Tuesday, 23 May 2017


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.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The youth of today

Dear readers,

[SPOILER ALERT: what I am going to say is going to make me sound like a grumpy old man. I leave you to judge on the grumpiness, and I will be 40 later this year, so I am not yet old, though some days it feels it.]

Not long ago, I was having dinner with my parents, both whom have, if I may be diplomatic, the wisdom of years behind them. We were discussing The State of the Nation over some wine, and my stepfather said that what he regretted about Britain today was the loss of public politeness and civility. I agree with him. It boils my blood to see the elderly or infirm standing up on the Tube or the bus, while children loll about in seats. Even in my childhood, that would not have happened. When I was young, Victorian as it sounds, you were seen and not heard in adult company. Most assuredly, you were not treated as a small grown-up. But I digress.

Anyway, my stepfather asked me if there had been any changes in society I had noticed in my (relatively) short lifespan. I thought about this, and I decided that there was. It is a lack of curiosity in younger people. All too often, it seems that people in their teens and twenties decide that their earliest memories constitute a Year Zero, and anything before that it both incomprehensible and of no interest.

I shall give you an example. Years ago, when I was a postgraduate at St Andrews, my flatmate and I hosted a party. Those in attendance were largely undergrads, and one, a lad of 18 or 19, pointed at our proudly-displayed portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, then said “Who’s that?” After picking his jaw off the floor, my flatmate explained it was Churchill, at which the young man shrugged. The implication was clear: Sir Winston’s life had happened outwith the young man’s experience, and therefore he could not possibly have been expected to know who it was. Moreover, he didn’t much care.

You get it on quiz shows too. My father is a great fan of Pointless (or else he subjects himself to it a lot if he isn’t), and you see contestants who don’t know answers, and, when given the information they lacked, simply roll their eyes: how could I have been expected to know that? I am an enthusiast for pub quiz machines, and if I’m stumped by a question, I am curious to know what the answer is. It can be on any subject, even those I despise like football or soap operas, but it’s something I didn’t previously know.

Back in the days of my postgraduacy, I was a tutor to second-year students in modern history. Teaching them about the early modern period (roughly, we did 1450 to 1660) was a challenge, because it was often a subject they had not studied before, many school curriculums consisting of Hitler, Stalin and the world wars, and it required an ability to be empathetic with people who were very different from you and me, yet were still living, breathing people all the same, not just names on a piece of paper.

(One of my favourite quotations of the 16th century is from the Emperor Charles V, the Habsburg who ruled a polyglot empire: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”)

A very few students really ‘got’ the 16th century. That was terribly rewarding; to help a young person see the world through new eyes and understand a period of history previously unfamiliar to them. Most did enough to get the credits for their module. But some never got it at all, and that’s what I mean. Haven’t experienced it directly, don’t care.

I suppose I just don’t understand incuriosity. I find the world a fascinating place, and if I could spend all my days just reading and finding out new things, I’d be a very happy man. There is so much I don’t know, even in my own field of history: the formation of Canada, for example, or the shogun era in Japan. I may never get around to reading about them, but it means there’s always something else to read. And I like knowing things, especially, to be smug for a moment, things that other people don’t (which probably says very bad things about me). I like knowing that a cappuccino is named after the habits of Capuchin friars; that the sister ship of RMS Titanic was RMS Olympic; that the Germans topped the medals table at the 1936 Olympic Games.

Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case for many young people today (yes, I’ve just used the phrase “young people today”). I can remember when I was a student, mentioning Patrick McGoohan’s performance in The Prisoner, and someone saying “But that was in the 1960s!” Well, yes, the Gallic Wars were before my time as well but I still know about them.

I have, I must confess, always been a bit old before my time. (I almost typed “odd” there, which would have worked just as well.) My musical tastes run largely to music before I was sentient, and my critics would say that my dress sense can be old-fashioned. But things in the past matter. To understand why things are the way they are, you need to understand how things were. The past informs the present.

So, if, like Baz Luhrmann, I can only offer young people one tip for the future, it would be: curiosity. Just find out about things. You never know, you might even enjoy it.