Sunday, 21 January 2018

Family values

Those who know me will be aware that children are not my favourite thing. However, I am not an inflexible man - ho ho ho, I hear you cry - and on Friday the opportunity came up to infest myself on my my dear, dear friend Mike Hennessy and his family for the evening in Reading. I have not been feeling particularly 'up' recently and the prospect of a night in the warm embrace of family seemed just the tonic.

I first met Mike when I joined the House of Commons in 2005. How to describe him? Not an easy task. He is, first and foremost, a Catholic, father of eight home-schooled children, and a man who makes JP2 look like John Calvin. Not for him the liberal orthodoxies of Vatican II. His views on the current pontiff are, to put it mildly, trenchant. To say all of that, however, is somehow misleading. If Holy Mother Church is Mike's great guiding principle, his great love (apart from Kathryn, to whom we shall return) is The Good Life. He is a wine expert of considerable renown, who has forgotten more than I have ever known about the grape, and who accuses me (perhaps rightly) of having a terrible palate, but, like me, he can also appreciate the value - in every sense - of a bottle of Malbec from Lidl. We both know how to cut our cloth.

Mike and I hit it off immediately. It is difficult to say why. I am agnostic (at best), childless and, when we first got to know each other well, at that stage going through a divorce. I suppose I am a student of the Catholic Church, and I enjoy military history, a subject dear to his heart (ask him, or don't, about Indo-China). I know why I liked him: apart from enjoying a few glasses, his was and is a brain which fizzes and whirrs. He is a devotee of Belloc and Chesterton, of David Jones and Jutland, of Rabelais and Aquinas. Lift the lid, and you will find something interesting happening. He even knows some salty stories about Eric Gill.

Anyway, we have been friends these past dozen years and can always fall into idle conversation about this and that (or that and this). I don't remember when I was first invited to Casa Hennessy in Reading, but it's a while ago. I was rather daunted. As I say, I don't much like children, and I knew that Mike had (at that point) seven (Gabriel has now been added to the flock). I'm not very good with younglings, and I also knew that Mike's were home-schooled, and I wondered if they'd be asocial freaks who had "spectrum" stamped on their foreheads.

As it happens, I needn't have worried about a thing. They were - and remain - the nicest and most balanced bunch of kids I've ever encountered. The older ones were polite, courteous and respectful; the younger ones were a bit daft and playful but so obviously kindly that I was taken aback. I didn't feel awkward, nor did they regard me strangely (as well they might). Stepping into their home was like dipping your toe into a bath at just the right temperature.

Mrs Hennessy. Kathryn is a fiercely bright woman who (I think I'm right in saying) read Russian at Oxford - she and Mike met at Oriel. She has shouldered the burden of the home-schooling, and the children are a tribute to both her and Mike. I discovered early on that she is from Hartlepool - I was born in Stockton, so not so far away - and I also found she had a love (not shared by Mike) for Prefab Sprout. So what's not to like? Seeing her again on Friday was a pleasure and a joy, as I hadn't seen her for, embarrassingly, probably a couple of years.

Friday night in the Hennessy household is pizza night. Many pizzas are required for parents plus eight children and hangers-on, and finding an appropriate film is not easy. Mike had bought One of our Dinosaurs is Missing from Amazon and we giggled our way through absurdity and comedy racism. (Peter Ustinov seems particularly fond of yellow-face impersonations: see Charlie Chan. Ah-so.)

There was plenty of wine, and after the film, as various children were dispatched to bed, we chatted and generally put the world to rights. Something which becomes easier with the latening of the hour.

What's my point here? I suppose it's this. Prima facie, I don't like children. But presented with such a lovely family, especially as I was feeling so low, it was a tonic of an evening. The warmth of human comfort is sometimes important.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Judgement day

Let’s make one thing clear from the outset. What happened at Grenfell Tower in the early hours of 14 June was a tragedy difficult to comprehend. We still don’t know what the final death toll will be, but we do know that dozens lost their lives and hundreds lost their homes and their possessions. These people and their families deserve unstinting sympathy and every ounce of support we can give them.

