a bed that's not been slept in for five nights as her family can't sleep or eat and jump every time the phone rings.

He has persuaded a child into an inappropriate relationship. Whether it is sexual or not is almost neither here nor there - the potential for Megan learning the wrong things about how men and women, adults and children interact is enormous.

It would be easy to draw parallels with high-profile relationships, like Michael Douglas marrying a woman 35 years his junior, any of Rod Stewart's affairs, or 32-year-old Caroline Flack dating a 17-year-old Harry Styles.

But Flack wasn't his teacher, nor did she help him run away from home. Catherine Zeta Jones is an adult with the experience to know when the man she's with is acting reasonably towards her. Rod Stewart has done his share of inappropriate things but never, so far as we know, with a child.

Jeremy Forrest's job is to teach Megan and children like her how to think for themselves, with a side order of keeping them safe.

Yet the only lesson she's learning is how to upset a wife, how to distress her parents, and how to put yourself under the control of someone who's not worth the trust placed in him. She's being taught how to run away from problems, avoid consequences, and put her faith in fantasy.

It won't last of course, because they'll be found eventually, he'll be sacked, the police will get involved and his wife will want some answers.

Then Megan will learn what heartbreak feels like, how you can never take things back, and how long hurt can last. She'll feel sorrow for her parents and embarrassment among her friends, and if she's sharp she'll see there's a difference between schooling and grooming.

Forrest probably won't. He will more than likely continue to put his feelings before others', be a slave to his hormones and think that he's perfectly normal when in fact he's trying to keep hold of his own youth by stealing someone else's.

Which is perfectly normal - for a paedophile.

There are no practical lessons.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Class (n.): people with similar characteristics.

ALIENS have landed in the middle of London.

In an effort to find out what makes us tick they locate the nearest hostelry and wander in to find out what we're all talking about.

Is it war? Health services? The rate of extinction among barely-discovered species in the Amazonian rainforest?

No, it's about whether a posh man called someone a pleb, and how a pleb has refused to play football because everyone's having a go at him.

Class, in other words. Who's up and who's down, who's above us and who's beneath us.

Had Andrew Mitchell sworn and shouted precisely the words attributed to him with the exception of "pleb" - and not directed a tirade of abuse at police officers the day after two members of the thin blue line were gunned down - the story would probably have been noted only by political diarists.

They'd have made some wry comments about how he's supposed to be fierce at his own party's MPs, not the coppers guarding them, and that would be that, despite his history of tax avoidance, bullying young journalists, and pettily claiming 13p for some Tipp-Ex on his expenses.

It's 'pleb' that makes people angry, it's 'pleb' that makes him sound like an entitled toff, and it's 'pleb' that he has still not expressly denied saying. It's one word differentiating one group of people from another, used as an insult to put someone in their place.

Mitchell appears to put himself above all of us - even though he is our employee - and refuses to admit he was wrong.

Then we have the case of John Terry, a former England football captain accused of calling a mixed-race rival a "f***ing black c***" during a game last year.

He was cleared of using a racist insult by a criminal court but the game's ruling body, which has a lower burden of proof, was on course to find him culpable anyway and probably issue a short ban and a fine.

It's not the swearing which mattered - it was use of the word black. Had he said the rest of it on or off the pitch, to his rival's face or behind his back, we'd all just roll our eyes.

The FA wouldn't care. The police wouldn't get involved. He'd still be in the squad, despite a long and inglorious history of parking in disabled bays, smashing beer glasses full of pee, flogging his discounted Wembley box, taking £10,000 for private tours of Chelsea and of course cheating on his partner repeatedly, not least with one of his mate's wives.

It's 'black' which makes people angry, it's 'black' which he initially denied saying, and it's 'black' which makes him sound like an aggressive, ignorant bully using one particular word to put someone else in their place.

Both Terry and Mitchell have done things which are worse. Dodging £2.6million in stamp duty has more far-reaching effects than saying pleb, and cheating with your mate's partner puts two relationships and families through the mincer. Abuse, however unpleasant, can be forgotten far sooner.

One is a privately-educated, privileged and wealthy bully. The other is a state-educated, privileged and wealthy bully. Both fail to meet the standards of what most of us call reasonable behaviour, both are entitled, arrogant and petulant once caught out, and both have had far better treatment at the hands of the justice system than the rest of us might expect.

If I called someone a "f***ing black c***" in the course of my work, with thousands of witnesses, it would not wash for a moment if I said it was "banter" as Terry did. And most people who swear at police officers find themselves given a telling-off, if not a four month jail sentence.

"But," the aliens might ask, "why aren't you upset the law treats rich people differently to the poor?"

"Eh?" the pub might reply. "It's not allowed to do that."

"Yes," the aliens might persist, "but it is. And if you're prepared to let these two particular people be above you in so many ways when they are so eminently unsuited to social elevation, why are you only getting upset about it now?"

The pub would scratch its head at that, because the aliens would have a point. Mitchell is a man who should not be in public office for the simple reason that he has been involved in diddling the public out of £2.6million in tax receipts, money which would pay for more than 60 police officers a year.

Terry is a man who should not be in the England football squad because the national team's purpose is not just to win matches but also to represent the entire nation, and not many of us like being represented by a weasel-faced hooligan with the morals of an alley cat.

Yet they have both been given high-profile roles because the qualities we like in them least - bullying in Mitchell's case and making successful passes in Terry's - are precisely what makes them useful to the people in charge.

For years we've overlooked their misdemeanours, we've given them both a lot of money and attention, and just sighed occasionally when we hear about their latest outrage. Now we're getting het up about the technicalities of things that they both said and which, if we're honest with ourselves, we would always have expected someone in their position to say.

One is clinging on for dear life even though if he is proved to have said it his position as chief whip would be untenable, and the other as flounced off claiming persecution after 11 months of making excuses and saying he'd never leave.

To be fair, I expect they're both feeling persecuted. If I got away with all the things they have done with planning aforethought and was then hounded over words said in the heat of the moment I'd feel a bit confused, too.

Both should have been hounded from public life long before now, and if these two minor incidents are what finally does it then about time too.

But if Terry and Mitchell are the same class - entitled, arrogant, abusers of privilege and people - then what are all of us, who excuse Terry's ignorance because he's a good defender, or ignored Mitchell's bullying because he wasn't important enough up to now?

We're that class of people who don't care enough that the law is harsher for us, who think goals are more important than decency, who pay through the nose for other people to haul themselves up the social ladder, who expect those who represent us to be rotten examples of humanity.

We're people who not only expect to be abused, but allow it.

Plebs, in other words.

Stay classy.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The new iPhone...

... and who really runs the world are the topic of today's Daily Mirror column which you can read here.

