Saturday 14 April 2018

Dreaming spires

There was an interesting article in today's Times magazine by Sathnam Sanghera about access to Oxbridge. Sanghera, the child of immigrant parents and a state school boy from Wolverhampton, went to Cambridge, and has written an excoriating portrait of the barriers to entry for students from poorer, less privileged backgrounds. Oxford and Cambridge have, he avers, a long way to go, and he points to the much greater diversity achieved by Ivy League institutions in the States.

First, a mea culpa. I attended Oxford for a year, before a precipitate academic downfall, and I progressed there from a public school which knew how to prepare its pupils for the application process. So far, so white privilege. Consider it 'checked'. I know I enjoyed advantages that others did not; while very far from a scion of the aristocracy, I had university-educated parents who paid for me to get a good schooling and therefore be admitted, not only to Oxford, but to Christ Church, the grandest of grand colleges. So let's get that out there.

There will be people who will argue that all of the above doesn't just qualify my response to Sanghera's article but actively disbars me from any comment. How can I possibly know what it's like for an underprivileged child, maybe caring for a sick lone parent while desperately trying to study for A-levels, to look at the forbidding obstacles even to any university, let alone Oxbridge? The answer is twofold: first, I can't know what it's like. I can't know anything outside my own direct experience. But I flatter myself I am intelligent enough that I can imagine. And it must be bloody hard.

So, yes, the poor and the underprivileged have the deck stacked against them. That's true of every walk of life. In the great lottery of existence, there are winners and - I don't mean this in a derogatory fashion - losers. Some will drown under the obstacles put in their way, a lucky and talented few will flourish and prosper despite their disadvantages. Whatever your opinion of grammar schools (and I have my own), they did for a while provide an almost-miraculous ladder of academic success to people who would otherwise have been left floundering. Alan Bennett springs immediately to mind.

I hope all of the above is relatively uncontroversial. What sent my teeth slightly on edge, though, was Sanghera's willingness to pile the responsibility on Oxbridge itself. Are our two greatest and oldest universities diverse enough, in terms of race, social class and school background? No. Of course not. He includes a piece by a black student at Lady Margaret Hall, who reported that she was only one of 35 black people in her year of 3,000 entrants, and one of only three at LMH. That, clearly, indicates a problem. And I have no doubt that the stats for other measures of diversity are not much better.

When I went up to Oxford nearly 25 years ago, I was the (I think) penultimate year which could opt to take an entrance exam plus interview rather than rely on A-level results, which I did (thank God!). The masters at my (day) school drilled us pretty mercilessly, and were themselves largely the products of Oxbridge, and, I imagine (though I don't know), public schools. Elites breed elites. They are self-perpetuating. At our school, the Second Master (deputy head, basically) coached each Oxbridge applicant through the process, and the Headmaster read everyone's UCCA personal statement and discussed it with them. That with an upper sixth of 150-odd pupils. So we had a hand on the small of our backs, pushing us towards the finishing line.

What's my beef? Oxbridge can only do so much. Even Sanghera admits that Cambridge spends five million pounds a year on access programmes and that Oxford expects to spend seven million on outreach in the next financial year. They are not blind to the problem. Sanghera thinks the interview process should be dropped and admissions run centrally rather than by colleges. I think I disagree. Oxford and Cambridge are two of the best universities in the world, and should be looking for the most extraordinary minds (they were wrong about thinking mine was one of them). His LMH interviewee relates a story about a tutor showing her a coin and asking what one could infer about society by looking at it. That, it seems to me, is exactly the sort of lateral, inquisitive, almost outside-the-box thinking they should be looking for.

I also don't hold with the comparison with the Ivy League. Yes, Oxford and Cambridge colleges are wealthy - I remember reading somewhere that it used to be possible to walk from Trinity College, Cambridge, to London without ever leaving college land - but the big American universities dwarf them in terms of endowments. Harvard, to take an example, has billions to spend on means-blind applications and affirmative action, and there is a wholly different culture of lifelong giving to your alma mater in the US. By their own standards, Oxford and Cambridge are devoting substantial resources to outreach and access.

A final gripe, if it's not too tiresome. Sanghera characterises - I would say stereotypes - the clannish nature of Oxford colleges. You're supposed to act in a certain way, come from a certain background, speak in a certain way. He talks about "bops", and "ents", and "plodges". Well, in my year at Christ Church I never heard anyone use the word "plodge", and "bops" and "ents" were common currency at St Andrews, where I ended up (OK, OK, not the best advert for student diversity, but still).

