You can’t put a price on principles. Er, well, mine seem worth about 79p…

Today I heard that product placement is to be allowed on British telly for the first time. Outraged? That wasn’t even the start of it. This is clearly the end of the world as we know it. From here it is but a short step to finding that McDonalds are to be entrusted with with healthy-eating advice for our children. Oh, of course, that’s already happened. But you get my drift. Every time I switch on the box to watch, say, A History of the World in 100 Adverts, I’m going to be inundated with casually planted scale models of the British Museum. Or, on settling down to blood and gore in Casualty, I’ll suddenly notice that every patient has been brought a prominent bottle of Lucozade. No, this is clearly a totally unacceptable development. One that I will fight to the death On Principle.

In other news, I’ve recently bought a smart phone running Windows Phone 7.  No, I haven’t bought it, well, not outright, as I’m being offered it free by Orange as some sort of bribe for my custom, having been loyal to them these past 10 years or more. I hadn’t the heart to tell them that this was a lot more about can’t-be-bothered-ness than it was about loyalty – in fact I’m every uncompetitive utilities’ dream, staying with the same water company, electricity company, and bank simply because I’m too bored, too lazy, and too uninterested to spend any significant portion of my life researching the prices of their competitors. And in any case, I know that if I switch, as I believe the jargon has it, then what seemed an amazing £3 a year advantage will immediately become a £200 a year liability when the companies restructure their pricing, and produce even more impenetrable packages than they had before.

Where was I? Oh, yes. My new smart phone. In fact, it may well be that it’s not that smart in absolute terms, but comparatively I’m very happy to concede that it’s a lot smarter than its new owner. Anyway, one of the great delights of its smartness is the ability to get small applications to do tiny, useful things for one. (What, they’re called “apps”? Isn’t that short for application? Oh, whatever…) I hadn’t realised it before, but one of the tiny, useful things I can now see that I’ve always needed is to know, simultaneously, what the weather is like in a multitude of different places. And also, it would seem, what the exchange rate is between two randomly chosen currencies that I never heretofore realised even existed. So I went about choosing an app (You can’t be serious? People don’t really say that, do they?) to deliver each of these new-found, urgent desires. I found that I had a choice in each category. For the princely sum of £0.79 I could have versions that did not try to sell me used cars, sports drinks, or indeed any of a multitude of other things I don’t want. Or, for free, I could have versions with annoying, but I suppose easily ignored, little adverts for those very unwanted things.

Now. Let me see. For £0.79 I can keep my objections to being sold things in pristinely fine fettle. After all, it’s A Principle of mine to resist coarse commerce in all its forms. On the other hand, I can keep my money, and just ignore the adverts. Bugger. You won’t believe it, but keep my money is just what I did. Anyone want to buy a slightly worn principle? I’ve got one here for a mere £0.79…

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Middle East spring? No, the end of our proxy empire

Since the recent unrest started spreading through North Africa and the Middle East like a winter flu epidemic, I’ve lost count of the number of pundits I’ve heard make comparisons with the collapse of Eastern European communist regimes in 1989. Inevitably, the word “spring” has come to be tagged on to all revolutionary moments that history adjudges to be progressive, from the 1848 spring revolutions in Europe, to the 1968 Prague spring, to those “spring in winter” revolutions of 1989, even to the Beirut spring of the “Cedar revolution”. And so we must now talk of the “Middle East Spring”.

But it’s that 1989 comparison which holds most resonance. The particular parallel that seems to be popular is that between Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania and Col Gaddafi of Libya. In a sense the parallel is not entirely misplaced. There is a macabre, almost comedic, similarity between Ceausescu’s bewildered disbelief that “his” people were no longer listening to him, and were instead booing and gesticulating, and Gaddafi’s increasingly manic television appearances, replete with umbrella and equally deranged and hopeless disconnection with the reality in his fiefdom.

But I think the comparison obscures much more than it reveals. It’s not the similarities that matter, it’s the contrasts. And those were most bizarrely, pathetically, pointed up by the ridiculous spectacle of David Cameron touring the recently protested capitals of the region, producing from his mouth the vacuous rhetoric of peoples rising up against their oppressors, whilst in fact touting yet more sales of the weapons of civil constraint to those very same oppressors.