Have a nice weekend, plebs.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Not quite right.

OH, you poor women!

Things are so bloody hard for you, aren't they? People are so mean, and men don't always stick around, and you never know quite what to do about your eyebrows, do you?

Is it best to thread or wax, have an arch or an underbrow, fill in with powder or pencil? It's the kind of thing which keeps you all awake most nights, probably.

You're such delicate little things that when you have children everyone else needs to stop what they're doing and panic. Lie down, feet up, stop work, take 20 years off, take lots of big deep breaths because it's basically a terminal illness and make sure you shift the extra weight in 3.2 weeks like Posh Spice or you're a failure.

Don't admit it's all a bit much or you long for the days of going out on the pull in a short skirt and drinking like a navvy. That would never do!

Heaven forfend you should create life while in a war zone due to the not-that-unusual medical phenomenon of not being aware you're pregnant. It's so much of a shock that the big men with medals get all frightened, because the only battle women are supposed to fight is with frizzy hair.

You'll need a lot of medical intervention as well, because doctors know best, and if there's anything amiss, you know, DOWNSTAIRS, with your MONTHLIES, that'll require slicing, dicing, lasering or at the very least a good punch in the cervix to sort out.

If you're a girl everything is so much harder, you see, because everything you do is wrong. It is more wrong for a female copper to be shot than a man because men are somehow more shootable. It is more wrong for a woman to be single than a man, because while Jennifer Aniston is unlucky-in-love George Clooney is just a lad-about-town.

It is more wrong for a woman's breasts to be photographed than it is for a prince's penis to be pictured; in fact it is a form of hell, that eternity of ineffable torture the devil keeps especially for the world's worst offenders.

It is wrong to put your breasts on show, wrong for anyone to notice them and "grotesque" if they do. If it happens without your approval you're virtually a victim of assault and if it happens with your agreement you're a slag.

If you are raped it's usually your fault, and if you manage to overcome it and get on with your life this will also be wrong.

It is wrong to work, wrong not to work, wrong to be over-educated or under-educated, wrong to earn too much or be paid too little. It is wrong to devote yourself to your children and wrong to have a nanny and wronger still not to have any children at all.

It is wrong to mention your periods, wrong to want a sex life, wrong to be celibate, wrong to be a virgin and wrong to be experienced. It's wrong to have grey hair, wrong to have wobbly bits, wrong to do anything but try to be a little bit like Kate Middleton even if you're four times her size with a buzz-cut.

And don't get me started on what you wear! Suffice to say, it's not quite right.

You are the weaker sex, you see. And because you cannot lift as much weight or punch with as much force or live out your fertile years as you best see fit without anyone else passing comment on it like men do, you'll always have something to overcome.

But that is the one tiny thing in your favour.

Because if you can be a good copper despite being a woman, you'll be seen as a better copper than a man even though you're not, and mourned more if you die in the line of duty. If you can pass the Army's combat fitness tests, sprint three miles in kit and march for eight carrying a 25lb pack while you're pregnant, you'll be a tougher soldier than any general who will fall to pieces at the thought of a baby in a war zone while simultaneously ordering death on a grand scale.

If you can drink more than male hacks, they'll accept you as one of them. If you fight for your children, your right to have children, or to go back to work after you've had children, you'll be more of a fighter than any dad who doesn't have to do the same.

If you can make your own decisions about your breasts and who to show them to - be it on Page 3, the not totally private terrace of a French chateau, or a film premiere - and not give a flying toss who approves or not you'll be far happier than those who would like your breasts to be under their control.

If you can make a male doctor think twice, be relaxed about romance, see fertility and birth as fairly natural processes, do whatever job you fancy and live your life precisely as you want to without stopping to ask somebody else if they approve of how you're going about it and think yourself equal, yet different, to a man - well, then you will be pretty amazing.

And, it must be said, more normal and right than someone who frets about the right kind of eyebrow.

"Damn, I forgot my tweezers."

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Dreddful.

WHEN a horror happens those who feel it most shout loudest for it to never happen again.

And who wouldn't? For many who've lost a loved one in newsworthy circumstances it is part of the grieving process to talk to journalists, pay tribute to the dead and fix whatever mistake caused it.

That's why the father of Pc Fiona Bone - one of two women police officers killed by gun and grenade in Manchester yesterday - said he wanted the death penalty for the person responsible.

"I never expected this. It's so hard to take," he said. "He deserves to be hanged but I know we'll never get that."

It's why Darren Rathband, the brother of Pc David Rathband who took his own life after being blinded by steroid-crazed gunman Raoul Moat, said all officers should carry guns.

"How many officers need to die before the powers realise that it is the 21st century and you cannot fight crime with an outdated piece of plastic and a bit of spray?" he said. "No job is a routine job and there is always the potential for conflict. We don't go on jobs where people are happy to see us."

It's why Paul Beshenivsky whose Pc wife Sharon was shot dead, said: "I think police, in honesty, should be armed, walking into situations that they're not totally aware of."

It's all very understandable, all easy to say, and all wrong.

We don't have the death penalty for the very logical reason that killing people to prove that killing people is wrong cannot possibly be right. Never mind that you can't always be certain, that convictions can be overturned decades later, or that sometimes criminals can be rehabilitated; if some crimes are so bad they make us want to kill people, it is not acting on that urge which makes us better.

The Police Federation wants the death penalty for people who kill police officers, but then so does Nick Griffin and that's normally a good reason not to do something.

On the same day those two Pcs were shot, a trial in London was hearing the case of a man accused of providing a handgun to Mark Duggan, the alleged crack dealer from Tottenham whose death at the hands of a police marksman last summer sparked four days of riots.

The court heard Mark was under police surveillance when he collected a handgun, wrapped in a sock and hidden in a shoebox. Ten minutes later police surrounded the car he was travelling in, and he was shot dead with a bullet to the chest.

Eyewitnesses at the time said Duggan was pinned to the floor and shot in cold blood, and that police ordered him to stop but he refused. Police investigators wrongly stated he'd shot at officers first, and when the gun was later examined neither it nor the sock had his DNA on it.

Because of the shock of a man being shot in the street, because he did not appear to have a gun in his hand and because of the misleading statements from investigators, people became convinced it was police brutality. Tottenham saw vigils, protests and then full-blown riots which spread across London and even to other cities. Shops were looted, homes burned, the police under attack.

No-one would have suggested for a second last summer that more coppers should have guns. When we saw the rioting unfold in TV pictures from news helicopters with crowds hurling rocks at officers there were calls for water cannon and rubber bullets, but never firearms because it was obvious they could only make things worse.

Nothing has changed since then. Guns are not suddenly magical things which kill only the guilty. Their mistakes are still fatal ones.