The point is that there is an extent to which institutions are what you make them in your head. If you see them as shuttered and forbidding and clannish, then that's what they'll be. If you see them as vibrant centres of learning with an intellectual culture that seems to make the very air hum, then they can be that too.

I'm not saying Oxbridge is faultless. It has work to do, but it is doing at least some of it. Progress is being made. And change needs to come from other places too; from our school system, from parents, from communities. That there is a problem is not in doubt, nor do I think even the crustiest old don would deny it. (I am reminded of Enoch Powell, the most brilliant scholar of his generation at school at Birmingham, writing out a list of the Greek texts he had read and being told by his tutor, "This is a rather thin list for a Trinity man".) But simply to heap opprobrium on the heads of Oxford and Cambridge won't do.

I could say a lot more, but I think I've said enough, for the moment. We must all work harder to make sure that these two jewels of British academia, and, indeed, world academia, attract the very best and brightest brains it possibly can. But the shoulders on which that responsibility must fall need to be broad.

Friday 13 April 2018

Howdy, neighbour

Well. Last night was quite an event. I watched the penultimate episode of MasterChef, and, for all the frustrations (documented elsewhere), felt a bit hungry, having had a late lunch but no dinner. So, weak as I am, I ordered a Chinese takeaway (Szechuan hot and sour soup, and duck chow mein, if you're interested). Now, the building in which I live is currently undergoing what seems like interminable restoration, so I've schooled myself to go and collect takeaways from the delivery people at the front door rather than buzz them up and expect them to find me, especially as I live in Flat 2/L but it's on the first floor.

It arrived early than billed, as these things tend to, as I was halfway through a Bettany Hughes (swoon) documentary on the cult of Bacchus. Still, I paused the iPlayer and grabbed my keys, then set off for the lift. Big mistake. The keys I grabbed were those to my mother's house in Sunderland (where I'd been till Wednesday), and emphatically not the keys to my flat. As is always the way with these things, I realised with a cold sense of dread in the pit of my stomach as soon as the door swung shut and locked. And, as is also always the way with these things, I had no phone with me, no shoes on, no wallet. Merely the clothes I stood up in, and THE WRONG DAMNED KEYS.

There was a period of lighting up the sky with obscenities as I made my way to the front door to collect my takeaway. OK, I thought, do that, then think, think, think. So my little plastic-shrouded parcel was handed over and I trudged back up to my firmly-shut door. My first thought was that I should shoulder-barge it down and worry about it in the morning. A couple of runs at it and a large purple bruise on my shoulder today indicates this was not the way to go.

Right. So. I'd borrow a neighbour's phone and ring the 24-hour maintenance line. The two nearest neighbours - I rarely see other people in my building and I don't know any of them - yielded no answer. Either out or in bed. By now it was around 10.30 pm. Number three (that is, the third I tried, not literally Number Three) produced a tremulous female voice saying "Yes? Who is it?" I apologised for disturbing her at this hour and explained my predicament, and asked if there was a phone I could borrow to contact the property management company.

"No, sorry, there isn't," came the response.

I won't pretend that this flummoxed me slightly. I don't think I sound like a rapist or a murderer, and she might at least have opened the door, even if on the chain (I have one on my door, I assume she does on hers). But no, it was clear that there was nothing doing.

Maybe it's the anonymity of a big building; I live in a converted old school with (maybe?) 40 flats, so there is little sense of community compared to the terraces and semis I've been used to which had three or four flats at most. Still, it struck me, nursing a sore shoulder and a cooling Chinese takeaway, as uncharitable.

Onwards and (literally) upwards. I climbed a half-flight of stairs to the next flat I could find, knocked in my most non-rapist way on the door, and it was opened by a Middle Eastern man about my age, maybe younger. I once again explained my plight, asked him if I could borrow a phone just for a minute to try to get me back into my flat. (At this point I was beginning to imagine sleeping curled up on my doormat.)

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure," he replied, handing over his iPhone and accompanying me down to the notice board where the details of the property management company were pinned. I apologised and thanked him in equally profuse measure, but he swatted it away, and said he dreaded something like this happening to him. I think his name was Yusuf, but he mumbled a bit, and I was distracted.