And here is the real difference between 1989 and 2011. In 1989, the West could, and did, hail those revolutions as evidence of their ideological victory over communism and the pre-eminence of market economics. The governments that were tumbling were their enemies. By contrast, the Arab governments now tumbling have been the West’s friends, even when that friendship has been overlaid with rhetoric about democracy, and the evils of terrorism. The utter hypocrisy of Cameron, and no less of Obama and Clinton, in trying to present themselves as the champions of the protesters is frankly breath-taking. These are governments that we in the West have armed – including of course both Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s  Iraq no less than Mubarak’s Egypt – and sustained in power in the service of our geo-political interests. Even America cannot resist the flows of history for ever, and it now finds itself having quickly to adjust to new realities, and to a future in which client regimes in the Middle East may no longer be prepared to play the West’s power games in order to enrich themselves and oppress their peoples.

There is a real empire falling in the Middle East. But it’s not the kind of empire that fell in 1989, one with which we had been locked in struggle over decades. Rather, it’s our own proxy empire that’s crumbling all around us. The empire that we needed to safeguard our oil supplies, and to maintain our economic dominance. But in truth, it had long since served its purpose. With the rise of the economic power of China and India, with the energy supremacy of Russia, and with the slow weaning of the West from its utter reliance on Middle Eastern oil, new realities are pressing on us. The frank, brutal, amoral truth is simply this. Maintaining the proxy empire of client Arab states no longer makes economic sense. Don’t be fooled by the cynical wearing of the mantle of democratic freedoms now being donned by American and European politicians. They support the “Middle East spring” because they no longer want to maintain the regimes they have previously paid so much to cultivate. If the Arab peoples had not wrested their freedom in the streets, it would have come anyway once the economic game had fully changed.

Don’t forget, either, that this oil-based political power-play is not just some Machiavellian wickedness on the part of our political class: it’s what we ourselves have wanted, to keep our cars running and our plastic comforts abundant. We’ve all benefited from the oppressors we’ve bankrolled. A few supportive expressions on Twitter do not absolve us, however much we might want to imagine that they do.

Race and adoption

I have touched on this issue before, but it has surfaced again today as the government publishes its new guidance to social services departments. The guidance states that “race should not be a factor” in adoption decisions provided that other welfare considerations indicate that the prospective placement is in the child’s best interests. Radio 4’s Today programme carried an interview with a black man who had been adopted by white parents who, he said, had struggled long and hard to overcome the racially informed objections of the adoption authorities. He was adamant that such considerations were entirely misplaced. His adoptive parents had provided him with a loving and stable home, which he compared against the horrors of being in care. He dismissed all ideas of there being such a thing as “black culture” on which he might have missed out, and stridently asserted that his culture was “English”. He ridiculed any other approach by sarcastically referring to the idiocy of suggesting that, because his antecedents were African, he should have been “running around in an animal skin wielding a spear”.

It’s not often that someone demonstrates so powerfully by their arguments exactly those dangers that they claim do not exist. I have rarely heard a more disturbing example of the emptying of cultural content, and the negation of identity. This man’s contribution also exemplified the dangers of extrapolating from one individual’s experience to a policy for society at large. It is not for me to say what would have been better for this man than the cultural annihilation that he appears to have suffered, and it’s clear that it is not his view that he has suffered at all. He is welcome to his point of view, and it is equally clear that the social and economic status of his adoptive parents have brought enormous benefits alongside this dubious cultural solipsism. But I do not believe that this man’s individual experience provides a sound, nor indeed a healthy, perspective from which to consider the fraught issue of inter-cultural adoption.

The argument is usually framed thus: that the need of all children to have a loving and stable home life is much more important than the politically correct concerns of social workers obsessed with race and culture. To this basis is usually added the fact that because relatively fewer ethnic minority parents offer themselves as potential adopters, the children’s homes that still exist are disproportionately populated by black young people for whom no adoptive parents can be found, but only because willing white adopters are forbidden from offering the family life those children desperately need. In this way it is suggested that concern about cultural identity is actually having the perverse consequence of discriminating against black children and blighting their lives in a way that white children are spared.

We need to cut through this Gordian knot with the knife of dialectic balance. The positions that claim on the one hand that cultural identity between children and their adoptive parents is the be-all and end-all of the matter, and on the other that all we need is love, are both wrong, simplistic, and inadequate. Denying the existence of a racially connected cultural identity is demonstrably wrong-headed and idealistic. It cannot be true whilst racism remains an everyday experience for black people in Britain; whilst application forms from Leroys, Abegundes and Mohammeds are routinely less successful than those from Peters, Philips and Davids; whilst fascists and racists still march on our streets. Simply leaving black children in an inadequate and damaging care system as if their cultural health was the only aspect of their health worth worrying about is equally wrong-headed.

