Goodbye, bitter-sweet month of June

Apart from the crassly obvious fact that the various branches of my family have evidently seen October as a particularly conducive month for shagging, it’s hard to know what to read into the fact that for me June is littered with significant birthdays. At the beginning of the month, my mum was 91. At the end of it, my son was 20. And in the middle my dad would have been 96. He isn’t, of course, as death has intervened. I should also note that this October shagging malarkey has jumped a generation, since my own parents clearly preferred a get-it-over-with-earlier-in-the-year approach to procreation given that my and my brothers’ birthdays occur long before the first cuckoo has troubled the readers of the Daily Telegraph.

But all this birthday-ing in June always leaves me scattered to the four winds emotionally speaking. Of course, birthdays are generally a matter for celebration, and for raised spirits. But they are also times for nostalgia, perhaps even sadness. Sadness that my mum potters along in a haze of confusion that I am powerless to dispel. Sadness too that my relationship with my son is more complex and more distant than I would wish. Sadness, of course, that my dad’s birthdays are now virtual rather than real.

My brother – the one who writes these and who engaged me in Alzheimer’s discourse – retrieved a recording of my dad singing an aria from Haydn’s Stabat Mater and I listened to it on my dad’s birthday last month. To be honest, between dad’s lack of preparation and the limitations of an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, with non-directional microphone, Haydn was probably twirling in his own grave. Not so much a rendition as a massacre, which is why I’ve spared you the 1967 home version and linked to a proper performance. But although my dad was no professional singer he had a sweet-toned tenor voice, and the key thing in that home recording is that it is his voice. It took me back, and set me thinking.

My dad died in 1994 after a three-week spell in hospital suffering from congestive heart failure. As ways to die go, I suspect this isn’t the worst; a relatively gentle downhill slope, mercifully alert and not doped to the eyeballs with morphine as might be the case with a death from cancer. As a family we’re about as demonstrative as so many blocks of wood, with all emotional transactions laced with so much irony and camouflaging humour that they are almost undetectable. Thus it surprised me in a way that I was so anxious to be with my dad when he finally died. I was on my way back to London from my last visit when I had the overwhelming desire to return to the hospital, and had my partner drop me off in Newark so that I could get the train north again.

I slept in the ward, and awoke early to go back to my dad’s bedside. He was weak, but alert. For the first time in 30 years I took his hand in mine. He turned to look me straight in the eye. A quizzical look, surprised at the sudden touch, and an equally sudden realisation that this could only mean that the game was up. The words “Love you , dad” came unbidden to my stumbling lips, but they never emerged. They were swept aside by the calls of “Nurse!”, driven by my urgent need to know if, for the first time in my life, I was holding a dead man’s hand.

So my dad never heard me tell him that I loved him. And I don’t think he ever told me explicitly that he loved me. History may sadly be going to repeat itself. But at least there’s this, this blogging business, this public stage for private exchanges. Perhaps, when I too go to my grave not having said the things I should have said, and possibly not having heard the things I want so badly to hear, my son will read this stuff and know what his 20-year old self maybe doesn’t know. That I love him more than he can ever imagine, and so much more than I’ve ever been able to express. And who knows I might, even now, pluck up the courage to tell him to his face. I hope so.

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Johann Hari’s feet of clay

We all, I suspect, have a tendency to want to forgive more easily the errors of those with whose views we are in broad sympathy than we would the same errors committed by our intellectual foes. At a certain point though, the opposite tendency kicks in. When our friends let us down the disappointment and the sense almost of betrayal lead us to judge the perpetrator even more harshly.

Both of these tendencies have been on view during the Johann Hari affair. For those (are there any such?) not familiar with the main elements of the furore, they are well captured in this BBC blog post which brings together both the accusers and Mr Hari’s self-defence. The article refers to the Twitter storm yesterday, which followed the pattern we’ve now become well used to: outrage from some and robust defence from others are followed by prolonged ridicule by just about everyone – generally the most entertaining part of the genre. Some of those mostly leftist tweeters defending Hari were challenged over whether they would have so supinely accepted similar behaviour from one of their right-wing hate-figures such as Richard Littlejohn or Melanie Phillips. In symmetrical opposition, rightist tweeters condemning Hari were accused of picking on the mote of his faults whilst ignoring the plank of the faults of their own darlings. And to complete the picture there were those leftists who, more in sorrow than anger, tweeted the pain of discovering that a comrade was not as saintly as they had always supposed. I guess that I was one of the latter.