So far, so good. There's a weird set-up in my building; the flat I rent was let by a local estate agent, but is run, to all intents and purposes, by a separate property company, who, in turn, sub-contract maintenance to another firm. Anyway, I rang the 24-hour helpline and once again recited my tale of woe.

"Oh no," the woman on the other end averred, "you'll need to sort out your own locksmith. We don't deal with that."

I fumed inwardly for a moment, while Yusuf nodded sympathetically and said "That's a bit shit."

Back to his iPhone, and a Google search for "locksmiths in your area". By now it was 11.00 pm. Fortunately, I found one which was still open, explained (again!) the situation, and texted my address. I was told that someone would be with me within the hour. Not great, as I'd hoped for an early night after Bettany Hughes and Chinese food, but not the end of the world. Of course, there was the complicating factor of how they would contact me on arrival, as I wasn't in my flat (so no buzzer), and the phone I was using was someone else's, so no number to ring. Well, I moved down to the lobby and perched by the front door so I would see any obvious tradesmen wanting to get in. I thanked Yusuf again, and he asked if I wanted a glass of water or anything. I declined politely - I had my Szechuan soup after all - but could have kissed him (not that I think he would have welcomed that).

As it happens, I hadn't checked my pigeon hole, and there were two Henry Jackson Society reports lurking in there, so I leafed through them and waited for my second saviour of the night. Now, I'm fatalistic in some ways; I tend to think that "within the hour" means "in 59 minutes". It ended up closer to 40, and I let the locksmith in with barely-concealed glee. He was a very cheery bloke, especially for someone who, as he told me, had been on call since 5.00 am, and he lugged his tool set up in the lift to assess the situation.

I had my fears. That he'd need to drill the lock out and replace it, or somehow do another sort of damage. Reader, I needn't have fretted. He produced from his case a sort of extendable arm with a claw on the end, which he was able to feed through the letter-box and catch the latch of the lock. I was back within two minutes. I could have cried with relief. It being late, he wanted cash payment - fair enough - and I explained that there was a cash machine at the end of the road, so if he gave me five minutes I'd go and get the readies and come back.

"Nah, mate, it's OK, I'll run you there."

That struck me as charitable, if also self-interested, but I accepted with alacrity. Funds withdrawn, and handed over, I made to bid him a good night and to thank him warmly.

"Hop in, I'll run you back."

Now that was above and beyond. He must have been dog-tired, but those tiny kindnesses transformed my evening. It left me thinking about how different our interactions with other human beings can be, depending on how we approach them. Neighbours, contractors, clients. The littlest things can mean the most.

Also, polystyrene. When I finally shut the door behind me (from the inside!), my Szechuan soup was still warm.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Due process

I begin this with caution and trepidation. I am a white, middle-class, middle-aged male, and I am going to write about rape and sexual assault. There will be people who will regard me as automatically disqualified to commentate on such subjects, because of my status; that it will be 'mansplaining' (how I hate that word), that I don't know what it's like. It is true that, in my 40 years, I have never been subject to any kind of unwanted sexual advances. (If I were being frivolous, I would say I'v been subject to precious few wanted advances, but I won't say that. Whoops. Oh.)

I was prompted to think about this after the acquittal of Ulster rugby players Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson on charges of rape. A jury found them not guilty of non-consensual sexual intercourse. Olding's barrister, Frank O'Donoghue QC, summarised the case by saying "Perhaps a matter of regret now to all parties but such is life."

It got me thinking. Now, let me say right at the outset that OF COURSE rape is a despicable crime and there should be no tolerance for it or its outliers in a decent society, as the post-Harvey Weinstein world is proving. A man who forces himself on a woman is no man at all, and likewise the much rarer, but real, occasions of women who force themselves on men. Sexual violence is abhorrent to me, though I think it is important to remember that it's not really about sex, it's about power and control.

But. Yes, I'm afraid there has to be a but. Why is it that we have elevated this crime, among all the enormities that people commit against each other, to an almost-religious level? If a woman cries rape, she is assumed to be telling the truth, which flies in the face of one of our most prized principles of justice, the presumption of innocence. Now, I confess that it would take a very poorly mind - or an avaricious one - to make a false allegation of rape. But there is an insidious public belief which stems from this, that a man who is acquitted of rape has "got away with it". And that has to be wrong.