What should we do? We should continue to try and attract parents from across the cultural spectrum to offer themselves as adopters. We should redouble our efforts to remove the stain of racism from our society. We should do something about the scandal that complacently accepts that being in care is somehow inevitably, inexorably damaging. It is not. What is damaging is a care system that underpays and undervalues its staff, that offers the work to the lowest bidder, and that treats children as clients to be “looked after” rather than offspring to be valued and developed. What we should not do is deny that culture exists, or that it is of any significance. We should not pretend that there is a single culture in this country called “being English”. We should not allow the privileged experience of one “lucky” black child adopted into rich, middle class society, to blind us to the realities that afflict the far greater number who are adopted in inter-racial families that then break down, or which do not adequately prepare those children for survival in Britain as it really is, not as we would like to imagine that it is.

The cruelties of geriatric care in the NHS

Another damning and distressing report from the Health Service Ombudsman thumps onto the desks of NHS managers today. Again, in numerous case studies, the neglect and inhumanity of the care offered, in all our names, to old and vulnerable patients is laid bare in its horrible, incomprehensible reality. As has been said repeatedly this morning, there is of course much more good care, many more consummately professional and humane nurses and doctors, than there is of the disgracefully callous lack of care depicted in this report. But it has also been acknowledged that we are not dealing here with one or two outrageous cases which serve only to point up the excellence of care generally: there is something going on here which is much more systemic, more widely distributed, and more unforgivable than that.

John Humphrys, in his telling interview with ombudsman Ann Abraham, put it very succinctly. This is not about professional incompetence. It is about inhumanity, lack of compassion, and the most basic failure of respect for other people. And as he also pointed out, this is not news. We’ve been here before. So often some hapless NHS manager has been wheeled out to express their shock, their horror, their incredulity. And then their determination to put it right, their insistence that this is a tiny minority of cases, their assurance that weaknesses will be addressed.

What is going so terribly wrong? Why does it seem so impossible to put right whatever it is that is going so terribly wrong? There will be claims that it is a lack of resources; an obsession with targets rather than patient care; a deficit in the training and supervision of staff. None of it will wash. Because this appalling drama is played out not in reports, nor in policies, nor in budgets, nor in training. It is played out in the human interactions between individual staff and individual patients. It is the result of the innumerable discrete choices that staff make not to care, not to be moved, not to notice.

If that is the “what” of the problem, can we say anything about the “why”? I think we can. I do not pretend that what follows is in some sense a definitive, or all-encompassing explanation. Indeed, many will find it outrageous and offensive, and reject it out of hand. But I offer it nonetheless, knowing that it is in itself both partial and insufficient. The cruelties and neglects of staff towards patients represent one direction of travel in the staff-patient relationship. There are, too, the attitudes of patients and their families to staff. When my mother-in-law was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and fell headlong towards ever greater dependency, I was able to observe not only how she was treated by the staff in the hospital, but also how many of the patients treated the staff. To be honest, neither was very attractive.

In London, the great majority of ward staff are from ethnic minorities. Their command of English is not always as secure as it might be. On the other hand, although there are increasing numbers of older people from ethnic minorities in geriatric care, the majority of the patients I witnessed were white. Not surprisingly, they were of course old. Older white people – yes, I know this is a generalisation – are not always as thrilled by immigration or ethnic diversity as perhaps we’d like them to be. The black nurses had to deal with a lot of racism from their patients. A lot. On the other hand, a lot of old people, with less than perfect hearing, were frequently left entirely baffled by what the staff were trying to tell them. Mutual incomprehension often led to mutual irritation, and sometimes mutual hostility. Some of the patients routinely shouted at and abused those charged with looking after them. Too often, the patients’ families were no better.

In a blog it’s not much use to exhort you to “read my lips”. So I’ll use bold italics to do the same job. I am not saying that any of this justifies, or excuses, cruel, inhumane, disrespectful behaviour from staff. You’re clear about that, aren’t you? But in this sorry business, it is exactly the nature and quality of the relationships between staff and patients that is what counts, what determines outcomes. We live in a country where immigrants are routinely denigrated, blamed for all the ills of society; where black people are still confronted with racism every day; and where newspapers such as the Daily Mail seem to make it their particular mission in life to exacerbate rather than diffuse these tensions. It is perhaps not surprising that our hospitals, relying as they do on those very immigrants and black staff, are thus places where those tensions come to the surface most acutely.

It would be stupid to try and suggest that today’s ombudsman’s report, and the horrors it reveals, can all be reduced to this one issue. We do, however, need to face the fact that inhumanity cannot be dealt with by a policy re-think, or a training course, or an increase in expenditure. Something is rotten in the relationships between patients and their carers: all I’m suggesting is that not all the fault, not all of the time, rests with the latter.

Roses are red

Well, not all of them, obviously. But I’m not making a botanical point here, merely signalling that today’s post is a Valentine’s Day-themed affair. No, not affair. Oh, you know what I mean.