Well, actually, not quite. Johann Hari is one of those rare people who can royally piss off even those who want to agree with him. Many of his articles have me nodding and hurrah-ing in impassioned assent. Quite a lot of them also have me retching at the sort of self-satisfied right-on-ness that only Hari seems able to exude. His writing frequently has the sort of earnest humourlessness that verges on – and sometimes goes right past the verge and into the ditch – of self-importance.

I think it’s this latter characteristic that has fuelled the tsunami (and these days everything more than a trickle is de rigueur a tsunami) of disapprobation that is now swirling around this erstwhile darling of the tortured middle-class conscience. This and the only-too-Hari-esque nature of his defence. He protests that using quotations from his interviewees’ other writings, or their responses even to other interviewers, is not so much about his unethical behaviour, but more about his gracious compensation for those interviewees’ inability to express themselves as adequately in response to his questioning as they have done in other circumstances. Including in their blurb on the dust jackets of their published works. So I’m sorry if I’ve inadvertently misled anyone, but I was only doing it for my interlocutors.

No Johann. That is arrant poppycock. It adds to your bad behaviour: it most certainly doesn’t excuse it. How much better it would have been to admit culpability, to come clean, and to ‘fess up. We could then perhaps have all moved on. But you chose not to do that decent thing, and for this friend of yours at least, you have permanently blotted your copybook.

Doing more harm than good?

Yet another study raises questions about the dangers of unintended consequences from drugs. The study suggests that there’s “an association” (not the same thing at all as a causal link) between combinations of drug therapies which have “anticholinergic” properties and early death or dementia in patients over 65. Acetylcholine is a “neurotransmitter [that] is vital for passing messages from nerve cell to nerve cell, but many common drugs interfere with it as a side effect.” Apparently such drugs are prescribed to half of all people aged 65 or over.

We’re used to drug scares. We’re used to every kind of health scare in fact, and many of them are utter poppycock. In the arena of such scares emanating from prescription drugs, patients are always urged not to stop taking their medications, but rather to discuss their concerns with their doctor first. That is obviously good advice in theory, but to be honest it has less use in practice. Most doctors when questioned on such matters will routinely offer blanket reassurance, and by the nature of these things the average GP is not at the cutting edge of research. He or she will have little more knowledge about studies such as this latest one than you or I could glean from (the more responsible end of) the press. So what should the reasonably sensible punter think, and more importantly do, about this and all the host of other such disturbing stories?

I think the answer is to be more sceptical about drug therapies in general than we’ve been encouraged to be in the last 60 years. The idea that doctors know best is deeply ingrained, but I think we need to question that notion. In particular, I think we need to be especially wary about long-term drug use in what are intended to be preventative rather than acute interventions. We have all come to think about drugs as magic bullets that do what they say on their tins, and only that. A drug that, for example, is supposed to reduce allergic reactions say in the skin is not only acting at the site of those allergic reactions. All oral drugs are necessarily systemic. They are coursing through the whole of our bodies – they do not seek out just those places where we want them to work. Many drugs do profound things to fundamental bodily functions and metabolic pathways. The anticholinergic drugs at the centre of this particular scare are interfering with a mechanism that could hardly be more fundamental. It is extraordinary that we accept such interference as merely being a side effect. In many instances it’s probably more accurate to describe the intended therapeutic effect as a side effect, since the drug is doing more in our bodies that is not intended than is.

So, in my case, I will continue to refuse the cholesterol lowering drugs my GP is so determined to foist upon me. I do not want to take for perhaps 35 more years a drug that blocks a fundamental liver pathway when the benefit to me of reducing my total cholesterol from 5.3mmol/l to 3.8mmol/l is by no means clear or decisive. I will continue instead to eat those foods that most support my general health, and to take the regular exercise I already take.

Of course, there will be some situations in which an acute drug intervention is unavoidable, and then we should be grateful that such a drug exists. There may be some circumstances too in which long-term drug use is also unavoidable. But I think there should always be the presumption that such long-term routine drug use is a bad idea, especially when combinations of drugs are involved. If there is ever a way of reducing risk that does not require drugs, we should pursue it first. And also we should be aware that such an attitude is anathema to the pharmaceutical industry that wants us all to take drugs all the time. Which is probably the best reason of all for not doing so.