I was interested to read yesterday that Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and Britain's most senior police officer, has now said that her force should no longer automatically believe people who come forward with allegations of rape or sexual assault, and that they should be dispassionate investigators into alleged crimes. That must, surely, be right. A claim is made, the police investigate - under the presumption of innocence - and a decision is made on whether to charge or not, based on the evidence. If you boil it down, nothing else makes sense.

The insidious belief that the acquitted "got away with it" is very real. Nigel Evans MP, whom I know a bit, was accused of sexual assault a few years ago, and it cost him his job as a Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. I will say now that when I first heard the allegations, I thought them deeply unlikely. A clumsy lunge which was rebuffed, perhaps. But that's life, as Mr O'Donoghue QC said. But physical, sexual assault? No way. Thankfully, and I say this because I like Nigel, the jury agreed. Not guilty. He didn't "get away with it", he was NOT GUILTY. Nigel has spent a great deal of his time subsequently campaigning for anonymity for those accused of rape or sexual assault. I know he went through the wringer and is passionate that others falsely accused should not do so.

It seems to me that anonymity is no bad thing, given that we continue to afford rape this special status whereby the victims are prima facie believed. Because the stigma will linger on the accused. One need look no further than the seemingly never-ending historical child abuse inquiry. The lazy reader probably thinks that Cliff Richard or Sir Edward Heath was likely a paedophile, simply without the evidence to convict. Mud, unfortunately, sticks.

I come back to the original question. Why do we privilege this crime over all others? It is a terrible offence, of course (it depresses me that I have to keep saying that). But there is some magic dust sprinkled over it, which virtually has the judge's gavel banging as soon as the accusation is made. We need to change this.

One final thought. The #MeToo campaign is noble and virtuous in its inspiration, but, taken to extremes, it risks weaponising the relationships between men and women. I have had relationships with junior colleagues at work. That they happened indicated they were welcomed, but, had initial advances been rebuffed, was I guilty of something? If I ask a pretty girl in a bar if she'd like a drink, am I a sexual predator? Those who know me would say obviously not. But that is where we are headed. We need to sit down and have a long, hard think about relations between the sexes. Clearly, there are disgusting excuses for human beings like Weinstein who prey on the less powerful and use their influence. No-one is excusing that. But there is a baby-and-bathwater danger.

Here endeth the lesson.

Saturday 24 March 2018

The single life

To misquote the great bluegrass singer Ricky Skaggs, the single life is the life I lead. And has been for nearly three years. At my age - in my fifth decade - it is something I think about a lot. It is not a pose I have chosen. But here we are.

One thing you notice is that most of your friends are paired up. One wants the best for them of, of course, but it's difficult not to feel envy and, at times, resentment. It's so easy for A and B to be having dinner with X and Y. Pairs pair up so easily. Four, or six, are good numbers for an evening out. Throw in the complication of Z, however, and it's all that much more awkward.

There is a line, which I can't remember verbatim, from Len Deighton's wonderful Bernard Samson triple trilogy, in which Bernard, abandoned (as he thinks) by his wife, is a single man, and rues the idea, much bruited, that an "extra man" is such a useful thing for dinner parties, but finds that not to be true. He is right. You don't get invited to things to make up the numbers, you really don't. It's a fallacy, at least in my experience.

Maybe, as my best friend Pete tells me, its a factor of age. People retreat into themselves, have families and domestic priorities. Maybe that's true. But I think there's something else. It's as if the ageing singleton has some contagion which must be avoided. People don't want you looming over their happiness, as if you might taint it, somehow. You are a brooding presence, no matter how chipper and cheerful you try to come across.

Yet I can't be alone, surely. I'm 40. I don't socialise easily but with my friends I am, I hope, good company. Not naturally gregarious, but, in comfortable company, chatty and cheery. I'm not seeking partnership - I think I may be too damaged by experience for that now - but companionship, yes, I seek that out at every turn, whenever I can. Man is a social animal, as whoever-it-was said. (Aristotle, the internet tells me.) But the effort seems to fall always on the singleton. How often have I approached paired-up friends to see if they're free, only to be told, oh no, sorry, we're seeing <insert other pairing>? All too often.

Weddings are a nightmare, of course, though I'm at an age now when they're becoming rarer. (Maybe I'll have a wave of second marriages.) These days it's christenings (occasionally) or birthday parties. Whatever the event, though, turning up solo is, for someone shy like me, an absolutely nightmare. What if no-one will talk to me? Will I be left in a corner drinking tepid wine and watching other people have fun? I've been to functions like that.