Police officers are one of several groups of people who run towards trouble and put themselves in danger for no other reason than they think they ought to. Social workers do the same, ambulance staff, nurses, doctors, and journalists too. They are all attacked in the course of their jobs and all knock on doors they're not sure about only to find a bad person hiding behind it. Should we give them all guns?

Of course not. And as far as the police are concerned it only ups the ante and forces criminals into tooling up to match or outdo them.

The last Police Federation survey found 82 per cent of officers didn't want to be routinely armed. Of those who refused to carry a gun, 56 per cent said they'd leave the force rather than be armed. They probably know better than Nick Griffin.

It's hardly the same but I've been threatened with all kinds of weapons in the course of my job - shot at on one memorable occasion - and in my experience it's a lot easier to talk your way out of a sticky spot when everyone involved knows you're armed only with a Biro.

It seems obvious that a copper with a gun talking to someone mad or bad who also has a gun is probably going to involve guns at some point.

And would it have helped PC Bone or her colleague PC Nicola Hughes if they'd been armed? They were responding to a routine call about a burglary, which now seems to have been a hoax. They knocked on the door and someone opened fire, then hurled a grenade at them for good measure.

If they had been armed, they would not have time to unholster a weapon before they were killed. Had one of them by some fluke managed to shoot their assailant after they were injured, he would never be brought to justice, and every other criminal in Manchester would have decided they needed a gun of their own next time the cops come knocking.

We don't know if the officers were wearing body armour or where the bullets landed. We don't know whether it was a licenced gun or where on Earth the killer got a hand grenade from.

We do know the main suspect - who has yet to be charged - was wanted for two other gun and grenade murders. We do know he was known by locals and journalists to be living in the area where the officers were sent, and that the police were spending £150,000 a day trying to find him. And we do know he'd been questioned over the previous murders and then released on police bail.

The only thing that would have saved Fiona and Nicola is if the person responsible were not on the streets, or they had known that the door they were knocking on could well have had him standing behind it.

And as shocking as their deaths are, they bring to just six the number of police officers shot dead in the line of duty since 2000. Of the 22 officers killed at work in that time, twice as many have been run over or in car accidents while trying to arrest someone.

And in America where all cops have guns, 40 were shot dead in 2011 alone. Even taking into account their much greater population and the fact we had, very unusually, three gun deaths in the past year they have nearly three times as many officers gunned down as we do.

In 2007 the UK had nearly 7,000 authorised firearms officers who were deployed to use their weapons in 21,000 incidents. They needed to use them on just seven occasions - that's 0.03 per cent of the time. If that is the rate at which officers think they need to shoot someone why should we make them do it more often?

Armed police make mistakes which cannot be fixed. They have shot dead people armed with ball-bearing guns, air pistols and table legs, innocent Brazilians running for the train and the mentally unwell. Do we want more?

It is very easy for the knee to jerk, and easier to still to argue that crack dealers, gangsters and people who walk around with grenades are fair game whose deaths at the hands of a righteous copper would improve the world a little.

No doubt they would. But the manner of their death should not be at the hands of the state or its agents, otherwise we are asking all our police officers to be no better than hangmen.

They don't want to do that, and we don't want Judge Dredd convicting and executing people on the spot.

Those two policewomen didn't die because they were unarmed. They died, in all likelihood, because of a series of mistakes - about the likely danger they were walking into, about the failure to find the man now suspected of their killings, about not nicking the person who sells grenades.

The most important thing is not to make any more by making them all carry guns - against their will, against all common sense, and in the futile hope it would save more lives than it costs.

He is not the law.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Unbelievable.

IMAGINE a group of people that does the worst things you can think of.

People who would like to concrete the countryside, build more nuclear power stations, sell off forests, and tax churches and charities while inviting tax dodgers for dinner.

People who would like to steal wheelchair money from the disabled, allow small firms to employ up to 10 children without regulation, and blame everyone who is poor, sick or unlucky for being beggars, cheats and scroungers.

People who would sack soldiers, sailors and air crew while not having the wit to order an aircraft carrier capable of carrying aircraft; people who would shut down half the country's ambulance stations; people who see soldiers killed because they didn't get a NATO order but don't like to mention it.

People who would bask in the glory of a sporting event they did not organise and declare team sports compulsory, having sold off 31 school playing fields in two years, five of them against advice, and on top of the 10,000 sold last time they were in power.

Laughable, isn't it? There can't be people like that. What next, stabbing kittens to death? Workhouses for the feckless poor? Mindless slaughter of wildlife without good reason?

Silly ideas of course, except that today the people running the country want to shoot at badgers for doing something harmless.

Badgers are blamed for the spread of bovine tuberculosis, a disease which means an infected cow will be have to be killed at great cost to the farmer and which has cost £1billion in the past decade.

Dogs, cats, goats, pigs, deer, llamas, alpacas and yes, foxes also spread bovine TB, but even the people currently running the country in the ways outlined above are not stupid enough to suggest culling Bambi.

No, it's Brock getting the blame and the bullet in the face of all logic, reasoning and common sense.

Firstly, bovine TB doesn't always harm cows, which can go their whole lives without developing the full-blown disease or becoming infectious. We kill them anyway.

Secondly, bovine TB doesn't pass to humans in the food chain. Pasteurising milk kills the bug off and meat from infected cows is safe to eat. We kill them anyway.

And thirdly the biggest group of animals responsible for spread bovine TB is - clue's in the name - cows. The last lot of idiots running the country spent £23million on vaccines but they're being held up by EU rules. And while we wait, we kill the badgers anyway.

It's bloodthirsty and daft and doesn't make any sense, so it's right up the street of a group of people who think the world needs more nuclear waste and fewer ambulances or trees.

The RSPB and the National Trust vaccinate badgers on their land, along with some wildlife trusts. Scientists say killing badgers won't make much difference, farmers are mainly angry about having to kill infected cattle, and any normal person would say if the milk and meat is fine we're not too bothered.

But what any normal person would expect - to have the country run by people of whatever political hue but trying their best to help others, to do good things, make decisions based on logic and consider the public's money and will to be more important than their own - is not what we've got.

We've got a group of people who would be written out of a farce for being too ridiculous, stupid, crass, obtuse and ignorant to be believable.

And people think animals are dumb.

You explain it to him.


Monday, 17 September 2012

Butterfly studies.

MOST things governments do make almost no difference.

The daily rearranging of paperclips, awarding a new contract for supply of paperclips, or deciding to hold a paperclip amnesty so they can all be used again, doesn't change anything. Paperclips are still made and lost, and even in cutbacks there's a paperclip middle man making a profit.

Then there's bigger stuff they do like wars, which these days affect a thousand or so of our people and some tens or hundreds of thousands of theirs; or the NHS, which has been meddled with for years and while imperfect can be reversed about as easily as a speeding tank when the clutch has gone.