There was also much that was wrong about the immediate response to the disaster. The Prime Minister made a colossal public relations blunder in failing to meet residents who had lost their homes, all the more so given that Jeremy Corbyn had done so, even if she was quite right to meet and commend the emergency services who had struggled to deal with the blaze and its aftermath. Kensington and Chelsea Council also seemed flat-footed and cloth-eared in their initial response; the leader of the Council, Nicholas Paget-Brown, has now resigned, as has the chief executive, Nicholas Holgate.

The inferno which consumed the tower block raises a number of very serious questions. Were safety provisions adequate? Should sprinklers have been fitted? Did the Fire Brigade have the right equipment? Were warnings from residents’ groups ignored? Did the cladding on the outside of the building contribute to the severity of the fire? In essence, could the blaze have been prevented or at least mitigated, or was it simply a tragedy of the kind that occurs from time to time?

On this point, at least, the Government reacted quickly. It was only on the day after the fire, 15 June, that a full public inquiry was announced. Hardly a laggardly response. A fortnight later, the Government, acting on the advice of the Lord Chief Justice, it should be remembered, appointed Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a former Lord Justice of Appeal, to chair the public inquiry. Sir Martin is a distinguished jurist. He spent 11 years on the Court of Appeal, rising to be Vice-President of the Civil Division. He is a Cambridge graduate, and practised at the Bar for more than 25 years. It is hard to argue that he is not a qualified person to head an important and complex public inquiry.

Yet some people have made just that argument, on the most specious of grounds. David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, criticised Sir Martin for being a “white, upper-middle class man who I suspect has never, ever visited a tower block housing estate”. Mr Lammy went on to lament that a woman or someone from an ethnic minority had not been appointed. This is identity politics at its worst. Mr Lammy conceded – how generous! – that Sir Martin is “eminently legally qualified”, but for him, it would seem, that weighs much less heavily in the balance than the judge’s gender and colour.

Of course, Mr Lammy was at pains to point out that these criticisms were not on his own behalf, but on the part of the victims of the fire. “I think the victims will also say to themselves,” he mused, “when push comes to shove, there are some powerful people here – contractors, sub-contractors, local authorities, governments – and they look like this judge. Whose side will he be on?”

Just think about that for a moment. Here is a senior retired judge of decades of experience on the Bench, being dismissed by a member of the British Parliament as parti pris in chairing a public inquiry on the grounds of his race, gender and age. Can you imagine the outcry if another MP of a different political persuasion called for the removal of, say, a black judge, on the grounds that he would be biased in favour of the residents whose skin colour he shared? His or her career would be over as soon as you could say “Race Relations Act”. And rightly so.

Mr Lammy is not alone. The MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, went further. She did not merely, with a righteous sigh, regret the appointment of Sir Martin to head the inquiry. She has actively said he should stand down and be replaced by someone presumably more ‘appropriate’. She told the Today programme: “How anybody like that could have empathy for what those people have been through, I don’t understand.”

There you have it again. A long and distinguished legal career is dismissed with a wave of the hand as “anybody like that”. Am I the only one who actually feels a shiver of disgust at that? Three words which come so redolent with assumptions, about the subject and about the speaker. A retired judge cannot possibly be empathetic with poor and disadvantaged people, but of course Miss Dent Coad is so virtuous that she understands the victims. If that is not a gross assumption of privilege, I don’t know what is.

Opponents of Sir Martin’s appointment have concentrated particularly on a judgement he gave in the Court of Appeal in November 2014. He and his two fellow Lord Justices ruled that Westminster City Council, offering housing to a woman who had been evicted that was 50 miles away in Bletchley, did not have to explain in detail what accommodation was available in the local area but could take into account a broad range of factors. Inevitably, the cries of outrage went up. The appellant’s solicitor said that the decision gave “the green light for social cleansing of the poor on a mass scale”.