Forgiveness has nothing to do with justice: we confuse them at our peril

Once more the Roman Catholic Church is reeling from a paedophile scandal. The BBC screened a documentary, Abused: Breaking the Silence, about the case on Tuesday evening. Before it was screened, Peter Stanford, ex-editor of the Catholic Herald, wrote about his horror at discovering that the man whom he admired as a priest and a friend, and who had married him, had an appalling secret from the past. Stanford raises some very interesting points about betrayal, the past, trust, forgiveness and retribution. Not to mention his faith.

The BBC documentary inevitably, and rightly, concentrates on the abuse endured by the victims, and on the Rosminian order’s refusal thus far to accept moral or financial liability. I do not mean to ignore or belittle these central issues arising from the case by concentrating on the different, and more generic ones that also flow from Peter Stanford’s piece. The former issues have already been explored at length, and I have little to add. No matter how often these disgraceful acts are condemned, nor by how many different commentators, they continue to elude us in their horror and unimaginable consequences. But after the condemnations, we are still left with the brutal fact that the people thus condemned exist, and will continue to exist. We are left, as Peter Stanford was, to pick up the pieces even though we were not ourselves victims.

Central to the dilemma set out in Stanford’s article is the fact that people are not homogeneous. The tabloids may be content with simplistic labels such as “monster”, “pervert”, “sicko” and the like, but their concern is selling papers, not illuminating the human condition. The division between good and evil does not run between people, but within them, within us. Fr Cunningham was both “monster” and “amiable, kindly, dedicated parish priest”. He didn’t stop being the latter once the former was discovered. We want people to be either heroes or villains, but in truth that is not how we, any of us, are. My understanding of this case is that Fr Cunningham committed these offences in the 1960s but not during his subsequent time as a parish priest. I make this point not to suggest that as it was a long time ago, it doesn’t matter, but rather to point out that this fracture within ourselves between good and evil is often further complicated by not only moral distance, but by temporal distance as well. It raises other moral issues: if, as we are frequently told, paedophiles can never be reformed, that they pose a perpetual risk throughout their lives, what should we make of such a person who stops offending? Does that make them heroic victors over their carnal lusts, or deceivers biding their time, perhaps merely “unlucky” enough not to light upon further victims? Is the good that a person does annihilated by the evil that they have also done? I think that to suggest so is to treat moral conduct like mathematics. A positive number multiplied by a negative number is always a negative number, and thus we give unwitting credence to the notion that evil is more powerful than good. The good someone does cannot render the evil things good, but neither does the evil render the good things evil.

It is true that justice is denied as long as it remains delayed. But for Christians, at least, justice is not the same thing as forgiveness. Justice must always keep track of time, but forgiveness need not. In fact, one might say, forgiveness should be blind to time. Peter Stanford writes that “for forgiveness, there must also be genuine acknowledgement of the damage done.” I wonder about that. It seems to me that forgiveness is not conditional in that way. When Jesus said to those wanting to kill the woman taken in adultery, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” he was alluding to that fracture between good and evil that runs through all of us. And when he said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” he did not first demand that she confessed to her cuckolded husband, or acknowledge the wickedness of her actions. His eyes were resolutely on the future, not on the past. He did not suggest that the woman ask for other offences to be also taken into account. His prescription is devastating in its simplicity. “Go, and sin no more.” That is not justice. But it is forgiveness.

Tough on crime, soft on the intellect

And so the Prime Minister’s latest U-turn – sorry, listening exercise – finds him posturing as the hard man of the fight against crime. A fight that the figures show we’ve been winning for the last 10 years anyway, but that would be to allow the facts to get in the way of a good narrative.

The narrative the PM wants us to hear is of course the one about being tough on crime, and fearlessly locking people up no matter the cost. The more interesting narrative, however, is the one about how this government seems to work. It goes something like this:

  • A minister comes up with a cunning plan (the Lansley model) – or
  • A cunning plan is entrusted to a minister (the Clarke model)
  • The cunning plan is endorsed by the PM, by the Deputy PM, and the entire cabinet
  • The cunning plan becomes embarrassingly unpopular
  • The hapless minister is left to squirm for several weeks or months
  • The PM decides that a listening exercise is called for
  • The cunning plan is declared not a plan, but merely an idea for general discussion
  • The listening exercise results in the cunning plan – sorry, discussion document – being ditched
  • The PM denies he ever liked the cunning plan in the first place
  • The hapless minister is hung out to dry
  • The PM displays his flexibility, his lack of dogma, and his willingness to listen to the people
  • A new cunning plan is hatched

As Oscar might have said, to lose one cunning plan might be a misfortune, to lose several looks like carelessness. The lady may not have been for turning, but Posh Boy revels in whirling like a ballerina on acid.