Last year’s attempt at using Valentine’s Day to re-assure my perforce long-distance other half was less than an unqualified success. I would have been better advised, this year, to send my red-heart-encrusted missive on Friday so that it might arrive on the correct day, or earlier. However, that would have required a degree of forward-planning that I’ve never really mastered, and so I popped it in the postbox yesterday. With a fair wind it might arrive tomorrow. Or at such later date as the random whim of the Royal Mail may determine. Valentine’s Days, along with birthdays and Christmas, won’t keep. Early is fine. Late is frowned upon. Perhaps it’s my scientific training, but I’ve never really been able to get to grips with a sense of accuracy that only extends on one side of a fixed point. To me, plus or minus some reasonable margin of error seems the proper way to deal with such matters. A Valentine’s card that arrives tomorrow is surely more accurately targeted than one which arrives two days early. But I feel myself to be batting on a wicket that’s not so much a losing one as a vicious turner deliberately roughed up by some fast bowler’s follow through.

So I have failed yet again to meet my wife’s strict expectations in the delivery of Valentine’s Day greetings. An improvement on last year, I hope, but not the three-star service I should have been aiming for. Not that the matter of accurate timing is entirely at the crux of the issue, to be honest. It really only arises because I’m in Manchester, and she’s not. This is now the 13th month of this less-than-ideal marital arrangement. How are we faring?

I feel that the question is one fraught with danger. If I suggest that we’re in fact faring rather well – that indeed the separate lives we are obliged to lead do not seem to be impinging on the strength of our relationship, but rather that the clearest effects are on how quickly the service intervals on my car seem to come around, and that the sensitivity of my finances to the international oil price is greater than it might otherwise have been, you will say that I’m a fellow in whom the proper romantic stirrings have been substituted for a dry and callous obsession with accounting. If, on the other hand, I conclude that our marriage is buckling under the strain of excessive use of the M6 and the M40, you will accuse me of being more interested in my career than in my matrimonial health.

Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter which of these I choose, for one simple and rather obvious fact. You don’t know me, and I don’t really care what you think. On the other hand my wife, who still does know me albeit perhaps now more vaguely than I might wish, will never read my conclusions anyway. Her interest in my blog is of the same order as my interest in her beloved CSI, be it in Miami, New York, Las Vegas, or indeed any other crime-ridden American city. Bugger-all.

That’s a pity, because she’ll never read this confirmation of how much I love her, 200 miles of the British countryside notwithstanding. She’ll have to wait until tomorrow, or possibly even later, to find out. Whenever, in fact, the Royal Mail eventually gets around to delivering that bloody card.

Getting our knickers in a twist over baptism

The Church of England has decided to “simplify the language for baptism ceremonies”. Apparently even the Archbishop of Canterbury has observed the eyes of his congregation “glazing over” during his celebrating of this sacrament, and I’m sure it goes without saying that glazed eyes are not what we want. Generally I’m a great supporter of Dr Williams, and it usually seems to me that when he vacillates, say, over gay bishops, he does so because he is not free simply to impose his own views. In this instance, however, it would seem that he is voluntarily offering the weight of his support to the simplification campaign, and in this instance I cannot go with him.

The campaign to change the words comes from the Diocese of Liverpool, and their problem is that the existing language “particularly baffle[s] non-churchgoers”. As a result of their bafflement, and doubtless because their eyes also glazed over, the fear is that they will never return, not darkening the doors of their church again until one of them dies or gets married – and in the latter case probably not even then as the increasing probability is that their marriages will be solemnized in some cheesy hotel or the gardens of a country house in order to give the impression that they are rich beyond imagining. If this is true, then there’s certainly a problem, but it’s not one of baffling words.

On the contrary. The problem is that for such people baptism is not a sacrament (surely a baffling concept in itself) but a social occasion. Why on earth should they have to stand there, eyes glazed, brains baffled, just so that they can get some ickle-pretty, sentiment-dripping pictures of their little baba with which they’ll be able mightily to embarrass the child in later life? The church is no longer about challenging people with difficult truths, but about colluding with them in a sentimental charade.