(A brief pause: I find the phrase “social cleansing” particularly appalling. It is, of course, adapted from that rather unpleasant euphemism, ethnic cleansing, which makes me think of the former Yugoslavia. How horrible to use the language of mass murder, of genocide, to describe people being offered public housing in an area other than the one in which they previously lived. But I digress.)

Now, it is true that the 2014 judgement issued by Sir Martin and his colleagues was overturned. In April 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that Westminster City Council had not discharged its statutory obligations to the appellant or her children, and should have explained why it had not offered them accommodation in or close to Westminster. A few things to unpack from that. Yes, the judgement was overturned, and so it could be regarded as in some senses ‘wrong’. But the Supreme Court did not rule that Westminster City Council was wrong to rehouse the family in Bletchley. It ruled that the procedure had not been adequately followed, a rather different matter. Besides, the appeals process in UK courts are to some extent a conversation, a discourse over knotty points of law on which fine judgements must be made. Does this to-do make Sir Martin Moore-Bick unsuitable to lead the Grenfell Tower inquiry? Of course it doesn’t.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m picking on Mr Lammy or Miss Dent Coad for their empty-headed gesture politics. Some have gone even further with more emotive and unpleasant language. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and MP for the west London constituency of Hayes and Harlington, told the cheering crowd at Glastonbury that those who perished in the Grenfell Tower fire were “murdered by political decisions”. Murdered. Now, I am not a member of the criminal Bar or a lawyer of any kind, but I’m pretty sure that murder requires intent. So what Mr McDonnell is saying is that politicians – presumably the hated Tories – took decisions with the specific intent of killing people like the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower. Not a sin of omission, which would be bad enough, but in his view a specific sin of commission. Mr McDonnell is not a stupid man; he knows what effect the words of politicians have, and what effect his own words have, and yet he said that. I don’t know about you, but that leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

What is most wrong with this furore over Sir Martin’s appointment boils down to something else Miss Dent Coad said. “We need someone who can understand human beings and what they’ve been through.” For her, that’s the alpha and omega of the public inquiry. Someone who can emote. Someone who can feel the pain of others. Never mind a background in law, let alone commercial law which will be a vital part of the inquiry process; never mind a long career of sifting and analysing evidence then delivering a calm, measured and dispassionate verdict based on that evidence. None of that matters to her. Presumably she just wanted to see Sir Martin shed a tear.

The inquiry into the dreadful Grenfell Tower fire is a vitally important job. It will need skill, intelligence and experience. It is too important to be left to a group of politically-motivated virtue-signallers. The victims of the tragedy deserve better. They should put their faith in Sir Martin Moore-Bick and wish him Godspeed.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Manchester

I have been to the Manchester Arena. The internet tells me it was 8 August 1996, and I was there to see one of the last dates on the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour. In those day, it was called the NYNEX Arena, in deference to a now-defunct sponsor. The occasion came up in conversation only a few days ago, but I couldn’t have dreamed that the venue would impinge so violently on my consciousness as it did last night and this morning.

In a sense, we should not be surprised by the vicious bomb attack on an audience so heavily comprising young children. The police and the security services have been warning us for a long time that such an attack on a mass event was likely, and, if the events across continental Europe had not reminded us of the danger, then Khalid Masood’s murderous rampage in Westminster in March should have done. I worked in the House of Commons for 11 years, and in all that time I don’t think the threat level ever dropped below “severe” (at one point, it was rather opaquely described as “black special”).

So shock, but not surprise, should be the order of the day. Manchester, of course, is no stranger to terrorist outrages; it was bombed by the IRA in 1973, 1975 and 1992, and then again, famously, in June 1996, when a 3,300 lb truck bomb was detonated on Corporation Street. They were still clearing up the mess when I went to the Arena a few weeks later. The 1996 bomb, however, caused no fatalities, while, at the time of writing, 22 people are confirmed dead from yesterday’s attack.