All well and good, and I suppose one might say that it’s better for a bad plan to be ditched than for it to be relentlessly pursued. Except that the ditching is entirely independent of whether or not the plan was a good one or a bad one. In the NHS case, the U-turn is undoubtedly a bonus. But in the justice bill case, the plan had quite a bit of merit. In both cases, the plans have not been jettisoned because a coherent case has been made that they should be: on the contrary, they have bitten the dust solely as a result of electoral and party calculus.

So, we’re going to be tough on crime. Not because anyone has shown that being tough on crime does anything useful. Not because anyone has adduced evidence that more prisoners equals a safer society. Not for any reasoned argument, but simply because the usual frenzy of tabloid hypocrisy has upped the ante, and this Prime Minister hasn’t the bottle to stand up to it. Yes, we’re tough on crime, but very soft indeed on intellect. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think that’s anything to be proud of.

The Today programme and the art of political interviewing

I recently published a post discussing Graham Linehan’s unhappy appearance on BBC Radio 4’s the Today programme. My main point was that whilst the adversarial interviewing style might be both useful and necessary when confronting the wily and slippery mainstream politician, it was unhelpful and counter-productive when discussing the arts or other similar matters. Mr Linehan himself made a comment on the post in which he also questioned whether this default adversarial style was useful even in political interviewing.

I had these thoughts in mind as I listened to Sarah Montague of the Today programme interviewing Michael Gove this morning. The subject at hand was Gove’s decision to force the 200 worst performing primary schools to become academies. This would remove the schools from local authority control and, according to the Government, free them from the dead hand of bureaucracy. It is claimed (a claim that is disputed, I should add) that when failing secondary schools are turned into academies, they improve. In turn it is suggested by many within education that when there is improvement as a result of the change, it is simply because academies have more money to spend per student than any other type of school.

What is certain is that creating academies does require the movement of funds. Local authorities get less money because they have fewer schools to administer. Academies are public-private partnerships with commercial sponsors and that entails further financial flows. Inevitably in such a complex environment, there are vast reams of rules that are supposed to control and define how these movements of cash are to be undertaken. Equally inevitably, mistakes get made, and adjustments have to be subsequently determined. And it was this matter that Sarah Montague alighted upon as the hook on which to dangle Mr Gove. She kept asking him to admit that mistakes in these calculations had occurred on his watch at the Department for Education, and he kept on refusing to do so. Cue several minutes of sterile ping-pong.

Is the issue of whether or not financial mistakes have been made in the secondary school academy programme the crux of the issue? No. If those mistakes have happened, is whether those mistakes were made at the government department, or at local authorities, central to the business of whether or not we should now embark on primary school academies? No. The central issues are to do with what has prevented improvements in schools before; how improvements flowing from academy status have been achieved; what it means for democratic accountability if more and more schools are removed from local authority control; what are the consequences of handing over the education of our children to commercial or other narrow interest groups. Even more fundamental than all these is the basic question. “What is education for?”

Judged from this perspective, the interview with Mr Gove was an entirely wasted opportunity. This is not a personal criticism of Sarah Montague – she is merely the conduit for a political culture in which minutiae are more important than principles. That in turn is a consequence of politics as blood sport. Of the idea that if an issue takes more than 5 minutes to explore it’s too difficult for the punters to grasp.

As I wrote in my response to Graham Linehan’s comment, I don’t know what is chicken, and what is egg when it comes to the Today programme. Has that kind of journalism created this unsatisfactory political culture, or is that kind of journalism a response to the unsatisfactory political culture we already have? I leave that to you to answer.

Food, inflation, health and the poor

As post titles go, I suppose this piece’s moniker is nothing if not broad and inclusive. It represents the bringing together of a number of my passionate concerns in one glorious concatenation, but before I go further I need to provide something in the way of a disclaimer.

One of the least attractive examples of rank hypocrisy and deliberate misdirection is that hoary old bollocks so beloved of our right-wing press, the (usually) Tory matron who declares that they have lived on £2.50 a week for a month, and that therefore no-one in this country is so poor that they can’t eat both healthily and deliciously, so please could they, and their supporters in evil outfits such as the Child Poverty Action Group, shut-up and stop whinging. The Daily Fail article that follows Lady Living-Bracingly-In-The-Countryside’s heroic experiment in poverty research reports lovingly that her Ladyship has gleefully made stews out of old toe-nail clippings, fricasséed freely available larger spiders, supplemented all this with a bewildering variety of root vegetables, and flavoured it with the juices from her Beeton-style everlasting stock-pot which has preserved her family’s left overs for several generations. Later in the article one casually discovers that it just so happened that Farmer Giles from the estate did in fact lob over a couple of haunches of venison, and his Lordship did allow her Ladyship to wash all this bracing fare down with a choice claret from Château Lafite-Rothschild, and a rather promising white Burgundy that by chance were gracing the cellars at the time. I realise that I might be accused of doing something similar in what follows, minus the classic vintages just mentioned, obviously. I can only hope not.