Education though - education is the biggie. One decision can affect millions of children and alter the entire course of their lives, with knock-on effects on where and how they live, what they earn, and how they die.

Education is the butterfly beating its wings to see what happens. Education deserves our attention, to be as good as it can be, to be relentlessly improved, and is far too important just to tinker with.

So of course tinkering is virtually all it's had. When I was young O-level exams were scrapped as unfair and unreasonable, reducing two years' study to two hours in an exam room at the height of summer where many - the dyslexic, those who fell ill, the ones not so good with stress, silence, heat, or pressure - had the entire course of their lives altered, often for the worse.

The Tories were running the country, and said it was wrong for children to have their opportunities ruined by the variables of just one day. They said it was wrong some students were not even entered for exams because teachers thought they would not pass and instead had to sit a simpler test that was dismissed as useless by colleges, universities and employers.

The Tories said it was fairer for all pupils to sit one exam. Everyone would be graded so you could tell who was best, worst and mediocre. To make it a true assessment, work you did during the previous two years would count towards your mark.

So I sat GCSE exams at 16. Some I had no choice about - ugh, maths - and just as well, otherwise I'd never have endured the lessons or understand long division. Others I got to pick, like doing French rather than German (on the basis it sounded like someone being sick).

Some were all about the exams because working out algebraic equations is best tested, let's face it, with a pen and a piece of paper. Others had modules like doing a specific project in combined science showing I could design, hypothesise, investigate and prove something over a period of weeks. In art you had to produce, well, art, and that took a term not two hours in a sweaty room.

Different subjects put more or less weight on the tests or the modules, and it all seemed perfectly rigorous to me.

I disrupted lessons more often than I listened to them, and some teachers loathed me. Most were pretty tolerant but there were one or two who, under the previous system, might have said I'd never pass the O-level and should sit the easier test as someone who couldn't be bothered to leave the scrapheap.

Some subjects I found easy and others were a headache. History was a breeze, geography a swizz, physics made me want to cry and media studies was simply the most boring pile of crud ever devised by man.

I got three As and six Bs, largely because I coped better with exams than I did lessons. I went on to do A-levels, upsetting teachers as I went, and after getting three As upset them some more by refusing point-blank to go to university and getting a job on my local paper.

Then the Tories were replaced by Labour, and every year I reported the pass rates had gone up. The Tories said it was a swindle, and Labour said children were doing better. Schools were encouraged to compete over pass-rates, so they got their exam services from bodies which awarded higher marks. You could resit bits to bump your grade up. Quangos were set up to oversee this new 'market', then changed, then closed down. Everyone had to go to university, and no-one learned to be a tradesman.

Everything was tinkered with, and nothing was properly tailored. Tinker, tinker, tinker.

Now the Tories are back in, Education Secretary Michael Gove has decided it's GCSEs which are unfair and unreasonable so we're going to get O-levels again because he did them and after 24 years of ceasing to exist they are much nicer.

At one point Gove even wanted to bring back the second tier test for less-able pupils, so that children could have their entire futures decided by a teacher they've spent the past term flicking rubber bands at. It was only Nick Clegg who stopped him, which should prove just how bad the idea was.

It's a policy that's been announced in bits, via leaks, so the full details aren't known beyond the fact that after 2015 it's back to three-hour exams, no modules, no practical tests of your scientific knowledge or artistic ability, and grades A to F will be replaced with numbers 1 to 6.

The benefit of modular exams is pupils are encouraged to go away and properly think about things rather than just vomit up received truths like parrots with pens, which is why I feel like setting the Education Secretary a little test of my own:

* Explain how 'Gove levels' are less unfair or unreasonable than they were in 1988. Use diagrams and a spare piece of blank paper if necessary.

* Replace these letters - A B C D E F - with these numbers - 1 2 3 4 5 6. What have you achieved? What is it the square root of?

* Half of all GCSEs today include modules. What percentage of GCSEs therefore do not?

* If seven per cent of GCSE students get the top grade of A*, and under the new proposals the top 1 grade will be given to five per cent of pupils, what proportion of Britain is any less 'dumbed down' than it was?

* If a group of headteachers say the exam industry and incompetent regulation is to blame for grade inflation, should the Education Secretary a) blame the Tories who came up with the idea b) ban some students from the chance of higher attainment c) shut down regulators d) all three?

* Thank heaven for Nick Clegg in 3,000 words.

The fact is this latest 'shake-up' of the exam system has not been tested, trialled, checked, or backed by anyone whose life is going to depend upon it. It's been devised by a man whose idea of maths is to add up the cost of all the furniture in his house and subtract it from the taxpayer, and it is different from time travel only in that it is the first thing on Earth to be improved by Nick Clegg.

By all means, put more algebra in maths exams. Get rid of multiple choice unless it's the kind of question Stephen Hawking would hesitate over. And no-one will weep if media studies is wiped from existence.

But set a national standard for exam boards. Make the regulators do their job. Don't let schools buy in softer exams to get better grades. Have a line, and don't let anyone cross it.

Why should someone like me - who enjoys an essay and puts in the revision when I need to - be given more chances in life than someone like my friend who came down with ME and even with resits had to rely on her coursework to scrape her way into uni? And what about the dyslexic, the rebellious, the stoned, the lazy? They might all do better than me in life, given the chance.

And education is about giving children a chance. Letting the butterfly flap, without ill effect, until it's ready to fly by itself.

It's not about judging every student by the standards our politicians were judged by at their school when they grew up. It's not supposed to be giving us children rated according to how like Michael Gove they are.

Give us butterflies instead.

It takes someone special to squish them.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Kate's...

... royal boobs are the main topic of conversation today, and you can read my column about them for the Daily Mirror here.

Have a nice weekend, and remember - someone's always watching.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Dear Gideon...

I UNDERSTAND you're looking for a new governor of the Bank of England. Look no further.

You will probably be inundated with applications for the role, considering this is the first time the job has been an open competition, we're in the worst recession for 50 years and now the Olympics are over there are lots of people with time on their hands.

There are going to be lots of journalists trying to fill space with humorous "we're not as bad as the bankers!" CVs as well. But I'm quite serious - I have a sure-fire economic policy I think you'll like.

Now, I'll come clean and admit that maths is not my strong point. A phone call to one of my parents is normally needed for conversions between metric and imperial, and if they're not around I have to crowd-source particularly tricky sums among whoever is to hand.

Despite that I managed a B in my maths GCSE, and although you've never revealed what grades you managed that should put us roughly on a par unless, of course, you've never revealed them because they're worse. In which case you'll need my mum's phone number.