For all that, the enormity (in the true sense of the word) of the event does make you stop for a moment. In part, we are almost too well served by the security services. They have foiled so many terrorist plots since the London bombings of 2005, yet cannot fully publicise the fact, that we are lulled into a false sense of security, no matter how loudly and how often we are warned that it is not a matter of if, but when. And this will happen again, of that I have no doubt. More people will die, but many more will be saved by intelligence and policing work. The question is, therefore, how we respond.

I mean two things by that. On the one hand, there is the matter of how we respond on a practical, security level. Clearly, searches will be intensified, at least for a while, at large events like concerts and sporting fixtures. But much of that is now already routine. I was searched before gaining entry to the Oval for the only professional cricket match I have ever attended, and a more unlikely terrorist and unlikely venue you would be hard-pushed to find. For the time being, though, the searches will be more thorough, the queues a little longer, the waiting slightly more tedious. Very well. I am wary of national stereotypes, but some hold true, and we are, I would like to think, a stoical people (though from time to time we lose the plot – see the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, for a prime example), and in the main we will stand in line with good humour, occasional exasperation but understanding of why it is all necessary.

Then what? How will the security services respond to this latest attack? Much depends on the attacker (whose identity they think they already know, which is very fast work). Was he a lone wolf, or part of a cell? Did he build the bomb himself, or was he supplied with it from elsewhere? Is there a network to be discovered and rooted out? This article, by the BBC’s Dominic Casciani, is worth a read in this respect (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-40012208). It may be that politicians, once campaigning gets underway again after today’s suspension, will call for broader and more sweeping powers, particularly in the field of surveillance. It is, in one sense, lucky that Parliament is currently dissolved, so there can be no knee-jerk rush to legislate. We have a few weeks to consider our response.

Most interesting, though, at least for me, is how we respond intellectually and emotionally. The question presents itself obviously: how could a person, a human being like you and me, do such a thing? To detonate a bomb in the certain knowledge that young people, children in their early teens or younger, would be killed, maimed and injured? What sort of person must it be, to do that?

Certainly, it must be someone filled with hate, and with a contempt for (some) human life. If, as seems likely, it was an Islamic extremist, then he – or, conceivably she, but it is improbable – represents a movement, an ideology, with which we are locked in an existential struggle. I mentioned earlier the IRA. They were undoubtedly terrorists, evil and brutal killers, but they had a limited and comprehensible goal: to force Northern Ireland into a united state with the Republic. Islamic extremism is different. It wants to destroy the Western, democratic way of life, and establish a worldwide caliphate with all-embracing sharia law. Make no mistake about this. We would not be safe from these murderers if only we had not participated in military action in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria. We are an obstacle for them, “crusaders” who must be defeated in order to create their Islamist utopia. So they are materially different from the IRA, or from ETA, or even from those hard-left groups from the 1970s like the Red Brigade or the Baader-Meinhof Gang. They cannot be negotiated with nor accommodated in any way. There can be no dialogue with those who wish to obliterate your values.

Again, presuming that the killer was acting out of Islamist fury, there will inevitably be more debate about the extent to which he is representative of Islam, of the Qur’an, of mainstream Muslim opinion both in the UK and worldwide. One side will say that Islam is a religion of peace, that Islamism (or whatever term you choose to employ) is a perversion of the faith, and Muslims will queue up to condemn the bombing. The other side will say that Islamist terrorists use the tenets of Islam to justify their actions, that large sections of the Muslim community hold values which are inimical to our own, and that this struggle of West vs East must be treated as such. I am as yet undecided.

All in all, a rather depressing day, then. There will be others. How best can I respond, can the ordinary man or woman in the street, whether in Manchester or elsewhere, respond? Go about our daily business. Take That are scheduled to play the Manchester Arena later this week. If it’s at all possible, I hope the concert goes ahead. To persist is the most eloquent response we can give to these monsters who hate all we stand for. These losers, as President Trump called them, will hurt us. They will injure us almost beyond endurance. But we will survive and thrive, and they cannot, will not, win. Good luck, Manchester.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Respect without love

Once again, dear readers, I find myself at loss for a word. (Billy Connolly: “I know at least... oh my God, at least 127 words. And I still prefer ‘Fuck’.”) Once again, too, I suspect our German cousins have some coinage for what I’m trying to express. Anyway, what I’m talking about is things which I believe to be good, virtuous, almost, worthy of respect and study, but which I do not myself like. Two things in particular fall into this category for me.