We heard today that the inflation experienced by the poorest people is greater than that experienced by the richest. This is for the simple reason that inflation in food and fuel is much greater than inflation generally, and even more because the costs experienced by richer people are often represented in large part by mortgage payments on property, and the current minuscule interest rate is in fact making those payments lower than ever before. So feeding ourselves is getting more expensive, but feeding ourselves is also a much greater proportion of poorer people’s expenditure than it is of richer people’s. It’s true as well that feeding ourselves is increasingly becoming not a means of nutrition, but a means of self-abuse. Channel 4’s modern day freak-show, Embarrassing Fat Bodies, illustrated this again last night in its trade-mark gory and repulsive detail. Much of this “eating as self-harm” has its roots in the kind of food people eat, and it’s equally generally true that the diets of poorer people are worse in this respect than those of richer people. One of the commonest explanations of this relationship is that bad food is also cheap food. Poor people cannot afford to eat well or healthily.

That is simply not true. It is true that that in any given category of food, cheaper versions are generally less healthy than more expensive ones. But the extrapolation from the undeniable truth that, for example, expensive sausages with higher proportions of good meat are healthier than cheap versions stuffed with starch and fats procured from commodity markets and made just about palatable with flavourings, texturisers, and colourings, to the overall conclusion that therefore only the rich can eat well is entirely false. Another common fallacy is that the middle-class obsession with organic food is merely an indulgence that the poor cannot afford.

I am not impoverished. And that is why I fear that sharing my own experience about mitigating food inflation might be dismissed in the same terms as my own dismissal of Lady Living-Bracingly-In-The-Countryside. Undeterred, I’m sharing it anyway.

Recently I’ve started taking an organic vegetable box each week from Abel and Cole (and I must immediately add that other providers of poncy delights are also available.) This costs me the princely sum of £11.50p, and is also delivered to the door releasing me from part of my otherwise steadily increasing fuel bill. Along with the box, I generally buy a little meat, some fish, and things like breakfast cereal and milk. I’ve never spent more than £35, including Abel and Cole’s massive delivery charge of £0.99p (eat your heart out Ocado with your charges of anything up to £8.) I also buy pulses and other bits and pieces from supermarkets to create my lunches each day. Perhaps on average I spend an additional £3 a week in this way, producing delights such as today’s red kidney beans, walnut pieces, and apple salad bound together with olive oil and flavoured with home-made garam masala. I eat meat or fish about 4 or 5 days out of the week’s 7, on one of which it will probably be a tin of sardines. If I spend £40 on food in a week I’d be surprised. Before starting to organise myself in this way, I probably spent not far short of £80-£100 every week. I accept that this approach takes some discipline, but that is mostly to do with eating whatever the box contains, and refusing to throw anything away. But be clear, there is nothing hair-shirted about this. I eat better now, and enjoy it more. I do it because it makes me happier, not because I hope it will make me more virtuous.

Ironically, that point about eating whatever the box contains is actually the key to all this. We live in a time when choice is supposed to be king. The new proposals on the NHS may have moderated the foolish pursuit of competition, but they still wax eloquent about the centrality of choice. One of the wonders of modern western capitalism is indeed the supermarket with its bewildering array of choice when it comes to food. This choice is not a liberation, nor a nutritional bonus; it’s exactly the opposite. But it’s also largely an illusion. Of all that vast array of choice, most of it is made of the same 4 or 5 things. Wheat, soya, sugar, corn and a medley of deconstructed and reconstituted plant and seed oils. And even though the resulting confections are not actually all that cheap, the raw materials certainly are and they contribute a tiny minority of the final price.

I hope I haven’t come across as suggesting that poor people’s poor diets are poor people’s own fault. There’s a lot more to it than that. But it is true, I believe passionately, that poor people do not need to be locked into bad food and poor nutrition. There is a choice, but it’s unlikely to be found in Tesco or Sainsburys. And part of that choice, strangely enough, is giving up choice.