I've always worked and paid my taxes, and the only debt I've ever been in is the one five times my salary called a "mortgage". To this end the £300,000 the job brings with it would be handy, because unlike you I can't get the taxpayer to help me out with it and unlike the Bank of England I'm not allowed to simply print more money and hope no-one minds.

I'll admit that I did not see the 2008 financial crisis coming; but then, seeing as the current governor Mervyn King didn't spot it either despite being warned years earlier, that should hardly rule me out.

When economists make stark warnings I generally take note, even if they are about austerity cuts being likely to throw us into a double-dip recession which turn out to be true and very inconvenient for my chums in government. The last chap didn't manage that.

Your ad calls for a "strong communicator" - that's me! - of "undisputed integrity" - well, nothing's been proven - have "good understanding of the financial markets" and be capable of "inspiring confidence" in the banking system.

My understanding of the financial markets and plan for economic confidence and reform can be summed up thus:

1. DON'T GAMBLE.
2. Don't gamble with someone else's money.
3. Don't keep gambling when you're broke.

If the British economy sticks to those rules, it really can't go wrong. And if it can't go wrong, then we can all be confident and it won't need reforming again. WIN!

As to my integrity, I do not lie, cheat, gamble, steal, ignore advice, back people who need a telling-off, feel entitled, suck up vast bonuses while sacking staff, refuse to talk to people, destroy pension funds, fix interest rates, launder drug money, rack up bad debts, require a knighthood or expect anyone to sort out my financial woes except myself.

In short, I'm just about solvent, relatively normal, and capable of basic arithmetic, which puts me head and shoulders above most of the banking industry candidates you'll be considering.

However, having written the above letter it has occurred to me that the reason you are throwing the job open to public applications like a half-arsed financial version of the X Factor may be because you haven't got a scooby who should do it and it's a desperate cry for help from a 2:1 modern history graduate without economic qualifications or ideas who will, more than likely, give it to someone he is friends with.

Bloody Seb Coe probably.

Oh well, I'll post this anyway. Hope springs eternal, eh?

Regards,


Foxy

PS. The ad says I would need to work closely with the Chancellor and I have bought a clothes peg to wear on my nose to help with this.

"Just give me a chance, Simon!"

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Hooligan (n.): A rough, lawless person.

THE world was a different place 23 years ago.

It was a world where men kicking a ball around a pitch was not so much a family day out as an excuse for violence and thuggery. The police did pretty much as they pleased and journalists were not much different.

Or at least that was how it seemed to everyone else - in truth most of the football fans, coppers and hacks were decent people who did their best but were tainted by association with a handful of idiots. It was easier to cross the road, pretend not to notice them, and keep your head down.

And who can blame them? One dad out to watch the match with his boy is never going to be able to stop a horde of drunken yobs hurling concrete blocks at riot police. It is not a practical fight to pick.

So they got away with things they wouldn't today. There weren't cameras everywhere, it was difficult to know what other people were thinking, and there weren't a lot of rules.

So when 39 football fans were killed and 600 were injured when two rival groups of hooligans clashed at the Liverpool vs Juventus match at Heysel Stadium in 1985, it was easy to think that everyone involved was a murderous thug. In fact most of the dead were innocent, and in trying to escape the fighting knocked over a badly-built wall and crushed the fans sitting behind it.

In those days there were no cameras to pick out the ringleaders so 14 Liverpool ticket holders were jailed for involuntary manslaughter, and their club was barred from European matches for six years. Every other English club was barred for five.

The newspapers which have always sold millions of copies on the basis of their sports coverage blamed the 'hooligan element', and people like me grew up thinking football was about violence.

A couple of decades on we can all see hooliganism across Europe had a lot to do with Far Right agitators, and still does. And that because the 1980s saw the value of football transfers rocket as players became media stars, money that should have gone into maintaining and modernising Victorian grounds went into the pockets of players and agents.

Four years after Heysel it seemed to happen again - only this time it became the worst disaster football, the police or the newspapers had ever seen.

Liverpool fans - people then reviled by almost everyone in Britain for that European ban - delayed by unexpected roadworks turned up late at a FA Cup semi-final at the Hillsborough Stadium to watch their side play Nottingham Forest. After all the violence of the past, the stands were now separated into vast wire cages.

The man in charge of the police operation, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, expected only trouble.

He decided that although there were more of them them the Liverpool fans should go into the smaller end of the stadium, to avoid having to cross the path of Notts Forest fans. There were too few turnstiles and a crush developed, made worse when they decided not to delay kick-off even though thousands of people were late and still outside.

As the crush got worse Duckenfield ordered a side gate to be opened to relieve the pressure. Fans poured in, but there were no stewards to direct them into the empty areas. Instead they followed stadium signs pointing them into cages that were already packed.


Each cage should have held only 1,600 people - they ended up with more than 3,000 packed in.

As the people at the front began to climb over the fences to get out, TV commentators called it a pitch invasion. When fans began pulling down hoardings they were called hooligans in homes up and down the country, where millions watched it live on Grandstand.

Duckenfield, in his control room, decided it was thuggery. He sent a line of police officers onto the pitch to prevent fans getting to the Notts Forest end. The referee called off the match six minutes after it began.

But as time ticked past it became clear there was more to it. The hoardings were being used as makeshift stretchers, people were being hoisted up and out of the crush by those who'd scaled the wire, and some who could not get out tore holes in the cage with their bare hands.

Sports photographers caught every second of it on film. Grandstand kept on broadcasting. The country sat on its sofa, aghast.

Forty four ambulances were called but only one allowed into the stadium. Those makeshift stretchers were turned back at the police line as they tried to get to the paramedics.

Many of the dead were children - the youngest was 10. Ninety four were killed that day, in their cage and left to die on the pitch. Two more severely-injured died later. Still others have since reported suicides, post-traumatic stress, alcoholism and other problems.

The first newspaper reports were done in a rush, for the Sunday editions. Most of the photographs, even by the gung-ho standards of the time, were too gruesome to use. Relatives were identifying the dead from Polaroids. No-one had a clear idea of what happened. Duckenfield was said to have told officials fans without tickets had forced open the side gate.

On Monday the Mirror printed photographs of fans dead in the crush under the headline 'Never Again', and as one of the first newspapers to use colour the true horror of blue faces and bloodied bodies caused huge shock.


There were angry radio phone-ins, and the paper's legendary editor Richard Stott spoke publicly about his decision and why he thought it was important to get across the true scale of what happened.

On Tuesday the Sun said the police were being made 'scapegoats' for a disaster caused by ticketless hooligans, and on Wednesday it reported claims by Tory MP Irvine Patnick and an unnamed police source that in the crush Liverpool fans picked the pockets of the dead, urinated on police and attacked rescue workers.