This is not meant as a moan, or a cri de coeur, merely an observation, which might strike a chord with others in my situation. I can't be the only one. Maybe it's partly my own fault for being so insular, so diffident, so awkward. If I were a different person - outgoing, gregarious, self-confident - I would see opportunities rather than hurdles, perhaps. A room full of people I didn't yet know. But of course you need to be invited, and that's my beef, if I may put it in that crass way. As a middle-aged single man, you just fade out of view and out of people's minds.

My ex tells me I should try a dating website. It's kindly-meant advice, but I couldn't even face it. The idea of meeting a total stranger and establishing some spark with her is anathema to me. And, as I say, I am shop-soiled. I don't even know if I want to be part of a pair any more. There are times when I can, genuinely, relish my solitude, and the peace that comes with it, though many more when I curse it. Yearning for the past. For how things were. Turning the clock back.

Which, of course, you can never do. I must adjust to The New Reality. It would just be nice is someone asked me out for a drink. And on that maudlin, passive-aggressive note, I will end.

Monday 12 March 2018


There was an interesting article in last Saturday's Times, by Clare Foges, an author and former Downing Street speechwriter, about faith schools and homeschooling. Her thesis - and I probably do her a disservice with this prĂ©cis - is that faith schools promote division and 'other-ness' at a time when we should be prioritising inclusion and coherence.

I didn't go to a faith school, as such. Admittedly, when my school was founded in 1525, faith was taken as read, and when I was there, we had a religious assembly every day, just as we had done at prep school. I suppose if I had been virulently anti-Christian, they would have excused me, but I am at heart a conformist, so I went along with it. But in those days, our most illustrious old boy was the Jewish Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, so there was no whiff of the evangelical.

Anyway, the article set me thinking. I am, perhaps, more acutely attuned to the advantages or disadvantages of faith schools, as my parents are Glaswegian - my mother, as a child, was forbidden from playing with some of the other girls on the strength of the colour of their blazers - and my ex was from Northern Ireland, though she'd been at a cross-denominational school. It means, I suppose, that I know the territory. My prep school was not openly faith-based, but the headmaster was a firm Christian, and we sang hymns every morning; Friday was quirky because it was 'request day' - we could call out numbers from the hymnal and the music teacher would bang them out, somewhat inexpertly, on the piano.

The question is, therefore, are they a good thing or not? The results suggest they are. As far as I am aware, all the research indicates that faith schools produce better examination results than comparable non-denominational state schools. Certainly, in the North East, where I grew up, the highest-performing non-independent schools topped the league tables, and even some of the private schools were church-orientated. Why should that be? Is it because the attract the best and brightest teachers, pay better wages, have a better curriculum? Or is it because they can be selective about the pupils they select? I tend towards the latter view, though I think one can fuel the others.

But all of it brings you - or me, anyway - to a wider question. What are schools for? Are they merely exam factories, designed to crank out the best possible results from their consumers? Or is there a wider societal function, to prepare young people to be members of the kind of society want to have? Foges pretty clearly thinks the latter, and thinks that faith schools are an impediment to it.

I'm in two minds. I know that faith schools can sow division. When they were growing up in 1950s suburban Glasgow, my parents had virtually no Catholic friends. The power of the Orange Order was still strong, and sectarianism was rife. When I was growing up in 1980s Sunderland, I had no idea of - nor interest in - the confessional background of my friends. You could tell Sikhs, of course, by the turbans, but I vividly recall my oldest friend telling me he'd been confirmed a few years earlier, and I asked "As what?", knowing his mother was French and therefore probably Catholic. A look of doubt crept over his face and he said "I'm not really sure".

And yet, I'm a great believer in freedom. If parents want their children to be raised and educated in a specific confessional atmosphere, then so be it. If that leads to greater academic success and performance, more power to their elbow. I cannot see that it is the business of the state to say that children will not be taught in a religious context. (I have always found it deeply ironic that the United States, which enshrined separation of church and state in its constitution, has one of the most faith-based polities in the world.)