Ironically, this problem with language has its roots in the literal-mindedness of too many Christians. Rather than accept that the words of the baptism are poetic statements about existential truths, they see them as a kind of magic recipe that has to be understood in a literal sense, otherwise the resulting cake may not rise, and the fruit will all sink to the bottom. Baptism is about “dying to sin, and rising to new life”, to use the existing baffling, eye-glazing language. In case the non-churchgoer should imagine that, Abraham-like, the vicar is about to garotte their child in order to resuscitate them a moment later, this arcane talk of dying and rising must be banished. Of course, this is bollocks. Baptism is intimately connected with the doctrine of original sin. What? How dare you, nasty, wicked vicar, imply that my beautiful, innocent, special-baptismal-gown-encumbered darling is somehow wicked? Except that’s not what original sin means. Of all the church’s doctrines, I should have thought that original sin is the most obviously evidence based. We don’t have to look very far to see the consequences of humanity’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity for cruelty and wickedness. From the outrageous murder of individual gay Africans to the genocide of the Holocaust and the slave trade, original sin is indisputably all around us.

At the heart of the Christian message is the idea, the extravagant, optimistic, foolish idea, that there is a route of escape. Baptism is the doorway to that route. Parents who bring their babies for baptism should be doing so because they understand, and accept, that truth. If they don’t, or they don’t understand it, then baptism is a charade regardless of how it is expressed.

I believe passionately in two, perhaps seemingly contradictory, things. First, that in every age we Christians have to reinterpret the message of our faith, to express it in ways that we can make sense of. But second, we owe it to those who come after us to leave the faith as we have received it intact, so that they can reinterpret it in turn in their own age. If we try and impose our particular take on the faith, and lose the original framework, then we deprive them of the opportunity to reinterpret it from an authentic base. Leave the baptism words alone. Try and explain their fundamental, existential meaning. But don’t, if you’ll excuse the pun, throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Birthday blues

As the weather gods bless Manchester with a cloudless blue sky, and the winter sun streams through my office window, it’s hard to give much credence to seasonal affective disorder. But January and February are not my best months. Not, in fact, that my particular SADness has got anything to do with the weather: it’s more that January means mostly that Christmas is over, and the next one is unimaginably far off; whilst February brings my birthday around once more.

The post-Christmas January mood rebound tells you more about just how much I love Christmas than it does about how bad January makes me feel, and so both you and I can safely discount its true significance for my normal joie-de-vivre. February is different. My birthday really does depress me. Strangely, this has always been the case, long before the march of the years left me no longer able to suppress the realisation that I’d long since passed the half-way point, and that the time left before death is now much shorter than the time I’ve already squandered. I think the earlier disappointment of birthdays was more to do with presents than anything else. My parents really tried hard to make Christmas special for us, and February came round a bit too soon for the coffers to have been replenished. So whilst I still look back on opening Christmas presents as a moment of almost orgasmic excitement, my recollection of birthday presents was always as of an event that underwhelmed. Should that make me sound both mercenary and ungrateful, I might perhaps add that part of the wonder of our family Christmases was their shared nature. I was as excited by the presents my brothers received as I was by my own. Birthdays, however, were a solitary affair. And a solitary disappointment is always the harder to bear; and even as a child I knew that expressing that disappointment was ungrateful, and the cheery pretence that my mum’s hand-knitted jumper was just what I’d been hoping for was necessary, but also wearing.

But none of this has much to do with birthdays now. Perhaps these early memories have simply contaminated my birthday soul, and some kind of regression therapy is called for so that I can re-programme myself to enjoy birthdays in the future. I doubt it. The birthday blues are now grounded not in juvenile ingratitude, but in adult apprehension of mortality. If I could live forever, I would. I’ve no understanding of those who say that eternal life would surely be lonely as friends and family die. I’d make new friends. And in my version of eternal life I can assure you that there is no hint of erectile dysfunction, so if old family died out, I’d be perfectly happy to instigate some new ones. Of course, in my fantasy of living for ever there would not only be a perfectly working penis, but everything else would be tickety-boo as well. No arthritis, no Alzheimer’s, no physical degradation whatever.

Alas, fantasy is what all that is, to be sure. In reality, the years tick by. I realise that my mental acceptance of mortality is not matched by emotional or psychic acceptance. I still plan as if the horizon of death were not there. I allow years to slip by without any proper sense of what proportion of my allotted time left they are likely to represent. I’m still a consummate procrastinator. I’m always happy to do anything, but not now.

And so I realise with an ever greater sense of desperation that if I haven’t achieved by now the things I want to achieve, then there’s really very little chance that I ever will. I know I’m a hopeless under-achiever. In an odd way this blog is perhaps the biggest reminder of that baleful truth. So many people have said, after visiting me here, how well I write. I know I write well. In my unbridled lack of modesty I sometimes allow myself to think I write better than many who make a handsome living out of writing. I’d love to do that too. But I won’t. I know it. Each birthday rams the message home. You’re getting older, it seems to say, and you’ve got bugger-all to show for it. I know. But thank you, birthday blues, for the reminder. Now, please fuck off until next year. I’d be eternally grateful.