The reporter who pulled the story together told the editor Kelvin MacKenzie he was worried about it and stressed they were allegations, not facts. The 18 or so staff sent to cover the disaster and more aware of who to trust and what went wrong were in Liverpool, not the newsroom. The editor laid out a front page with the headline 'The Truth', and in the pub his hacks sat around shaking their heads and predicting trouble.


When the paper hit the streets it was greeted with fury, but MacKenzie refused to give interviews or explain why he'd done the story. Rage grew, copies of his newspaper were burned in the streets, and it became the greatest Fleet Street disaster of all time.

The Sheffield Star, Daily Star, and Liverpool Post wrote similar stories - but they weren't noticed. There has never been any proof for the allegations.

Shortly afterwards an official inquiry found the police were largely to blame, with the stadium's age and layout contributing to problems along with a 'small minority' of drunken fans. The coroner refused to consider anything that happened more than 15 minutes after kick-off, despite evidence many of the victims were still alive.

Duckenfield retired on medical grounds before he could be disciplined. In 2000 he faced a private prosecution but the jury failed to reach a verdict. He admitted lying about the cause of the disaster and several other officers were accused of leading a cover-up, tampering with evidence and statements. Among them was Norman Bettison, who later became the local chief constable.

And for 23 years, mums and dads, sisters, brothers, grandparents, sons and daughters, were told to stop wallowing in self-pity. The relatives of the 96 said there had been a cover-up, that the police were telling lies, and their antipathy towards the country's biggest-selling newspaper was blamed on the fact it had recently laid off workers in Liverpool.

The dead were dismissed as hooligans who got what they deserved.

Today we have learned all the victims - even children - had their blood tested for alcohol. The police searched their criminal records to see if their characters could be impugned after death. They significantly altered 164 official statements to change the record of events, and removed 116 comments blaming them for the disaster.

We have had it confirmed the ground was poorly maintained and inadequate. There had been a crush at a match the year before and nothing had been changed to prevent a repeat. There were medics who could help the injured, but did not. There were 41 people who perhaps did not need to die, but did.

Following the disaster, football stadiums were given health and safety rules and clubs were forced to spend money on safety. Shortly afterwards all the editors in Fleet Street signed up to a code of practice, which when followed keeps us out of trouble. The police have rules, too, about crowd control, public safety, and evidence.

Perhaps more important than any of those things we all have a camera in our pockets, and can tell the world what we're thinking in a few seconds. Not only could Hillsborough not happen again, the lies told after could not take hold.

David Duckenfield retired on a full pension. Norman Bettison was knighted, as was Irvine Patnick. MacKenzie was ordered to apologise but later recanted. Barely any shop on Merseyside will stock the paper he left 18 years ago, and Sun reporters still hate that story as much as they did on the day it was printed.

None of them ever really said sorry, but then hooligans don't.

The world is a different place today, which is why I can write that hooligans were the cause of the Hillsborough disaster. Hooligans in the police force who made it worse, hooligans in the football business who saw no reason to spend money on safety barriers, proper signs or exits.

Hooligans who lied and smeared to cover up the fact people had died unnecessarily, the hooligan who was running the nation's biggest newspaper, and the hooligans running the country who saw no reason to reveal the truth any sooner.

They are the hoodlums who took a football match and turned it into 23 years of torment. No-one stood up to them, because it was an impractical fight to pick.

No-one except the families of the 96.

It would have been easier for them to keep their heads down. Sorry is no kind of justice, but perhaps saying 'thank you' is because the world is slightly better for their stand.

It's just a shame the real hooligans aren't in cages.







Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Imagine.

THE date is ten years hence.

The worst recession in 50 years is behind us, thanks to a combination of early austerity cuts by the blues and a boost to public spending by the reds who succeeded them.

Riots by a forsaken underclass which set the capital ablaze are a distant memory, and the poorer classes are now kept in their place. British sport has returned to its usual, desultory, form. David Beckham has been knighted, Prince Charles became the first man to be pampered to death, and Simon Cowell moved to the moon taking the X Factor with him.

In Downing Street is a man who was one of the more boisterous members of the Bullingdon Club when he was at Oxford. He studied Classics in the original Greek and Latin, is descended from all the royal houses of Britain, and has a habit of hopping into young ladies' beds.

He is repeatedly found out lying - to others in his party, over statistics bent for his own ends, and over his muddled private life.

A decade after Fleet Street suffered its greatest scandal over revelations of dodgy journalism, the man running the country used to be one himself. He was once fired for making up quotes, and used his contacts to help criminal chums keen to beat up nosy journalists.

He refused to legalise gay marriage on the grounds it would lead to people marrying their dog; he brought back hunting with hounds saying he enjoyed the sight of intestines pouring onto grass; he cancelled the minimum wage, sold off social housing and greets foreign leaders in embarrassing ways. Female ones are goosed and forced to endure speeches filled with double entendres, while African statesmen are met with the phrase: "Tally ho, me old picaninny! Show me that watermelon smile!"

He is very clever though, and in between the official business of running the country he manages to fit in writing books, being paid thousands for newspaper columns (*jealous face*) and frequent appearances on TV programmes. In fact, he's on TV more often than he's at his desk.

Because on his desk there are statistics. Overhead projections, charts, graphs, paperwork, red boxes, and Post-It notes. Around the desk are a big group of people all waiting to talk to him - the Chief of Defence Staff, the governor of the Bank of England, policy wonks, secretaries, his wife and a few ambassadors.

The desk is where the work is, and it is where, as much as he would like it to be otherwise, the man running the country is bored. So he's off impregnating a posh young lady, or writing a speech about Thermopylae, or cycling around his capital waving at people when they shout at him.

When he was elected people chanted his name, because he was so likeable and popular when you didn't have to think too much about what he actually did. You could enjoy how clever he was, and laugh at his choice of words, and it was as mild and amusing as listening to a slightly-racist uncle drunk at a wedding.

He has been doing all this for a few years now, and while he still seems quite good fun people have started to feel it's time he's a bit loud and it's time he went and slept it off.

Boris Johnson - for it is he - is exactly the person you want on your side if you're arguing in the pub about why Britain is historically better than anywhere else. He is the person you want to rouse the troops before a final assault on Agincourt, and the guy you'd like to be making speeches on the radio if we are thrust into a Third World War and Churchill doesn't rise from the dead.

He's the bloke you'd love to buy a drink for and not notice he didn't return the favour. He's the funny, chubby chap you'd happily leave your wife alone with until it was too late. He is the shabby British bulldog who might not be a gentleman but will always take credit for being one.