The first is baseball. Now, I grant you, this does not impinge on me or my life very much. Certainly not to the extent which football (which I loathe) does. It is true that my father, stepmother and brother are avid fans and passionate members of the Red Sox Nation, but they are polite enough not to inflict very much of that passion on me.

Why do I say baseball is good and worthy of respect? Partly it’s the historian in me. Baseball fans take their sport very seriously, and obsess over its minutiae and its statistics. They will tell you earnestly about the “stolen” World Series of 1919, and that’s before we even get on to the Curse of the Babe. Now, this does not especially interest me, but I doff my cap in its direction. I like that people bow at the altar of the past and, in their own way, strive to accumulate knowledge the better to understand the sport they love. I am much the same about motor racing, so I can read across to stick-and-ball, and I respect baseball fans for that.

I have, I should say, been to one single and solitary ball game in my life. Back in the early 2000s, on one of my first trips to Boston, I was persuaded to go to Fenway Park to watch the Sox play the Toronto Blue Jays. As a life experience, I rather enjoyed it: the roar of the home crowd, the relatively tight confines of the ball park, the beer, the dogs. I was one of very few who – purely in the interests of impartiality – sang the words to both national anthems. (I think O Canada is marginally better.) So I was glad I went. However, I have declined subsequent invitations, even when the rest of the family are going. They go to Fenway, and I sit in the bar with a book. It suits everyone.

The second object of my – well, ‘affection’ is the wrong word; shall we say ‘admiration’? – is the blues. When I was at school, my friend Jon Burley was a huge fan of blues music, and I used to spectate as he pored over the CDs in the library. And, because I am by nature curious, I listened to a few myself, to see what all the fuss was about.

Like baseball, blues is big on history. Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads, the birth of the genre in the Mississippi Delta, the sharecropper origins of its first exponents. All of that I find quite interesting, and, as with baseball, I admire the fact that people are interested in it. I wrote last week of my hatred for intellectual incuriosity, so it is only right that I salute those who want to know where the music they love comes from. I am much the same with country music (I am currently watching “Country at the BBC”): the roots of the genre are fascinating, and I have just drunk in a documentary about the Carter Family and the Appalachian origins of what we know as country music today.

There’s only one problem. I don’t much like the blues. I know it’s tremendously influential, and I’m sure there’s quite a lot of music I adore which couldn’t have existed without BB King or Lead Belly. Fleetwood Mac came out of the British blues explosion of the 1960s, for example, as did Led Zeppelin, and that’s before we even consider Clapton. But it simply doesn’t speak to me. It’s not that I think it’s bad music. There is a lot of bad music around, and I don’t think the best of the blues falls into that category (though I’m sure there is bad blues).

Unlike baseball, I’ve never been to a live blues concert. Maybe I should. I love live music, even if it’s not my usual genre, and perhaps that would convert me. Somehow, though, I suspect not. I’d probably enjoy it more than I would expect, but I don’t think it would be Damascene.

What does all of this say about me? (Because blogs, dear readers, are nothing if not self-referential.) I suppose – and this goes back to my earlier entry about lack of curiosity – I like people who are enthused by things, even if they are things I do not like. (This does not apply to football, a boorish, thuggish pastime which brings out the worst in people.) More than that, I like people who appreciate the history of their enthusiasms. The past makes the present what it is. To use the example of my own obsession, if you’re a Formula 1 fan but don’t know about Fangio and Clark and Fittipaldi and Prost and Senna, you’re missing the point, and missing out on so much. One of the reasons I warm to Sebastian Vettel is that he understands the past, values what has gone before.