So I am conflicted. I see the dangers of children only associating within their own community. But I can't tell parents they should not do so. It's a little like single-sex schools (both of my schools were boys-only). The evidence suggests, as far as I know, that  girls flourish in a girls-only environment. However, you can't have girls-only schools without also having boys-only institutions. What did it do for me? In academic terms, it was probably the right thing - there was no embarrassment or, God forgive, flirting in classes. But it left me wary of girls until I went to university, and probably to this day, at the age of 40.

I was lucky at sixth form. We were an all-boys school, but there was an all-girls school literally across the road. We co-operated on drama and music, and many of the braver boys (not me!) socialised with the girls. Some of the girls joined us for extra-curricular lessons; what was then called PSE, but I don't know what they call it now. So there was contact. We were separate but connected. And I think that was the ideal. If only faith schools could make similar arrangements.

I offer no conclusions. This is merely a spark for discussion. I know people who hold very firm views in both directions; I, though I can be very judgemental at times, find it harder to be definitive. Cohesion vs freedom. The good of society vs personal choice. I just don't know.

Saturday 3 March 2018


I turned 40 last autumn. It really doesn't bother me (that much), though I didn't get the same adrenaline rush as when I turned 30, and felt like I was  a grown-up. But that, and my father dying the next month, has made me think a lot recently about the ageing process.

I don't know why it should be, but when I read the papers - which I only really do at the weekends - I am always drawn to the column of birthdays. For some reason, I have a fascination for people's ages, whether it's to tut and say "They look a lot older than that", or to marvel that someone I thought had been dead for years is still plugging on. I felt the same when I heard that Billy Graham, that cheery old anti-semite and con artist, had been gathered unto his imaginary maker at the age of 99. I can't explain this fascination with the inexorable progress of time, but it exists, nonetheless.

I noticed it again today reading the Times magazine, which has an excellent interview with Sir Michael Caine, who will turn 85 later this year. How can that be? How can the star of Zulu, of Alfie, of The IPCRESS File, be not only a pensioner but considerably exceeding life expectancy? Money helps, of course, I suppose, and by all accounts he lives a pretty healthy lifestyle. Fair play to him: not my scene. Better to die in your cups than live on your rations, or something like that.

Anyway, whenever I saw a juicy titbit in the birth columns of the papers, I used to text my Dad. "Can you believe X is Y years old?" He would do the same. We'd also mark deaths in the same way: "RIP James Garner", or whoever it was, especially if they'd reached a ripe old age, or, conversely, had keeled over unexpectedly young.

I now wonder if that was a monstrous act of tactlessness. When my father was - eventually, after a lot of medical shortcomings - diagnosed with multiple myeloma, he knew it would kill him, short of stepping in front of the proverbial bus. My stepmother tells me he didn't want to know the details of how it would end, only whether it would be painful or squalid (answer: probably not). But here was a man in his mid- to late 60s, being confronted with the reality that he had a few years left, and, barring extraordinary luck, not more. No 85th birthday for him.

Should I have stopped with the texts? Were they painful reminders of the mortality which was closing in fast? If I'm honest, and this is shameful, it never crossed my mind. He didn't stop, either: the texts continued to flow. I like to think it was because he didn't like to make a fuss, to make a scene. He would creak and groan sometimes - one of the side effects of multiple myeloma is osteoporosis, and his back and leg gave him pain - but it was always a mutter, never a shout (at least not that I ever saw; I'm sure my stepmother saw much more pain than I did).

Maybe it even helped. I can't tell. We never talked about the end, and he never saw it coming as quickly as it did. Maybe I did the right thing in pursuing service as normal. I do hope I did.

Which brings me back, solipsistically, to myself. Forty years old. Realistically, that's beyond middle age. We're over the hump. The clock is ticking. In his last, heart-rending interview with Jeremy Paxman, when he was undergoing experimental treatment with minimal hope of success, the great Christopher Hitchens was asked if he was afraid of death. "No," he said, before qualifying that. He wasn't afraid of death: if you're as convinced an atheist as he was, how can you fear the state of simply not being? It would be absurd. What he feared, he said, was a grubby and sordid dying, a very different thing.

(He also, I think, feared a deathbed conversion to some form of theism, which is entirely understandable - think of Voltaire being asked to denounce the Devil and saying "This is no time to be making new enemies!" - but would have been anathema to his thinking, living self. Still, he was alive to the potential weakness, and explained it to Paxman.)