But then, Boris will take credit like someone already ten grand in the hole to a loan shark. The Olympics are really his predecessor's legacy, but to watch Boris enjoy it you'd think he'd built the stadium by hand. It is funny to watch two Buller boys who hate each other on a podium saying how great the games were, but it would have been funnier still to watch either of them applaud Ken Livingstone.

It's funny to watch him dance to the Spice Girls, and dangle from a zip wire. But the principal reason he's Mayor of London today is that he's not Ken, and the main cause of his being touted as the next Tory leader is because he's not the man who's in the job now.

Regardless of your politics it would be difficult to argue that David Cameron is particularly clever, and it is as hard to pin a principle on him as it is to staple jelly to the wall.

If you want to find the tiny grain of public spirit which sets most politicians on the road to power in the first place, you would need two Camerons and a Large Hadron Collider to smash them together at speed.

If you doubt me, imagine how he would react to being ousted. Would he drag his heels for years about handing over the reins to a successor, like Blair? Would he be driven away from Downing Street with tears in his eyes, like Thatcher?

No. He'd be on the international speech circuit with a villa in Umbria quicker than you could say 'Oh look, it's the taxman'. The same goes for most of those in power with him, and equally for the reds in Opposition. There is no differentiation between them, aside from the colour of their ties.

That, and that alone, is why thousands of people chanted "BOR-IS! BOR-IS!" yesterday outside Buckingham Palace.

It's not because he's brilliant, or a particularly good choice. It's because he's not any of the Eds, or Dave, or Nick, and he keeps us entertained instead of making us bored or disenchanted. He is clever, he is passionate, he has purpose even if it is to be "king of the world" as he used to precociously insist as a child.

If we're honest, we don't really want a Prime Minister who makes orgasm jokes in public, calls black people names, can't keep his trousers up and avoids his desk whenever possible.

And if we wind up with one, it will be because every other candidate failed us as well as themselves.

Enjoy Boris by all means - but whether you are blue, red or yellow, you really ought to hope like hell that someone comes along who wants to do the job because they'd be good at it.

Not just because they think it's their rightful place.

This is his rightful place.

Monday, 10 September 2012

You amaze me.

ONE day soon, mankind will achieve the most amazing feat of all time, and you won't even notice.

You'll be asleep, or on the toilet, or standing in a queue impatiently waiting for a poncey kind of coffee. The amazing thing will happen, and you will carry on doing whatever you were doing before.

It's not just the most amazing thing mankind has done. It's the most amazing thing, so far as we know, that has ever happened. Better than a Mayor on a zipwire, better than a Queen parachuting into the Olympics, better even than a man with no legs climbing a flagpole.

We're leaving the solar system.

Go on, shrug. So what? We've been tinkering around in space for ages.

Except without you noticing it we've gone 11.2 billion miles from home using computers not very different to a ZX Spectrum. That's the same as travelling the 93 million miles between the Earth and the Sun 121 times, relying on the power of something less advanced than a modern digital watch.

There are two unmanned Voyager probes flying through space at 35,000mph, operating at temperatures so low they're 1/10,000th of those on Earth and surviving radiation doses 1,000 times worse than needed to kill you or I instantly.

They were launched in 1977 - confusingly Voyager 2 set off first - to have a peek at our nearest planets, which just happened to be lined up in a row so that it would take a minimum of power to use the gravitational pull of each to ping from one to the other.

They were only intended to last for five years but have worked seven times as long. They were going to look at just two planets, but NASA got some extra cash and the probes - by this point millions and millions of miles from Earth - were reprogrammed remotely via radio wave to go and look at the rest of the solar system as well.

(Think about that the next time the gonk from IT says it can't be fixed. He'll probably tell you deep space doesn't spill orange juice on the keyboard, but it's worth a try.)

The total cost of design, build, launch and 35 years of operation is £540m. It cost us 17 times more than that to put on the Olympics.

And what did we learn? Well, the big red splodge in the middle of Jupiter is a giant storm so huge Earth could fit inside it three times over. It has three moons we didn't know about, and one, called Europa, has a crust of water ice on its surface floating above an ocean 30 miles deep.


Jupiter also has a magnetic field which, when it passes over Io, strips it of heavy ions which create beautiful auroras more amazing than our own Northern Lights, and which generates 3million amperes of electricity - enough to boil 333,000 or so kettles with every pass.

One of Saturn's moons, Titan, has ethane oceans and loads of organic matter with an atmosphere just like Earth before life evolved. Uranus has a corkscrew-shaped magnetic field because it's on the yang after being knocked on its side somehow, and Neptune should have been named after Michael Fish rather than a god of the sea as it's the windiest place in the solar system, with gusts of 1,200mph.

The probes run on electricity produced by plutonium, and although it's about one-quarter the power needed to run the average American house, over time more of their equipment has been switched off to conserve it and keep the important bits going. Heaters, cameras and scientific instruments have been powered down and about all that's left is a gyro, an ultra-violet light meter and the digital tape recorder used to store data.

Yes, a tape recorder. Google it, kids.

This information is transmitted back to Earth in radio waves which take 17 hours to get here, and the signal is about 20billion times less powerful than your wristwatch.

One of the last pictures Voyager took is of Earth, from four billion miles away. We're that little speck in the right hand band of light.


It's more than twice as far away now, at the edge of our system where the solar winds have dropped to nothing and any day it will leave the protective bubble of charged particles called the heliosphere which covers our sun and all the planets which orbit it. We don't know quite when it will happen, because we haven't sent anything through this frontier before.

When the two Voyager probes pass out of the heliosphere they will be in the gap between stars - the interstellar medium. It is as different to our system as the Atlantic Ocean is to a paddling pool, filled with gas from the Big Bang, dust from smashed planets, stars dying and being reborn, and loads of stuff that is either spooky, scary or entirely unknown.

If ET finds them he's going to have a lot to wonder about, because on board is a gold record - we should be grateful it's not a TDK 60 I suppose, but do aliens prefer vinyl? - explaining a little about human life.

There are pictures of a foetus, a page from Newton, music by Bach and Beethoven. There are photographs of scientists and traffic jams, a handy map of the solar system and whereabouts in it we are, and people saying 'hello' in 55 languages including those now extinct.

There are beeps and clicks from human brain waves recorded while a lady read some philosophy aloud and thought about the man she was in love with, and handy instructions etched on the outside of how to use a stylus to play the record and what speed to do it at.

Once it passes into the turbulent unknown, Voyager has enough power for another eight years or so. Then the plutonium will be used up, and it will drift in the interstellar winds. Scientists reckon it will take about 40,000 years for it to reach the nearest planet, which of course might be inhabited by nothing but methane, bacteria or creatures who have evolved beyond CD players.

But there are two even more amazing things about all of this.