So I have taken you from baseball to motor racing. Which is perhaps as it should be. Johnny Cash is now on the TV (the Carter Family – everything is circular) so I will leave you be.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The death of a monster

So, news came through late last night that Ian Brady, surely Britain’s most notorious living serial killer, had died, after a long illness. I suspect the news bulletins had been waiting for this for some time, as their coverage was quite polished and honed. He was, after all, 79 years old, and his health had been poor for some time. So ends our link to the grainy, black-and-white crimes committed on Saddleworth Moor.

How is one to react? Alan Bennett, the brother of poor little Keith Bennett whose remains were never found and, I imagine, now never will be, said he felt no sense of celebration at Brady’s death. I’m afraid I did. In the annals of British crime, Brady stands out as the blackest of souls, and the world is a better place without him in it. But I defer to those who were directly affected by his and Myra Hindley’s crimes.

Years ago, when I was working on the Health Committee in the House of Commons, one of my jobs was dealing with correspondence to the Chairman (they were still “Chairmen” then, not the modish “Chairs” we have now). One such piece of correspondence came from Ashworth Hospital, and was written by the hand of the monster himself. I confess even handling it made me illogically but superstitiously uncomfortable. I did, however, take a certain pleasure in drafting the most curt and dismissive of responses, telling Brady that the Committee did not investigate individual cases, and – I paraphrase – he would get no joy from us.

Brady, of course, wished himself dead. He said repeatedly that he wished he had been hanged when he was convicted in 1966, but the UK had abolished the death penalty the year before. He tried to go on hunger strike, but, because he was in a hospital rather than a prison, he was able to be force-fed to keep him alive. Latterly, he tried desperately to prove he was sane, surely the most hopeless of lost causes, so that he would be returned to prison and he could end his life before disease and old age got to him.

This raised, for me, a dilemma. He was a murderer, an evil, sadistic killer whom I wished dead. One of the policemen who heard the tape recording of Brady and Hindley torturing Lesley-Ann Downey said afterwards that he would have killed them both with his bare hands if he had the opportunity. As they tortured the 10-year-old, she begged for her mother. There are no fires hot enough in Hell for the people who perpetrated that. So he is dead, now, and Hindley years before him. Good. The world just got lighter.

And yet… and yet death was the one thing Brady wanted. There is a part of me, therefore, that thinks that it is the one thing which should have been denied to him. Continued existence, if it was so painful, should have been his fate. The author Colin Wilson has written that Brady never came to terms with his crimes because he was afraid to do so; asked if he ever considered the feelings of his victims, Brady replied “That would be a psychological suicide pill”. If that, for him, was torment, he should have been made to suffer it.

It is all a very long time ago now, of course, more than 50 years. I hope, for the families of the victims, that Brady’s death will provide some sort of closure. My heart breaks every time I think of Winnie Johnson, Keith Bennett’s mother, who died without ever being able to bury her son. For the survivors, surely a chapter has closed. The beast is dead, and they can, perhaps, move on.

My other thought is a more philosophically (and medically) difficult one, and one which I am not really qualified to answer, though I can muse on it: where does the line between bad and mad lie? Brady was only declared insane in 1985, more than 20 years after his killing spree. How can we accept that a mind which did what he did is sane? And, of course, it matters: sane people go to prison, insane people to hospital. This was the cause with which Brady was grappling towards the end of his life. It’s something that interests me, as my father used to be a Mental Health Act Commissioner and has seen some of the worst that Britain has to offer. I suppose, crudely, that we assume mad can be treated whereas bad cannot, but even then it’s not that simple. Some mental illnesses are so severe that they are not susceptible to treatment.

In the end, perhaps it’s a matter of semantics. What it represents, I suppose, is society’s attempts to come to terms with evil which it cannot comprehend within normal frames of reference. Psychiatrists and psychologists will never go out of business, because, while the human spirit can astonish with its generosity and love, it can also shock and appal with its depravity. In any event, Brady is gone now. I hope his victims are at peace, and that he is not.