My father's death was the first I have ever witnessed, and I suppose it won't be the last, if I am spared. I still have a parent and two step-parents, whom I wish long and happy lives, as well as a step-grandmother. It will probably happen again.

Where is all this leading me? Maybe nowhere. Short of a trip to Dignitas - euthanasia can wait for another day - we can't choose the time or, to an extent, the manner of our passing, though I think UK doctors are still allowed to administer medication under the umbrella of the 'double effect' rule; that is, you know it will kill, but that is not the primary intention. Medical ethicists can correct me on that if I'm wrong.

I suppose the lesson for today is this: do things now. Because you never know. I had a dearly beloved colleague in the Commons who succumbed to cancer at (I think) 33. She was the brightest of bright sparks, a music DPhil and a brilliant clerk, who could do anything. I regret with all my heart that I didn't see enough of her when she was in what turned out to be her last days, but I can say I danced at her wedding. I think, often, of what she might have achieved, how her life with her husband might have turned out. Don't put things off. Carpe diem, as Robin Williams famously intones in Dead Poets' Society. Because you just never know.

Friday 2 March 2018

Let it snow

I was born in the late 1970s and grew up in the early '80s. I don't think I'm exaggerating, but we had more snow then. More white-covered Decembers and blizzardy Januaries. And, do you know what, I loved them. It's hard to pin down exactly why; partly it's an aesthetic thing - I think snow looks nice, though I have a contrary hatred for grey-brown slush which is unfortunately snow's inevitable corollary. But I also like the dampening effect snow has. When you go out in any decent amount of snowfall, which we rarely get in the UK now, there is a muffle that seems to descend on the world, a sort of silencer which makes footfall less noisy and which just seems, oh, I don't know, the lower the volume of everything. I like that.

This past week we have been going though an unusual cold snap. I read a meme on Facebook which said, more or less, "In the UK, this is called 'The Beast from the East'. In Finland, it is called 'Wednesday'." I'll come back to that. It is certainly the case that back in the mid-1980s, snow was something to be enjoyed, something which, at best, might call for your school to close. I understand that it is a different proposition for commuters who have to get to work, and I admit to shedding a small tear of pride at the story in the Daily Mail of the NHS radiographer who walked three and a half miles to do a 13-hour shift, then walked back again. She's the sort of person who - entirely vicariously - makes me fucking proud to be British, and proud to have the universal healthcare we have, whatever faults it has (and it has faults - discussion for another day).

I'm conflicted about the "snowmageddon", as one former colleague dubbed it this week. Yes, it's easy to ridicule our pitiful attempts to cope with what was, in the south of England, at least, not more than a light crust of snow. What about Canada? What about Sweden? They cope. Yet a couple of centimetres of the white stuff, and trains and cars and trucks grind to a halt. And, prima facie, it is ridiculous. We are, after all, as Len Deighton noted, about as far north as Labrador, yet we wilt at the faintest hint of properly cold weather.

Yes, but. Cold weather of the sort we've seen this week is extraordinarily rare in the UK. Maybe it's global warming, maybe it isn't - I'm not getting dragged into a Piers Corbyn-style argument about it. I'm not a scientist, so, unlike many in the public sphere, I won't speak whereof I do not know. But I have observed, over these past 40 years, that we rarely suffer severely cold weather. So it would, surely, be a ludicrous over-reaction to prepare every year for something that probably won't happen? Canada and Finland and Sweden and Norway have these conditions every year, so of course - of course - people are prepared - snow chains on tyres, well-stocked shelves, the whole nine yards. If we did that, we'd just look daft.

I have seen real cold. A few years ago, the family decided to take in the New Year in rural Vermont. It snowed heavily, and was minus 20 degrees outside (imagine my friend Hugh's delight when he discovered the Jeep he'd hired proved to be 2WD). But, up there in the Green Mountains, they know it's coming. Stowe, after all, is a popular ski resort, and they rely on the winter weather, rather than panic at its coming. I loved it. I loved standing on the snow-clad veranda with Hugh and my beloved Dad, smoking cigars late at night. But there is not here.

What's my point? I'm not sure I have one. Except for this - we just all need to calm down. As Danny says in Withnail & I, "This too will pass". Work from home if the trains are disrupted. Wear chunkier shoes (though I am wearing suede brogues with leather soles, and, you know what, I'm not dead). Choose your heaviest coat, and maybe a scarf. But it's not the end of the world.