The first is that humans decided to do it at all - to see what is out there, for the hell of it, because it would be interesting, to wave at whoever might see, and just because. It's a lot more inspiring than going to Mars because it has minerals, or closing down bits of the space programme because it's all got too expensive.

We are leaving our own solar system with the technological equivalent of a piece of paper flicked by a rubber band, and whether it quietly disintegrates, sends us new things to amaze or is sucked into a black hole and made sentient by a race of robot beings so it tries to return home and destroy us all, it will always have been the most enlightening thing mankind ever did.

The second thing is that on that record are a series of grooves which, when played correctly by an alien who figures out how to do it and has recently found a hi-fi in some space junk and didn't know what it was for, will boom out Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode at full volume.

When summer's over, and you wave goodbye to the heroes of the Olympics and Paralympics while wondering what's left to feel good about, think about little green men bopping around to a 1958 twelve-bar blues riff in 'B' and know that you can be proud of yourselves for at least another 40,000 years or so.

Well done, humanity.



Friday, 7 September 2012

The reason why...

... Bradley Wiggins is looking a bit rubbish can be found on the Daily Mirror website here.

Have a nice weekend - it's all less impressive football and the X Factor between now and Christmas.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

You're watching Big Brother.

BIG Brother gets a lot of bad press - largely, it must be said, because it gets any press at all.

On the one hand are people complaining print, radio and television give social oddities attention, and on the other are a slightly more realistic bunch who realise that social oddities always have, and always will, be 40 times more interesting than anything else.

The problem with Big Brother and programmes like it is not that they exist, or that they promote or destroy their contestants according to public whimsy. The problem is that the wrong people take part in them, and they're doing it in the wrong way.

In the current 'celebrity' series, for example, we have someone from a 1970s girl band; an actress famous for one role she last played a decade ago; someone from EastEnders; a man who lives in Noel Coward's house; someone else who used to be in EastEnders; and a selection of women who make money from their tits and bums.

And those are the ones worth taking note of - the others are of even less interest.

The principal argument against these programmes - and which is far louder for the ones where 'ordinary people' vie for our attention - is that they promote stupidity. They're given tasks involving basic sums, eating icky foods, wearing silly clothes or otherwise debasing themselves.

You need to be stupid to sign up, and stupid to stay in. The ones who win are inevitably those who are adorably dim, don't ruffle any feathers or show any sign of wit, wisdom or worth. Which is why Jade Goody was evicted, twice, after displaying epic levels of ignorance yet went on both times to be nationally loved and make a fortune. It's why Tony Blackburn won I'm A Celebrity and is a large part of why Susan Boyle is so adored - never mind the voice, if she was any brighter we'd not be so impressed.

At a time when education is forever being fiddled with, exams trashed, degrees rendered useless yet we all have the near-infinite knowledge and trivia of the internet at our fingertips, stupidity is something we outwardly despise but secretly seem to vote for.

Which brings us, with crushing inevitability, to the ill-starred mating of two 'winners' in the shape of Chantelle Houghton and Alex Reid.

Reid was labelled a "loveable prat" during his Big Brother appearance, and if Dane Bowers had summed anyone else up in that way it might provoke comparisons between pots and kettles and that it's better then being an unloveable one. Reid boasts about it on his website, along with details of his illustrious acting career ("recurring background role in Soldier, Soldier"), his cage-fighting career (tends to lose but has "a good chin"), business career (men's grooming products) and personal life (ill-fated liaison involving a vodka bottle wielded by Katie Price).

Chantelle, meanwhile, was a professional Paris Hilton lookalike who months after her appearance on the show married a fellow contestant in a £300,000 magazine deal, split from him less than a year later, was paid £300,000 for her autobiography, had her boobs done, and became accustomed to living, loving and breaking up with people in front of the cameras.

It is only a matter of time before two creatures who thrash around in the same murky pool crash into each other, and so it was with Alex and Chantelle. Their first dates were caught on camera, they told magazines about every early stage of their affair, and after a few months he proposed to her - live, on an Irish talk show.


They went on to discuss, for money, their wish for children, their fertility problems, her eventual pregnancy, morning sickness, arguments, how they dressed up as Kate and Wills and when he gave her a lipgloss as a birthday present she chucked him out, then took him back. In the past few days she's kicked him out again and he was arrested trying to break in at 1.30am.

And who can blame them for exposing their lives in this way? They're both unemployable in any other field. They could no more hold down a job stacking shelves than they could an accountancy post. They have no method of turning a buck other than continuing to sell themselves, and while it may seem very likely that this and their probably-differing attitudes towards vodka bottles might mean the relationship is doomed, they're never going to find another person better suited to their lifestyle and ambitions than one another.

But did Big Brother warp them or just help two social oddities - who were pretty odd before they were famous - to be odd in such a way we can all enjoy it?

And don't deny that you enjoy it. We all get a kick from Alex and Chantelle and their ilk; from the freedom their celebrity gives us to despise, love or despair of them. Were they our neighbours or  colleagues we'd be polite and wonder privately if they were a touch autistic, but when they find themselves making a living from their oddness we have a less considerate opinion.

Big Brother's worst offence is not that it creates characters like theirs, which were already well-formed before it showed them how to turn crass into cash. It's that it turns us - and that includes those who despise and avoid such programmes and their 'stars' - into the type of judgemental, knee-jerk mob which used to appear at public hangings and which, these days, the press is blamed for making.

Humans are never going to not want people to love or loathe, and there's nothing much wrong with the format of locking a few people up in a house for a few weeks to see who wins over public opinion.

It might have a higher moral purpose though if the inmates were people who ought to be seeking our approval.

So the judge who thinks a drug-addled burglar needed courage to break into homes while their owners slept could enter alongside the couple who fired a shotgun at burglars who broke into their remote farmhouse, and let's see which side the public comes down on.

Let's lock JK Rowling and Douglas Murray in the same building and see who wins the argument about whether single parents are going hungry so their children can eat; put Iain Duncan Smith in a wheelchair for a Murderball task against paralympian Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and see how he feels about benefits after that.

Boris and Dave cold slug it out in It's A Bullingdon Knockout; the immigration debate people keep calling for could come down to a phone vote which at least would give us an answer; George Osborne can try to get his head around the weekly shopping list, Robert Jay can ask the questions in the diary room and if John Prescott really wants to re-enter public life as a taxpayer-paid police commissioner he'll need to take a series of legal highs and dispense late-night relationship advice to Geri Halliwell if he wants to win us over.

The fact is we love voting people out more than we enjoy voting anyone in.

If the important bits of life were like that, they would be 40 times more interesting and 1,000 times more likely to hold our attention.

Which is probably why the important bits always happen behind closed doors - they prefer it if we despair over Alex and Chantelle instead.

Surely there's enough despair to go around.